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10-08-2015, 17:12

Reflection

By 1945, the era of European hegemony over world affairs was severely shaken. As World War I was followed by revolutions, the Great Depression, the mass murder machines of totalitarian regimes, and the destructiveness of World War II, it appeared that Western civilization had become a nightmare. Europeans, accustomed to dominating the world at the beginning of the twentieth century, now watched helplessly at mid-century as two new superpowers —the United States and the Soviet Union—took control of their destinies. Moreover, the imperialist European states no longer had the energy or the wealth to maintain their colonial empires after the war. With the decline of the Old World, a new era of global relationships was about to begin. What were the underlying causes of the astounding spectacle of self-destruction that engaged the European powers in two bloody internecine conflicts within a period of less than a quarter of a century? One factor was the rise of the spirit of nationalism. In the first half of the nineteenth century, nationalism in Europe was closely identified with liberals, who maintained that unified, independent nation-states could best preserve individual rights. After the unification of Italy and Germany in 1871, however, nationalism became loud and chauvinistic. As one exponent expressed it, “A true nationalist places his country above everything”; he believes in the “exclusive pursuit of national policies” and “the steady increase in national power —for a nation declines when it loses military might.” It was sentiments such as these that resulted in bitter disputes and civil strife in a number of countries and contributed to the competition among nations that eventually erupted into world war. Another factor that contributed to the violence of the early twentieth century was the Industrial Revolution. Technology transformed the nature of war itself. New weapons of mass destruction created the potential for a new kind of warfare that reached beyond the battlefield into the very heartland of the enemy’s territory, while the concept of nationalism transformed war from the sport of kings to a matter of national honor and commitment. Since the French Revolution, when the government in Paris had mobilized the entire country to fight against the forces that opposed the revolution, governments had relied on mass conscription to defend the national cause while their engines of destruction reached far into enemy territory to destroy the industrial base and undermine the will to fight. This trend was amply demonstrated in the two world wars of the twentieth century. Each was a product of antagonisms that had been unleashed by economic competition and growing national consciousness. Each resulted in a level of destruction that severely damaged the material foundations and eroded the popular spirit of the participants, the victors as well as the vanquished. In the end, then, industrial power and the driving force of nationalism, the very factors that had created the conditions for European global dominance, contained the seeds for the decline of that dominance. These seeds germinated during the 1930s, when the Great Depression sharpened international competition and mutual antagonisms, and then sprouted in the ensuing conflict, which embraced the entire globe. By the time World War II came to an end, the oncepowerful countries of Europe were exhausted, leaving the door ajar not only for the emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union to global dominance but also to the collapse of the European colonial empires. If in Europe the dominant challenge of the era had been to come to terms with the impact of the Industrial Revolution, in the rest of the world it was undoubtedly the sheer fact of Western imperialism. By the end of the nineteenth century, European powers, or their rivals in Japan and the United States, had achieved political mastery over virtually the entire remainder of the world. While the overall effect of imperialism on the subject peoples is still open to debate, it seems clear that for most of the population in colonial areas, Western domination was rarely beneficial and was often destructive. Although a limited number of merchants, large landowners, and traditional hereditary elites undoubtedly prospered under the umbrella of the expanding imperialist economic order, the majority of people, urban and rural alike, suffered considerable hardship as a result of the policies adopted by their foreign rulers. The effects of the Industrial Revolution on the poor had been felt in Europe, too, but there the pain was eased somewhat by the fact that the industrial era had laid the foundations for future technological advances and material abundance. In the colonial territories, the importation of modern technology was limited, while most of the profits from manufacturing and commerce fled abroad. For too many, the “white man’s burden” was shifted to the shoulders of the colonial peoples. In their response, the latter turned to another Western import, the spirit of nationalism. The concept of nationalism served a useful role in many countries in Asia and Africa, where it provided colonial peoples with a sense of common purpose that later proved vital in knitting together diverse elements in their societies to oppose colonial regimes and create the conditions for future independent states. At first, such movements achieved relatively little success, but they began to gather momentum in the second quarter of the twentieth century, when full-fledged nationalist movements began to appear throughout the colonial world to lead their people in the struggle for independence. Another idea that gained currency in colonial areas was that of democracy. As a rule, colonial regimes did not make a serious attempt to introduce democratic institutions to their subject populations out of concern that such institutions would inevitably undermine colonial authority. Nevertheless, Western notions of representative government and individual freedom had their advocates in colonial areas well before the end of the nineteenth century. Later, countless Asians and Africans were exposed to such ideas in schools set up by the colonial regime or in the course of travel to Europe or the United States. Most of the nationalist parties founded in colonial territories espoused democratic principles and attempted to apply them when they took power after the restoration of independence. As we shall see later, in most instances, such programs were premature. For the most part, the experiment with democracy in postwar African and Asian societies was brief. But the popularity of democratic ideals among educated elites in colonial societies was a clear indication of democracy’s universal appeal and a sign that it would become a meaningful part of the political culture after the dismantling of the colonial regimes. The idea of the nation, composed of free, educated, and politically active citizens, was now widely accepted throughout much of the non-Western world. Chapter 2 attempted to draw up a final balance sheet on the era of Western imperialism. To its defenders, it was a necessary stage in the evolution of the human race, a flawed but essentially humanitarian effort to provide the backward peoples of Africa and Asia with a boost up the ladder of social evolution. To its critics, it was a tragedy of major proportions. In this debate, the critics surely have the best of the argument. Although the ruling colonial powers did make a halfhearted gesture toward introducing the technology and ideas that had accompanied the rise of modern Europe, all in all, the colonial experience was a brutal one whose benefits accrued almost entirely to citizens of the ruling power. The argument that the Western societies had an obligation to civilize the world was all too often a hypocritical gesture to salve the guilty feelings of those who recognized imperialism for what it was—savage exploitation. If there are any lasting benefits for the colonial peoples related to the era of imperialism, they have to be seen in terms of their potential rather than their immediate effects. The spread of European power throughout the world took place at a time of spectacular achievements in the realm of science and technology as well as that of economics. Advances in health and sanitation, engineering, transportation, communications, and the food sciences began to enrich the human experience in ways that never before seemed possible. And although most of the immediate benefits from these developments accrued to the imperialist countries themselves, they carried the promise of an ultimate transformation of traditional societies throughout the globe in ways that are even today as yet unforeseen. For countless millions of peoples who suffered through the colonial era, of course, that may be poor consolation indeed. The final judgment on the age of European dominance, then, is mixed. It was a time of unfulfilled expectations, of altruism and greed, of bright promise and tragic failure. The fact is that human beings had learned how to master some of the forces of nature before they had learned how to order relations among themselves or temper their own natures for the common good. The consequences were painful, for European and non-European peoples alike.

 

 

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