The future historian may regard as the greatest "revolution" of the twentieth century not Lenin's overthrow of the short-lived free regime in Russia in November 1917, but the less conspicuous […] and, yet, more far-reaching process which brought Europe's four hundred years old dominion of the globe to an end (Hans Kohn, October 1958).1
Introduction: Definition, Periodization and Models of Interpretation
The term "decolonization" refers to the process whereby colonial rule dissolved in the periphery and in the metropole, with its various political, economic, cultural and social dimensions.2 The transfer of national sovereignty rights led to the emergence of new independent states, thereby permanently changing international relations and the global system of states. The German economist Moritz Julius Bonn (1873–1965) is credited with establishing the term as an academic concept. In his entry on "Imperialism" for the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences published in 1932, he explicitly refers to decolonization: "All over the world a period of countercolonization began, and decolonization is rapidly proceeding."3 This is how Bonn described the beginnings of a trend which demonstrated its full transformative power after the Second World War. In the 30 years after 1945 – a short time period in relative terms – the European colonial empires in Asia and Africa disappeared completely from the global political map and were replaced by new independent states. Consequently, the term "decolonization" is often primarily associated with these developments in Asia and Africa in the second half of the 20th century.4
However, the phenomenon of the dissolution of European colonial rule can also be identified in the history of all the other continents and over a much longer time period. First of all, the colonies of North and South America achieved national independence between 1776 and 1826 in the context of the upheavals of the Atlantic revolutions of the late-18th and early-19th centuries. From 1839 onward, the British settler colonies in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa began pressing for greater political autonomy from Great Britain. The Statute of Westminster of 1931 ultimately confirmed the independence of these states. In addition to the classic phase of decolonization from 1914 to 1975 referred to above,5 the disintegration of the Soviet empire in the period from 1985 to 1991 can also be interpreted from the perspective of decolonization, thereby giving a total of four phases of decolonization.
The end of conditions of colonial rule is closely connected with the concept of revolution, which refers to a radical break with, and a fundamental and lasting transformation of, the existing political and social order.6 While the second phase of decolonization saw the territories in question gradually separating from the colonial "motherland" over a long period of almost 100 years while retaining the British monarch as their ceremonial head of state, all of the other three phases involved revolutionary processes.7 The resistance of the independence movements fundamentally called into question the colonial order and sought to establish a new order. The leading figures of the anticolonial movement in the 20th century consciously employed the rhetoric of revolution and spoke of the defeat of colonial rule in revolutionary terms. For example, Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) wrote the following in his main work The Wretched of the Earth: "Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is clearly an agenda for total disorder".8 Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969), the founder and leader of the Viet Minh movement for Vietnamese independence, deliberately sought to portray the declaration of independence of his country from France as standing in the long tradition of the American and French revolutions of the 18th century.9 While the colonizers used terms such as "rebellion" and "insurrection" in their attempts to depict anticolonial resistance directed against them as criminal attempts to overthrow legitimate authority, the anticolonial movement employed the concept of revolution as a "Legitimationstitel"10 (legitimizing title) for their struggle for independence.
What causes and interpretations can be identified for the end of colonial rule? In spite of all the controversial debates about the weighting of individual factors,11 one interpretative model which attempts to combine the various theoretical approaches has emerged increasingly strongly. According to this model, decolonization was the collective result of developments within the ruling metropoles ("metropolitan theory"), of the increasing strength and activity of the independence movements in the periphery ("peripheral theory"), and of certain developments in international politics ("international theory").12 Thus, the causes for the dissolution of colonial rule are not to be found in one single isolated component alone, but in the interplay between metropolitan, peripheral and international forces.
