USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Introduction to the World around 1914, Part II: The World in the Era of Nationalism and Imperialism (1848-1914)

In the previous chapter, I looked at the issue of colonial identity in the British Empire through the lens of Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi was born in India, was educated as a lawyer in England, and went to work for an Indian firm in South Africa, where he encountered horrific racial and ethnic discrimination, subordination, and violence. Through the figure of Gandhi, many important issues emerge. The issue of colonial identity began already for Gandhi in his early years in India, as he was confronted with clashing value systems between traditional Hindu practices and social structures and the colonial influence of the British. Tensions and even crises of identity in the colonial world were real and significant, as some of the most influential people of the era crossed geographical boundaries and had feet in multiple worlds. In addition to the issue of colonial identity, the previous chapter discussed dynamics of power and resistance in the colonial world. The imposition of external regimes of power, either directly or indirectly, was the mainstay of imperialism. Resistance took many forms from outright military conflict, like in the Zulu wars and uprisings, to migrations and civil unrest. Gandhi's resistance strategy was new. He sought to target and change specific laws through direct action, much like the suffrage movement. This strategy was powerful in its specificity and directness, but it also had its limits. Because Gandhi was narrowly focused on Indian interests in South Africa, he largely (some might say totally) neglected the plight of native Africans, at times even supporting the colonial government over Zulu resistance. This failure to make common cause with native Africans might have allowed Gandhi to maintain a certain amount of support within British circles, but it ultimately placed a low ceiling on his movement's efficacy. Ultimately, even the modest victories he achieved in the Great March and through Satyagraha would be undone by the virulently racist government of South Africa, which had no desire to weaken its white power structure. Like the Satyagraha movement, the South African Native National Congress, the forerunner to the African National Congress (ANC), failed to secure any leniency from South Africa or support from England. Nor would its leader, John Dube, unite in any meaningful way with Gandhi. It would take eighty more years for South Africa's white power structure to fall to Nelson Mandela's ANC (1994). Such a failure of imagination on the part of Gandhi to see the African struggle as his own points to the strength of colonial identity structures and the difficulty of seeing one's way out of narrow categories of nation, people, ethnicity, race, etc. Such divisions, of course, were key to colonial rule. Power, resistance, and identity were, thus, quite closely linked.
This chapter presents a global survey of the period between 1848 and 1914 in order to set the stage for the age of world war. Four overarching themes animate this chapter: 1) the creation of the industrial economy; 2) the development of nationalism as the central political force in the industrializing world; 3) The dramatic spread of European power in the form of economic and political/military imperialism; and 4) the reactions to European power in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

The chapter begins in 1848, that most dynamic and critical of years in nineteenth century European history. It ends in 1914 with Europe and the world on the brink of the First World War and the most destructive era in human history, the period from 1914-1945, during which around 150 million people died as a direct or indirect result of warfare.

This page has paths:

This page references: