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

Paris 1919 Part III: Self-Determination of non-European Peoples

For all the playing of god in Paris, events in central Europe drove discussions as much as discussions drove events. This was not the case, however, in parts of the world under the firm occupation of the allied powers, first and foremost the British army. British domain was truly global in 1919. Its African possessions had expanded with Germany’s defeat. It had bitten off a huge chunk of the Middle East and the Levant from the Ottoman Empire. India remained the British imperial cornerstone.

We will come back to the specific territorial configurations in the chapters to come. In general, when it came to self-determination of peoples beyond Europe the Western powers granted independence only partially, begrudgingly, or not at all. States were created in the Middle East, like Iraq or Trans-Jordan, but they were weak and dependent states. In Egypt, the governing elite were still bound to British economic power. In the Levant, British and France maintained control in the form of “mandates.” Throughout Africa, nothing was done to grant the people independence from imperial rule, despite the fact that millions of Africans had taken part in the war. India, which had contributed over one million men to the war, got nothing. Japan, which pushed for a statement on racial equality to be included in the League of Nations charter, saw its cause fail, though it did hold on to a piece of China. The western powers were not ready to give up power and control.

But while it is true that the colonial world did not achieve the same political outcomes as central European peoples, WWI was a turning point for them as well. First, the war weakened the European imperial powers tremendously. Russia was knocked out of the imperial game for the time being. France and England were economically and militarily spent. The Germans had been forced to relinquish all colonial possessions. The United States wanted to retreat back to North America and away from deeper world entanglements, despite or even in reaction to Wilson’s global vision of the League of Nations. New political consciousness was gaining ground throughout the world. In India, China, the Middle East, in Africa and Southeast Asia a new generation was rising from the context of nationalism and self-determination, of Bolshevism and Lenin’s critique of imperialism (we will see this with Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, who was in Paris in 1919). Freed from oppressive structures, newly organized, and in many cases educated in the west, a new generation of global leaders would challenge Western hegemony on just about every front in the coming decades. The obvious racism of "self-determination" would be a key starting point.

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