The Atlantic Revolutions and American Independence (1776–1826)
The first phase of decolonization from 1776 to 1826 brought about the national independence of most of the European colonies in North and South America. It was the result of the "Atlantic revolutions",13 a veritable wave of interconnected revolutionary events which saw the existing concepts of order on both sides of the Atlantic being shaken to their foundations by mutual transatlantic influence, and which defined the "era of revolutions".14 The cause of this "transatlantic chain reaction"15 was increasing tension between the European metropoles and the American periphery. Through numerous reforms (the Hanoverian and Bourbon reforms), from the 1760s onwards London and Madrid noticeably strengthened their political and fiscal grip on their American possessions in an attempt to profit more from these possessions and thus to address the growing crises in their state finances.16 The settler populations in the overseas territories viewed these developments as serious interference in their interests, particularly as they increasingly felt that they were not being treated as equal subjects of their monarchs. In spite of the emergence of an "American" identity, the populations overseas continued to view themselves primarily as English and Spanish. Consequently, their resistance was not initially aimed at separating off from their European motherlands. On the contrary, they sought to obtain a commensurate level of political participation in the affairs of the latter. It was only as events progressed that resistance radicalized, and violent campaigns for independence developed. This occurred in the international context of the aftermath of the Seven Years' War (1756–1763). Having been defeated, France was forced to relinquish its colonial possessions in North America and India. At the same time the war had also placed a severe financial burden on Great Britain – which had been victorious – a burden which was a central contributory factor in the financial crisis which triggered the American Revolution.17 The Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), which were a direct military consequence of the expansion of the French Revolution beyond France, were a catalyst for the decolonization of South America.18
The North American Revolution (1775–1783) provided the initial impulse for the first wave of decolonization.19 The Declaration of Independence of July 4 1776 was the decisive step towards the separation of the 13 New England colonies from the British crown and ultimately led to the foundation of the United States of America, which was recognized as an independent state in the Treaty of Paris of 1783. For Great Britain this meant the loss of its North American colonial empire – apart from its Canadian possessions – though London was able to compensate for this by switching its focus to India. Thus, the process of decolonization in the 18th century not only had the effect of bringing an end to colonial rule on one continent, but also of diverting expansionary forces to other regions of the world, resulting in more intensive colonial penetration of the Indian subcontinent.20
However, the American Revolution also had a direct effect on developments in the European metropoles. Apart from the serious financial consequences and destabilizing political effect of French intervention on the side of the American revolutionaries, the American Revolution also established a strong precedent, of which there were loud echoes in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of August 26 1789.21 The influence of the French Revolution itself was in some respects of global proportions, but it had an immediate effect on the situation in the important French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue,22 which was enormously economically valuable due to its sugar production. As a result of the turmoil unfolding in the colonial motherland, serious internal tensions emerged in the colony regarding the issue of legal equality among the various social strata of the European settler population. From 1791 onward, these tensions resulted in a violent revolt among the black slaves, who represented a majority of the population. Under the leadership of the freed slave Francois-Dominique Touissant Louverture (1743–1803), the black rebels ultimately succeeded in bringing the whole island under their control and in repelling Spanish, British and French invasions. During the Haitian Revolution (1789–1804), slavery was completely abolished on the island, and on January 1 1804, the independence of the first sovereign black state of Latin America was proclaimed under the indigenous name of Haiti.23
However, the effects of the French Revolution were not only felt in the Caribbean. They spread to the whole of South America after the Iberian Peninsula became directly involved in the Napoleonic Wars. Due to the French-Spanish invasion of Portugal in 1807, the Portuguese king and the entire political elite fled the country and remained in the Portuguese colony of Brazil for the rest of the war. The temporary transfer of the centre of political power from Europe to the periphery fundamentally changed colonial relationships in the latter, and set a decisive process of emancipation in motion. On September 7 1822, the Portuguese crown prince, who had remained in the colony after the court had returned to Lisbon, declared the independence of Brazil from Portugal in the "Cry of Ipiranga" and had himself crowned Emperor Pedro I (1798–1834) of Brazil in December of the same year.24
In contrast to the largely peaceful emancipation of Brazil, the decolonization of Spanish America between 1808 and 1826 involved considerably more conflict and violence. In 1808, the French occupation of Spain and the imprisonment of the Spanish king triggered the complete disintegration of the metropolitan centre of rule. In the context of this power vacuum, provisional committees (Juntas) assumed the power to govern in the various American colonies.25 Though these initially continued to pledge allegiance to the imprisoned Spanish monarch, there were increasingly vociferous calls for greater autonomy and liberal reforms. The ensuing conflict between republican and royalist forces witnessed civil-war-like conditions, which – even after the Spanish monarchy was re-established under the reactionary Ferdinand VII (1784–1833) in 1814 – escalated into a series of extremely violent wars for independence across Spanish America. Under the leadership of important figures such as Simón Bolívar (1783–1830), José de San Martín (1778–1850) and Bernardo O'Higgins (1778–1842), the republican movements had succeeded by 1826 in finally casting off Spanish colonial rule, and in establishing independent states throughout the former Spanish colonial empire from Mexico in the north to Chile in the south and the Rio de la Plata region in the east. Thus, Spain lost its entire overseas empire, with the exception of a few small vestiges in the Caribbean and in Asia, thereby becoming the "the imperial demotee of the 19th century".26
In view of the violent conflicts and the possibility that Spain might attempt to recolonize South America with the help of its European allies, the young republic of the United States adopted a clear foreign policy position. In his State of the Union Address on December 2 1823, President James Monroe (1785–1831) declared US opposition to all future European colonial endeavours and attempts at intervention on the American continent.27 This anticolonial and antiinterventionist stance, which only came to be referred to as the Monroe Doctrine later in the 19th century, did not, however, prevent the USA from subsequently pursuing expansionary efforts of its own, which were initially directed to the west against the indigenous populations and against Mexico with the annexation of Californian territories. This ultimately culminated in 1898 in the Spanish-American War, which resulted in a Spanish defeat and the loss of the remaining Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and Cuba.28 However, the former Spanish colonies did not receive independence, but instead came under the control of the US, as it sought to establish its position as a great power. In the Philippines, the nationalist movement under Emilio Aguinaldo (1869–1964), which had already fought against Spanish rule during the Philippines Revolution of 1896, offered stiff resistance to the USA, dragging the new colonial masters into a long war (1899–1913).29 The first wave of decolonization ended the direct control of the European metropoles over the American continent, but it transferred control over these territories to the descendants of Europeans settlers, instead of to the original indigenous population. In the case of the United States, it ultimately resulted in the establishment of a new imperial power, which claimed the inheritance of the Spanish empire from Cuba to the Philippines.
