5.17 Africa

Postwar Conflict

While the cases of India and Israel were, and are, of tremendous geopolitical significance, the most striking case of decolonization at the time was the wave of independence movements across Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. Africa had been the main target of the European imperialism of the late nineteenth century. The Scramble for Africa was both astonishingly quick (lasting from the 1880s until about 1900) and amazingly complete, with all of Africa but Liberia and Ethiopia taken over by one European state or another. In the postwar era, almost every African country secured independence just as quickly; the whole edifice of European empire in Africa collapsed as rapidly as it had arisen a bit over a half century earlier.

In turn, in some places this process was peaceful, but in many it was extremely violent. In West Africa, the former colony of the Gold Coast became well known for its charismatic independence leader Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah not only successfully led Ghana to independence in 1957 after a peaceful independence movement and negotiations with the British, but founded a movement called Pan-Africanism in which, he hoped, the nations of Africa might join together in a “United States of Africa” that would achieve parity with the other great powers of the world to the betterment of Africans everywhere. His vision was of a united African league, possibly even a single nation, whose collective power, wealth, and influence would ensure that outside powers would never again dominate Africans. While that vision did not come to pass, the concept of pan-Africanism was still vitally important as an inspiration for other African independence movements at the time.

In Kenya, in contrast, hundreds of thousands of white colonists were not interested in independence from Britain. By 1952, a complex web of nationalist rebels, impoverished villagers and farmers, and counter-insurgent fighters plunged the country into a civil war. The British and native white Kenyans reacted to the uprising by creating concentration camps, imprisoning rebels and slowly starving them to death in the hills. The rebels, disparagingly referred to as “Mau Maus” (meaning something like “hill savages”), in turn, attacked white civilians, in many cases murdering them outright. Finally, after 11 years of war, Kenya was granted its independence and elected a former Mau Mau leader as its first president. Ironically, while British forces were in a dominant position militarily, the British state was financially over-extended. Thus, Britain granted Kenyan independence in 1963. While most former colonies adopted official policies of racial equality, and for the first time since the Scramble black Africans achieved political power almost everywhere, there was one striking exception: South Africa. South Africa had always been an unusual British colony, with the 21% of its population that was white divided between the descendants of British settlers and the older Dutch colony of Afrikaners who had been conquered and then incorporated by the British at the end of the nineteenth century. The Afrikaners in particular were virulently racist and intransigent, unwilling to share power with the black majority. As early as 1950 white South Africans (British and Afrikaner alike) emphatically insisted on the continuation of a policy known as Apartheid: the legal separation of whites and blacks and the complete subordination of the latter to the former.

South Africa became independent from Britain in 1961, but Apartheid remained as the backbone of the South African legal system, systematically repressing and oppressing the majority black population. Even as overtly racist laws were repealed elsewhere – not least in the United States as a result of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s – Apartheid remained resolutely intact. That system would remain in place until 1991, when the system finally collapsed and the long-imprisoned anti-Apartheid activist leader Nelson Mandela was released, soon becoming South Africa’s first black president.

British colonies were not alone in struggling to achieve independence, nor in the legacy of racial division that remained from the period of colonization. One of the most violent struggles for independence of the period of decolonization in Africa occurred in the French territory of Algeria. The struggles surrounding Algerian independence, which began in 1952, were among the bloodiest wars of decolonization. Hundreds of thousands of Algerians died, along with tens of thousands of French and pieds noires (“black feet,” the white residents of Algeria). The heart of the conflict had to do with a concept of French identity: particularly on the political right, many French citizens felt that France’s remaining colonies were vital to its status as an important geopolitical power. Likewise, many in France were ashamed of the French defeat and occupation in World War II and refused to simply give up France’s empire without a struggle. This sentiment was felt particularly acutely by the French officer corps, with many French officers having only ever been on the losing side of wars (World War II and Indochina).They were thus determined to hold on to Algeria at all costs.

On the other hand, many French citizens realized all too well that the values the Fourth French Republic supposedly stood for – liberty, equality, and fraternity – were precisely what had been denied the native people of Algeria since it was first conquered by France during the restored monarchy under the Bourbons in the early nineteenth century. In fact, “native” Algerians were divided legally along racial and religious lines: Muslim Arab and Berber Algerians were denied access to political power and usually worked in lower-paying jobs, while white, Catholic Algerians (descendants of both French and Italian settlers) were fully enfranchised French citizens. In 1954, a National Liberation Front (FLN) composed of Arab and Berber Algerians demanded independence from France and launched a campaign of attacks on both French officials and, soon, pieds noires civilians. The French response was brutal. French troops, many fresh from the defeat in Indochina, responded to the National Liberation Front with complete disregard for human rights, the legal conduct of soldiers in relation to civilians, or concern for the guilt or innocence of those suspected of supporting the rebellion. Infamously, the army resorted almost immediately to a systematic campaign of torture against captured rebels and those suspected of having information that could aid the French. Algerian civilians were often caught in the middle of the fighting, with the French army targeting the civilian populace when it saw fit. While the torture campaign was kept out of the press, rumors of its prevalence soon spread to continental France, inspiring an enormous debate as to the necessity and value of holding on to Algeria. The war grew in Algeria even as France itself was increasingly torn apart by the conflict.

Within a few years, as the anti-war protest campaign grew in France itself, many soldiers both in Algeria and in other parts of France and French territories grew disgusted with what they regarded as the weak-kneed vacillation on the part of republican politicians. Those soldiers created ultra-rightist terrorist groups, launching attacks on prominent intellectuals who spoke out against the war. Troops launched an attempted coup in Algeria in 1958 and briefly succeeded in seizing control of the French-held island of Corsica as well.

One of the most polarizing figures of the twentieth century was Frenchman Charles de Gaulle. He advocated socialist ideals that were unacceptable to the United States at the height of the Cold War, but he was also a hero of the French Resistance and a savvy statesman. It was in this context of near-civil war, with the government of the Fourth Republic paralyzed and the prospect of a new right-wing military dictatorship all too real, that the leader of the Free French forces in World War II, Charles de Gaulle, volunteered to “rescue” France from its predicament, with the support of the army. He placated the army temporarily, but when it became clear he intended to pull France out of Algeria, a paramilitary terrorist group twice tried to assassinate him. De Gaulle narrowly survived the assassination attempts and forced through a new constitution that vested considerable new powers in the office of the president. De Gaulle opened negotiations with the FLN in 1960, leading to the ratification of Algerian independence in 1962 by a large majority of French voters. Despite being an ardent believer in the French need for “greatness,” De Gaulle was perceptive enough to know that the battle for Algeria was lost before it had begun.

Charles De Gaulle. 1991. Films on Demand. 13:56.

If you get a message that the video cannot be authenticated, use the link below: https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod-infobase-com.ccco.idm.oclc.org/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=2588.

In the aftermath of the Algerian War, millions of white Algerians moved to France, many of them feeling betrayed and embittered. They became the core of a new French political far-right, openly racist and opposed to immigration from France’s former colonies. Many members of that resurgent right-wing coalesced in the first openly fascistic party in France since the end of World War II: the Front National. Racist, anti-Semitic, and obsessed with a notion of French identity embedded in the culture of the Vichy Regime (i.e. the French fascist puppet state under Nazi occupation), the National Front remains a powerful force in French politics to this day. 


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book