On the 8th of May 1945, Admiral Karl Doenitz signed Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies, ending the Second World War, Europe’s most devastating conflict. Germany’s dictator, Adolf Hitler, had committed suicide eight days earlier, paving the way for the surrender. It is now 75 years since that event occurred. What does this mean for those who live in Africa?
The typical narrative from Hollywood is of heroic American soldiers saving the day in 1945. This leaves out the fact that the Soviets destroyed 60 German divisions and the true “turning point” of the war in Europe were more likely to be Stalingrad, Kursk and Operation Bagration than D-Day. Another narrative focuses on the rise of two superpowers from the ashes of Europe (the Soviet Union and the United States of America) and the subsequent Cold War which ushered in the present global order. What is often missed by many analysts of the Second World is that it effectively ended the age of global European empires, an era that was kickstarted by the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Americas in 1492. Europe lost its primacy in global geopolitics, probably permanently – a reality it is still adjusting to.
To explain the impact of this event, let us go on a brief historical tour.
The Iberian peninsula is on the westernmost tip of the Mediterranean Basin, and thus geographically unsuited to take advantage of the lucrative trade with Asia, which was dominated at various points in time by the city-states on the Italian peninsula such as Venice and Genoa; and the Ottoman Empire. This disadvantage forced the two Iberian nations, Portugal and Spain, to explore alternative routes to the lucrative spice markets of India and East Asia through the Atlantic. Columbus was hired by Spanish monarchs to find a way to Asia’s lucrative spice markets. Instead, he accidentally arrived in the Americas. Portuguese explorers like Vasco da Gama later discovered a sea route to India, and due to superior military technology, the Portuguese established colonies in far off lands. Thus began the age of European expansionism.
Northern European powers like France, England and the Netherlands soon entered the colonisation business, and the prosperity of Europe was now tied to colonies in far off lands. One major legacy of the colonial era was the importation of millions of slaves to the Americas from Africa. But it did not just end at slavery, a racial hierarchy had to be established to justify the existence of chattel slavery. While the Roman Empire did not have to invent a racial hierarchy to justify slavery, modern Europeans found it necessary to do so, and its evil legacy still lingers with us today on both sides of the Atlantic.
The 17th Century saw an expansion of scientific knowledge in Europe, which led to the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century and Europe further cementing its dominance over the rest of the world. The 19th Century was the peak of European dominance, and that created the demand for theories to justify that dominance. Charles Darwin was helpful in this regard. His theory of evolution and the principle of “survival of the fittest” was deployed to “prove” that Europeans were “superior” to all other “races” (especially Blacks Africans) and the entire field of anthropology became an excuse to use pseudoscience to prove the “superiority” of white people and the “inferiority” of other races. However, at the height of European dominance fear began to grow, on both sides of the Atlantic, that it would not last. This led to a flurry of books about the “impending doom of the White Man”, one of the most prominent was Madison Grant’s 1916 “Passing of a Great Race”. Adolf Hitler described that book as “his bible”.
Meanwhile, people outside Europe and North America resented being “subjects” of European empires and being slaughtered in the millions (like in the Congo under Belgium’s King Leopold), in the thousands (like in Kenya during the Mau Mau Rising) or in the hundreds (like in the Amritsar Massacre in India). Resentment against European rule continued to build up, but there was a limit to what oppressed people could do – as European empires were too strong and too entrenched to budge. That is until the Europeans considerably weakened themselves in two costly wars. Most European colonial empires managed to survive the First World War, but the second made things a bit tricky as both Britain and France ended it too bankrupt to maintain their empires, and perhaps just as importantly, the subject races themselves had started to look at Europeans in a different light after the war.
The two things that Hitler attempted – colonial conquest and genocide, would have up to that time, been accepted anywhere else apart from in North America and Europe. Just before Hitler launched his assault on Poland, Italy’s Mussolini had launched a colonial war in Ethiopia and the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations literally told the Ethiopians that they were on their own. Japan’s aggression against China was also met with indifference and lethargy from the major powers. Hitler’s problem was not his racism and antisemitism per se (such views were common in Europe at that time), but that he went “too far” with them in terms of intellectual articulation and brutal execution. In any case, he succeeded in wrecking Europe.
One consequence of a wrecked Europe was that the United States of America could now dictate terms to European powers, and they had no option but to meekly comply. Churchill did not take kindly to this. After all, in a speech in 1942, he declared; “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire”. Nevertheless, the British had to let go of India by 1947 – and when they lost India, it was a matter of time before the empire disintegrated. Other European empires were more stubborn. The Dutch still felt they could hold on to colonial possessions in Indonesia after a resounding defeat at home by both the Wehrmacht in 1940 and in the Dutch East Indies by the Japanese shortly after. They had been totally de-mystified as “supermen” in the eyes of locals, and Sukarno and other independence fighters ensured that they got the message. The French and the British tried to reimpose control over the Suez Canal in 1956, but US president, Dwight Eisenhower made it clear to the British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, that while such behaviour was tolerated in 1936, it would no longer be tolerated two decades after. France stubbornly tried to hold on to Algeria, before being violently ejected. The French, however, succeeded in roping the U.S. into a war with Vietnam and spread to all of Indochina – which taught the U.S, that nationalism in the developing world was an enormously powerful force. In addition, America underwrote the development of powerful institutions that had the express purpose of managing the economic, political and social tensions that the growth of nation-states had all but guaranteed; chief among them the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the United Nations system.
This was the context in which Nigeria and other African countries gained their independence. European empires were not going to last in the long-term, the Second World War sped up the process – as a bankrupt and bruised Europe lacked the ability to dominate the world as it once did. The dream of “Pan-Africanists” could be realised, with minimal obstructions. Unfortunately, it is impossible to implement poorly articulated, but ambitious dreams.
“Pan-Africanism” did not originate in Africa, it was developed by intellectuals in the diaspora (the First Pan African Congress was held in London in 1900 and alternated between London, Paris and New York, even Manchester before finally holding on the continent for the first time well into the post-colonial era in 1974 in Dar es Salaam). The French counterpart to this was the Negritude movement which seemed more like a protest against French colonial African policy than it was about cultivating African resistance to colonialism. At its core, Pan-Africanism acknowledges that Africans and people of African origin have common interests and thus, need to fight common threats. The likes of Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere saw the Independence Struggle in Africa and the Civil Rights struggle in the United States of America, as the same struggle. There is a lot to support those who argue that both struggles were related or even the same, but the important point is that the aftermath of the Second World War that led to the rapid disintegration of colonialism and birthed the global spread of nationalism and self-determination also accelerated the social changes that made segregation untenable in the United States of America.
We live in a vastly different world than our great grandparents did, and it was largely the legacy of the Second World War. Instead of a world dominated by European empires, we live in a world of independent states largely enjoying the global security cover and the trade flows it has made possible and provided by the world’s dominant superpower – the United States. There is a lot to say about the fall of the Iron Curtain, America’s current turn to isolationism and the economic rise of China as a global challenger as “defining moments” in global history, but it pales in significance to the end of the order established by Columbus and Da Gama, which was accelerated by the most devastating conflict in the history of humanity.