The "White" Dominions and the Establishment of "Neo-Europes" (1839–1931)
The second wave of decolonization was not a revolution, but a process which took place over a period of almost exactly a century.30 From 1839 to 1931, the British colonies of white settlement of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, started to press for greater political autonomy from Great Britain and finally became independent states, though constitutionally they retained the link with the British crown. Even more so than the first wave of decolonization, this wave saw the emergence of "Neo-Europes" on three different continents, in which political, social and cultural conditions were similar to those in Europe.31 This development was motivated less by an anticolonial movement than by changes in the attitude of Great Britain itself. By gradually granting self-governance to the dominions, London was pursuing the strategic aim of keeping the colonies of white settlement firmly within the empire, which continued to expand in Africa and Asia, while also sharing the ever-growing costs of maintaining the empire directly with these colonies. The original goal was therefore not the dissolution of the empire, but the consolidation of colonial rule. Britain had learned from the American Revolution that gradual reforms which were advanced by the metropole itself could defuse any radical efforts towards independence that might arise in the periphery, and thereby secure British suzerainty in the long run.
Once again, the American continent was the point of departure for this process. In 1837, there were a series of violent revolts in British North America – the Canadian territories which had remained under British rule – against the political establishment there. In the aftermath, London dispatched a commission of inquiry under the leadership of the reforming politician John George Lambton, Earl of Durham (1792–1840), to investigate the causes.32 In the Report on the Affairs in British North America submitted by the commission in 1839, Durham recommended the introduction of a "responsible government" in the Canadian colonial territories. In accordance with the Westminster model, the report suggested that the territories should receive their own parliament and a cabinet government elected by it, which would administer internal affairs, while external affairs and constitutional matters would remain in the hands of the European metropole. The Durham Report became one of "the most important documents of global constitutional history"33 and it established the framework within which the colonies of white settlement were able to develop into semi-independent dominions.
However, Durham's suggestions were only implemented in 1867 with the British North America Act, which brought the Canadian provinces together in the "Dominion of Canada". Following the Canadian example, the Australian overseas territories, which were originally established as penal colonies, were joined together in a confederation by the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act of July 9 1900. New Zealand and the diminutive Newfoundland followed suit, both receiving dominion status on September 26 1907. In the case of South Africa, this process did not begin until after the bloody conflict of the Second Boer War (1899–1902), which resulted in the incorporation of the Boer republics into the empire. On May 31 1910, the British colonies joined together in the South African Union.34
The next decisive stage on the road to national independence for the dominions was the First World War (1914–1918). After Great Britain's entry into the war, the five dominions remained loyal to the British Empire, and fought – in some cases sustaining very high casualties, such as those suffered by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) at the Battle of Gallipoli (1915–1916) – to secure victory for the Allies over the Central Powers.35 Participation in the war resulted in an enormous jump towards a self-governing status for the dominions. They were represented by their own delegates at the Versailles Peace Conference – albeit these were officially subordinate to the representatives of Great Britain – and, with the exception of Newfoundland, they each received a seat in the newly founded League of Nations. Additionally, three of the dominions received League of Nations mandate power over former overseas territories of the German Empire – South Africa over German Southwest Africa, Australia over New Guinea and New Zealand over Samoa – thereby becoming colonial masters themselves under the guise of their mandate powers.
With this increased domestic and international confidence, the dominions – which in the aftermath of the bitter struggle for Irish independence (1919–1921) and the subsequent signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 also included the Irish Free State – continued to increase pressure on the imperial centre in London. They sought to resolve their limbo status with regard to foreign policy, and to finally resolve the question of their full national sovereignty. After intensive debates at various imperial conferences, the Inter-Imperial Relations Committee was established in 1926 to examine these issues. It was headed by the former British Prime Minister Lord Balfour (1848–1930). Its final report, the so-called Balfour Report of November 18 1926, concluded that the dominions were fully equal, autonomous communities within the empire, and that they voluntarily unite as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations in their shared loyalty to the British monarchy. The British parliament confirmed this conclusion in 1931 with the Statute of Westminster, thereby clearing the way for the complete sovereignty of the former white-settler colonies.36
The reforms initiated by Great Britain in the 19th century, which were intended to consolidate colonial rule, ultimately resulted in the 20th century in independent democratic states developing out of the empire. As sovereign states, the former settler colonies adopted to a large degree the political, social and cultural systems of their colonial "motherland", thereby ultimately establishing "Neo-Europes" on three different continents. This process also involved the complete marginalization of the indigenous population in all areas of life, the consequences of which are still being dealt with today.37 The Apartheid regime from 1948 to 1994 in South Africa was undoubtedly the most serious form of racial discrimination and exclusion.38
The composition of the Commonwealth, which emerged during the second evolutionary phase of decolonization, fundamentally changed after the Second World War. The disintegration of the British Empire which occurred during this period was accompanied by the incorporation of former "non-white" colonies such as India (1947), Pakistan (1947) and Ceylon (1948) into the Commonwealth.39 This change was illustrated among other things by the removal of the adjective "British" in favour of the more neutral title "Commonwealth of Nations" in the London Declaration of April 26 1949. In the subsequent decades, other former overseas territories of the empire joined this loose affiliation of sovereign states. It now comprises a total of 54 member states, including the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique and the former Belgian colony of Rwanda.
The Anticolonial Revolution and the Dissolution of the European Colonial Empires (1914–1975)
The third phase of decolonization is the one most closely associated with the term "decolonization" in the present and it refers to the end of European colonial rule after 1945.40 The process of the dissolution of the European overseas empires had a profound effect on the international history of the 20th century. This process occurred relatively quickly given that colonial rule had existed in some cases for a number of centuries. For example, Egypt, Ethiopia and Liberia were the only formally independent states on the African continent – if one excludes white-dominated South Africa – in 1945. Only fifteen years later the number of formally independent states had grown to 27. After just 30 years, from 1945 to 1975, all the colonial empires had disappeared from the global map. The end of "European global domination" was thus a "part of the transition to a new order in the global system of states".41 This transformation proceeded by no means linearly or according to a set pattern. There were considerable differences between the various regions, with cases of peaceful transition as well as extremely violent struggles for emancipation. The colonial policies and strategic aims of the colonial powers and the strength of the respective anticolonial movements were the decisive factors. The Cold War confrontation, the growing importance of international organizations such as the United Nations, and the emergence of a regime of international human rights were central aspects of the international context in which the third phase of decolonization occurred and they had a decisive effect on that process.42
In contrast to the two preceding waves, this third one was "classic decolonization", with non-European populations rising up against foreign colonial rule and obtaining their political independence. However, autochthonous resistance was not exclusively a phenomenon of the 20th century. It had existed in many forms from the beginning of European expansion and colonial penetration. The numerous colonial wars and rebellions in different time periods in the various regions of the world are clear proof of strong resistance to European domination. These included for example the great rebellion of the indigenous population in Peru from 1780 to 1782, the guerrilla war lead by Emir 'Abd-al-Qādir (1808–1883) against the French occupation of Algeria from 1835 to 1847, as well as the great Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the Maori Wars of 1843 to 1872 against the British settlers in New Zealand.43
However, this anticolonial resistance was not able to fundamentally call into question or bring an end to European colonial rule. The successful Haitian Revolution of 1791 and the victory of the troops of Negus Menelik II (1844–1913) on March 1 1896 in the battle of Adua, by which the Italian invasion of Abyssinia was repelled, were rare exceptions. The technological advantage of the European states in many areas, such as transportation, communication, tropical medicine and – not least – weaponry, proved too big, and meant that the indigenous groups were not able to halt the European advance for any significant period of time.44 However, the perceived global victory of Europe also resulted in increasing criticism of colonial projects in the metropoles.45 In particular, excessive violence and scandals in the overseas territories triggered public debates and campaigns which promoted colonial scepticism. For example, the internment of Boer civilians in British concentration camps during the Second Boer War and the reign of terror of the Belgian king Leopold II (1835–1909) in the Belgian Congo were sharply criticized.46 In addition to this, nationalist anticolonial political movements gradually began to form in the periphery itself, such as the Urabi movement, which was active in Egypt in the period 1879–1882, and in India, the jewel of the British Empire, the Indian National Congress founded in 1885 as well as the All India Muslim League established in 1906.47 These movements took massive encouragement from the victory of Japan in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), which was the first instance of an Asian country defeating a "white" European country in a modern war. The perceived civilizational superiority of the "West" was dealt its first major blow.48
The new potency of anticolonial efforts in the 20th century resulted from the interplay between growing autochthonous nationalist anticolonial movements and the massive upheavals which occurred during the course of two global wars.49 The First World War was the first decisive break with the past.50 The mass killing of Europeans by Europeans on the battlefields demonstrated the absurdity of the supposed civilizational superiority of the "white man". African and Asian intellectuals and political leaders deliberately highlighted this fact in order to fundamentally call into question the civilizing mission of Europe, which was repeatedly cited to legitimize colonial rule.51 Similar to the dominions, the large contribution of the colonies to the war effort – a considerable number of Indians and Africans fought on the side of their colonial masters – strengthened the confidence of the autochthonous colonial populations, who subsequently linked their contribution to the Allied victory with calls for concrete political concessions. During the Russian Revolution, V. I. Lenin (1870–1924) raised the topic of the right of nations to self-determination, for example in the Decree on Peace of October 26 1917. Subsequently, US President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) also explicitly addressed the topic in his Fourteen Points declaration of January 8 1918, thereby igniting hopes in the colonies.52 The "Wilsonian Moment" was the initial spark which led to the emergence of a global anticolonial protest movement stretching from Egypt to India, Korea and China.53
Even the League of Nations, which emerged from the negotiations in Versailles, formally adopted the principle in Article 22 of its Covenant, which stated that colonial territories must be guided towards independence over the long term. To achieve this, the newly established organization gave the victorious Allies guardianship over the former colonies of the German Empire and the Arab provinces of the dissolved Ottoman Empire. The aim was that these so-called mandated territories would – in accordance with their developmental progress – be eventually granted independence. In reality, however, this meant that the leading colonial powers – Great Britain and France – simply incorporated the territories in question into their imperial territories under the pretext of the League of Nations mandate.54
Thus, the result was not the decolonization of the former territories of the Central Powers, but a change of colonial masters. Consequently, in the interwar period "the colonial world [reached] the apogee of its historical expansion",55 which included the occupation of one the last remaining independent African state (Abyssinia) by Fascist Italy in 1935.56 Parallel to this apogee of European colonial rule, central characters like Mohandas Karamchand "Mahatma" Gandhi (1869–1948) in India, Ho Chi Minh in Indochina and Messali Hadj (1898–1974) in Algeria continued to develop the anticolonial nationalist movements. They also received massive support from the Communist camp and increasingly established connections with one another.57 This increasing interconnection and continuing evolution of international anticolonialism manifested itself clearly in the four Pan-African Congresses, which were organized by the American historian and human rights activist William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868–1963) between 1919 and 1927. The Négritude movement initiated by Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001) and Aimé Césaire (1913–2008) forcefully advocated for the rediscovery of African culture and for political independence for Africa.58
The apparent security of European colonial rule on the eve of the Second World War proved illusory. The upheavals of the war of 1939 to 1945 shook the European overseas empires to their foundations. In Southeast Asia, Japanese troops succeeded in occupying almost all of the European colonies between December 1941 and April 1942. On February 15 1942, Japan even managed to capture the enormously important British base at Singapore to the dismay of London. The campaign of conquest of imperial Japan caused irreparable damage to the prestige of European colonial rule.59 The significance of the remaining overseas territories – primarily in Africa – as a source of raw materials and troops for the Allied war effort increased dramatically.60 In the case of France, the central African colonies even served – thanks to the vital support of the black governor Félix Éboué (1885–1944) – as the last refuge of Free France, which was led by General Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) after the defeat in 1940 and the collaboration of the Vichy regime with the Third Reich.61 On the whole, the relationship between the metropoles and the periphery was fundamentally changed by these developments, especially in view of the fact that hundreds of thousands of colonial subjects from India and almost all parts of Africa fought for the Allied cause in almost all theatres of war.
The surprisingly strong loyalty to the European colonial masters was due in part to the fact that the leaders of anticolonial nationalist movements hoped that an Allied victory would result in a liberal postwar climate based on the principles of the Atlantic Charter.62 This declaration of principles issued jointly by US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) on August 12 1941 included – in addition to the goal of improving international economic and social cooperation – the principle of the right of nations to self-determination.63 Such promises were greeted with veritable euphoria in the colonies, and the colonized peoples judged the subsequent reordering of the world by these statements. Thus, immediately after the end of the war, the delegates at the Fifth Pan-African Congress, which met in Manchester from the 15th to the 21st of October 1945, referred directly to these Allied principles and demanded the immediate end of racist colonial rule. Their slogan was "Colonial and Subject Peoples of the World – Unite!"64
However, after the end of the Second World War, the European colonial powers initially showed no interest in relinquishing their colonial empires, since they – particularly Great Britain and France – viewed their empires as giving them equal status with the new super powers of the USA and the Soviet Union. Also, the vast mineral resources of the colonies were urgently needed for the economic regeneration of the metropoles after the destructive war.65 Instead of proceeding with decolonization, the European powers set about recolonizing the territories lost in Asia and intensively exploiting the resources of the African territories, for example by means of a pronounced "development colonialism" and in the form of a "second colonial invasion".66 However, these plans were met in Asia with veritable waves of revolution from the various nationalist movements, the force of which finally brought about the collapse of European colonial rule.67
First of all, the British had to acknowledge that their position in India (the "jewel of the empire") was a lost cause. Through the Indian Independence Act of August 15 1947, they left with immediate effect. This involved the division of the subcontinent along religious lines into the states of India under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), and Pakistan under the founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah (1876–1948). This process featured extreme violence between Hindus and Muslims which resulted in between 200.000 and one million casualties, as well as in a population exchange which was unprecedented in its scale, involving the displacement of over ten million people.68 The British government also folded up the Union Jack in Burma and Ceylon in 1948, though it held on to the colony of Malaya, which was economically very valuable due to its rubber plantations and tin mines, by force up to 1960. The Netherlands failed in its attempt to reclaim Dutch India by violence, and on December 27 1949 the Dutch began their withdrawal from the Indonesian archipelago, due in part to pressure from the United Nations and the USA, which threatened to cancel its assistance to the Netherlands under the Marshall Plan. France, on the other hand, waged a costly war against the Viet Minh from 1945 to 1954 in an attempt to maintain its rule in French Indochina. The Battle of Diên Biên Phu, which occurred between March 13 and May 7 1954 and became the quintessential symbol of the defeat of the "white man", finally sealed the French withdrawal from South East Asia.69
Their victory over European colonialism made the new Asian states important allies of the territories in Africa which were still under colonial rule and resulted in closer ties between anticolonial forces on the two continents. The conference held in the Indonesian city of Bandung on April 18-24 1955, to which Indonesia's revolutionary icon and first president Ahmed Sukarno (1901–1970) invited delegates from 29 Asian and African state as well as representatives of numerous independence movements, became a key moment.70 In their concluding communiqué, the participants collectively condemned colonialism as a fundamental contravention of the principles of the UN Charter and as a serious infringement against human rights. They demanded an immediate end to the practice of colonial rule and pledged support for the campaign to attain this goal. The Afro-Asia bloc which formed in Bandung and out of which emerged the Non-Aligned Countries in 1961, became the international diplomatic spearhead in the fight against European colonialism and had its greatest effect in the context of the United Nations.
The two largest colonial powers – France and Britain – were also on the retreat in the Middle East, the important continental interface between Africa and Asia.71 Paris and London relinquished their mandate rule over Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, which they had held from the period of the League of Nations, directly after the Second World War. The British withdrawal from Palestine was particularly dramatic, with the UN Partition Plan of 1947 and the subsequent Arab-Israeli War of 1948. The final joint attempt of Britain and France to dominate the fate of the region failed in 1956. During this period, Egypt became the leader of the Pan-Arab movement under President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970) and thus the greatest adversary of the two colonial powers.72 On July 26 1956, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, which was of enormous economic and strategic significance and also symbolized British and French power in the region, in an attempt to finally free himself from Western influence. Having first consulted Israel, London and Paris reacted with the military occupation of the Canal Zone on November 5. However, diplomatic pressure from the super powers of USA and the Soviet Union forced them to retreat soon after. The Suez Crisis marked a fundamental turning point which clearly demonstrated the changed reality of global power in the context of the Cold War and clearly signalled the decline of the influence of the colonial powers.73
These signs of the disintegration of European power were not immediately apparent in the African colonies. However, the attempt to further penetrate the region in the context of the "second colonial invasion" was grist for the mill of the anticolonial nationalist movements. In general, the process of decolonization proceeded more slowly in Africa than in Asia, and varied considerably from region to region.74 In West Africa, London and Paris were prepared to implement reforms – due at least in part to the growing financial burden which their colonial endeavours were placing on their national budgets. They gradually transferred political responsibility to autochthonous elites. This resulted, for example, in a largely peaceful transition to independence in Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972) in 1957. However, the situation was completely different in the colonies of "white" settlement in North, Central and East Africa. Here the European settlers insisted on retaining their racially based minority rule, and demanded that the metropoles provide them with military support to deal with growing African resistance. In the British colony of Kenya and French Algeria, which was even officially part of France, two extremely brutal decolonization wars were fought. There were massive resettlements and internments, systematic torture was employed, and grave war crimes were perpetrated against the indigenous populations, with hundreds of thousands of casulties.75
This escalation of colonial violence and the attendant serious violations of human rights resulted in colonialism – particularly with regard to the Algerian War – being increasingly vociferously condemned in the global media and becoming a central topic on the agenda of international politics.76 The Afro-Asian bloc used the United Nations as an anticolonial forum in a very deliberate way, not least because the admittance of former colonies as new members resulted in a significant shift of power within the organization to the advantage of the bloc.77 The wave of new members in 1960 was the apogee of this trend. With 17 African colonies obtaining independence in this year – Belgian rule in the Congo78 also came to an end in this wave – 1960 went down in history as the "year of Africa". The anticolonial bloc immediately utilized its increased strength in the General Assembly to get UN Resolution 1514 (XV) Declaration on Granting Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples passed on December 14 1960. In this ground-breaking document, the international community strengthened the right of nations to self-determination, while also condemning colonialism as a fundamental violation of human rights, thereby removing all justification for colonialism.79
In his famous address to the South African parliament on February 3 1960, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (1894–1986) referred to these developments as the "wind of change". This wind subsequently swept the remaining vestiges of the European colonial empires from the map of the African continent, with three exceptions: the dictatorship in Portugal continued to cling to its overseas empire, and fought the resistance movements in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique with grim determination from 1961 onward. It was the Portuguese Carnation Revolution of April 25 1974 – the causes of which were deeply rooted in the three anachronistic colonial wars – and the subsequent democratic transformation in the metropole which finally brought an end to the rule of the oldest European colonial power on the African continent in 1975.80 The only remaining islands of "white" rule were Rhodesia, which unilaterally separated from London on November 11 1965 under Ian Smith (1919–2007) and managed to survive as a European settler regime through the use of force up to 1979,81 and the South African Apartheid state. In the Cold War conflict, which left bloody traces in Southern Africa in the form of the Angolan Civil War which mutated into a proxy war,82 the racialist regime in Pretoria was viewed by Western governments as an anti-Communist bulwark and a valuable ally.83
The Collapse of the Soviet Empire as a Fourth Phase of Decolonization (1985–1991)
The Soviet Union played a central role in the process of the dissolution of the European colonial empires by providing – in line with the Marxist-Leninist tradition – massive material and moral support to the anticolonial movement worldwide. The USSR sought in this way to gain a decisive advantage over its Cold War rival, the USA, in the newly emerging states in Asia and Africa.84 Paradoxically, the anticolonial super power was itself an imperial entity – perhaps not in the classic sense of the European colonial empires, but in its own specific context.85 Stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific, the "inner empire" was a union of 15 republics with their own borders, which in some cases – such as in the Baltic and the Caucasus – were brought into the union of states by force. The 150 different ethnic groups gathered together in the union were subjected to a deliberate policy of Sovietization, which was intended to establish a common Soviet identity in which the Russian element – with Russian as the lingua franca and Moscow as the centre of power – was dominant. The "outer empire" consisted of the states of East Central Europe which had been occupied by the Red Army during the course of the Second World War and which nominally retained their sovereignty and even became independent members of the United Nations.86 However, Moscow's powerful military presence guaranteed its direct control over these states, and it employed a new wave of Sovietization in order to keep the social, economic and political system in these states in line with its own socialist principles. The military alliance of the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance were institutional manifestations of this bloc formation. Attempts to break out of this bloc prompted the imperial centre to intervene militarily, as it did in 1953 in the GDR, in 1956 in Hungary and in 1968 in Czechoslovakia. Moscow underlined its unrestricted leadership role with the Brezhnev Doctrine of 1968, which stated that Soviet interference in the internal affairs of other socialist states was justified if the socialist community as a whole was threatened.87 The non-European socialist states Cuba, Vietnam and Angola were not directly part of the empire due to the lack of direct access to them, but as allies they formed a kind of "third ring" of the Soviet sphere of power.88
The decolonization of the Soviet empire occurred completely unexpectedly. It occurred between 1985 and 1991 at a very fast pace and not only fundamentally transformed the situation in the periphery, but also brought down the metropole itself due to the close connection between the "outer" and "inner" empire.89 The process was triggered by Mikhail Gorbachev (born 1931), who was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party on March 11 1985, thereby becoming the new strong man at the centre of power in Moscow. He reacted to the desperate economic circumstances in the Soviet Union, which were not least a result of the extremely high military expenditure resulting from the Cold War arms race, with large "reforms from above". He did not intend that these reforms would dissolve the Soviet empire. Rather, he wished to consolidate it and point it in a new direction.90 In terms of domestic politics, the intention was to fundamentally restructure the economic system and to democratize the political system, as reflected by the two catchwords "Perestroika" (restructuring) and "Glasnost" (openness). In the area of foreign policy, Gorbachev's policy of "new thinking" aimed at a rapprochement with the West and peaceful coexistence in a shared "European house". To this end, he reopened direct negotiations with the USA on armaments reduction, announced a unilateral reduction of the number of Soviet troops in the Eastern Bloc states, and brought an end to the bloody Afghanistan War, which had begun in 1979, by completely withdrawing the Red Army.91
This change of direction in foreign policy brought about a fundamental change in the relationship between the Soviet Union and its satellite states of the "outer" empire. Gorbachev now granted these states the free and independent choice of their own political and social system without any form of interference from Moscow in their internal affairs (Sinatra Doctrine), which constituted a radical break with the previous foreign policy dogma of the Brezhnev Doctrine. With the withdrawal of its "imperial watchman" (the Red Army) from 1988 onward, Moscow increasingly relinquished direct control over the states in Eastern Central Europe, thereby releasing them into complete independence.92 Without military support from Moscow, the pro-Soviet regimes in these countries could no longer suppress the movements for democracy, as they had done for a long time. In the revolutionary year of 1989, the old regimes collapsed in a veritable chain reaction. It began with Poland and then Hungary, which was the first state to cut through the Iron Curtain, followed by the peaceful revolution in the GDR and the highly symbolic fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9 1989. By the end of the year, the Communist regimes had also fallen in Czechoslovakia ("Velvet Revolution"), in Bulgaria, and – after a violent overthrow – in Romania also.93 The institutional manifestations of the "outer" empire disappeared in 1991 with the dissolution of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance and the Warsaw Pact.
The imperial retreat outside the Soviet Union also undermined central power within the Soviet Union, which was already weakened. The nationalities question which had raised its head during the course of the reforms then ignited in a veritable "explosion of ethnicity"94 and resulted in bloody confrontations, such as between Armenia and Azerbaijan.95 In particular, the Baltic republics and the republics in the Caucasus, which had been brought into the union by force, became nationalist flashpoints and ignited a conflagration. Revolutionary forces developed here which openly campaigned for secession from the union and demanded independence from Moscow. Lithuania led the way, declaring national independence on March 11 1990, followed by Latvia (May 4 1990) and finally Estonia (May 8 1990). Neither limited Soviet military interventions in Tiflis, Baku and Vilnius nor an attempted putsch against Gorbachev by the old Soviet cadres in the summer of 1991 were able to stop this process. After the largest Soviet republic (the Russian Republic) under its president Boris Yeltsin (1931–2007) had expressed its opposition to the maintenance of the old union, the end of the Soviet Union was finally sealed when the red flag of the union was taken down from above the Kremlin on December 25 1991.96 The dissolution of the inner Soviet empire led to the establishment of 15 new states from Eastern Europe to Central Asia, which – with the exception of the Baltic republics and Georgia – entered a loose affiliation in the form of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).97 The fourth wave of decolonization thus contributed to the dissolution of the core Soviet empire ("the last empire of the 20th century"),98 brought an end to the bipolar global order and helped to overcome the division of Europe which had existed since 1945.
In Southern Africa, the decolonization of the Soviet empire brought an end to the proxy war in Angola, which had been ongoing since 1975.99 As part of the process of rapprochement and de-escalation between the super powers, a UN treaty between Angola, Cuba and South Africa was signed on December 22 1988, in which the three parties directly involved in the conflict agreed that the Cuban troops would be withdrawn from Angola, and the South African army would withdraw from Southwest Africa. This enabled the former German colony to achieve national independence under the name Namibia. In turn, this withdrawal from the conflicts in Angola and Namibia had direct consequences for the "inner decolonization" of South Africa.100 After Pretoria had lost its function as bulwark against Communism, the West increased its diplomatic and economic pressure on the South African regime, in order to force it to relinquish its policy of Apartheid. Total isolation among the international community coupled with enormous internal resistance to Apartheid forced the government under the new president Frederik Willem de Klerk (1936–1921) to negotiate with the African National Congress (ANC).101 After the Apartheid laws had been rescinded, the leader of the ANC, Nelson Mandela (1918–2013), was released from prison after 27 years of captivity on February 11 1990, and the process of democratization began to assume concrete form. With the election of Mandela as the first black president of South Africa on April 27 1994, the last remaining vestiges of direct white colonial rule on the African continent disappeared. South Africa is thus a special case in the history of decolonization. With the attainment of dominion status in 1910 and the subsequent gradual achievement of national sovereignty from the British Empire, with the direct effects which the disintegration of the Soviet empire had on it, and with the hard-won transfer of rule from the "white" population to the indigenous population, South Africa combined central elements of the second, third and fourth waves of decolonization.
From the late-18th century, decolonization was a central defining historical trend, which shaped the global system of states as it exists today through the release of destructive and constructive forces. On the one hand, the dissolution of the colonial empires contributed considerably to the end of Europe's centuries-long unchallenged global dominance and to the disintegration of the Eurocentric global order. New non-European global powers, such as the United States, assumed a dominant role and filled the political vacuum. On the other hand, new states came into being on all of the continents, and in many cases adopted a political, social and economic system which was rooted in Europe. In spite of its revolutionary character – with the exception of the second phase – and the obvious breaks with the past, decolonization nonetheless by no means meant that close links between Europe and the rest of the world completely or abruptly disappeared. On the contrary, it was possible in the context of decolonization to restructure and redefine this web of relationships. Dependency relationships which emerged during colonial rule did not simply end with the attainment of "formal" national independence. Instead, previous political and economic asymmetries often persisted in the "informal" context and hampered independent approaches to development in the former "colonized world".102 The extent to which the paradigm of globalization, which currently appears very popular, can be usefully applied to the analysis of these processes is hotly debated in historical studies.103
Decolonization was not a one-way street. The European continent did not just leave its mark on the "rest of the world" without itself being affected in a lasting way. Specifically, the methodological change of perspective brought about by Postcolonial Studies104 has demonstrated that it was a reciprocal, multidimensional process which left lasting traces in the periphery as well as in the metropole. The historical debates about the various effects of decolonization on the metropole are in full swing105 and demonstrate how significant the topic is for a European historiography which incorporates the view from outside Europe.106 Together, the four phases of decolonization have profoundly affected the relationship of the continent to the rest of the world right up to the present, as these processes connected the history of Europe with that of the other continents in important ways for a period of more than 200 years.