World War II: Colonialism


Figure 1.--These Ukranian boys and their parents had no idea what the NAZIs planned for them when the Whermact invaded the Soviet Union. NAZI propaganda attacked the British and French for their colonial empires. In fact, Hitler's primary war aim was to carve out a vast colonial empire for Germasny. Only Germany's empire would be in Europe--the East. And unlike the other European countries, Hitler intended to Germanize his new empire. The Slavs were to be eliminated, driven beyond the Urals, or reduced to Helot slave laborers. Other non-Germans like the Baltseated somewhat more favorably. This photograph was taken by a German soldier who also probably did not know what Hitler and Himmler was planning.

European colonialism was a factor in World War II. It affected several campaigns in a variety of ways. Most of the major combatants were either colonial powes are aspired to be so. And some of the colonized peoples played a variety of roles in the War, both supporting and resisting the colonizing country. The two major colonial powers were Britain and France. Their colonies increased the resources available to fight the War. This was primarily the case for Britain as the Germans in the first year of the War invaded and defeated France. Some of the British Empire countries had obtained Dominion status (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa) and voluntarily joined Britain in the War, playing very important roles. The issue of colonialism was one of the few issues dividing America and Britain during the War. The French Empire became contested by Vichy and the Free French. While not often classified as one, the Soviet Union was also a colonial powers with ethnic Russians ruleing over many other national groups in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The Axis countries (Germany, Italy, and Japan) were countries aspiring to carve out and enlarge colonial empires. This was in fact the major reason why they launched World War II. The colonial people reacted differently to the War. India was Britain's major colony and played an important role, although complicated by Congress' refusal to support the British. The Arabs reacted to the War in large measure according to who the colonial power was which in most cases was Britain and France. NAZI Germany's anti-semitism was another factor.

The Allies

The two major colonial powers were Britain and France. Their colonies increased the resources available to fight the War. This was primarily the case for Britain as the Germans in the first year of the War invaded and defeated France. The issue of colonialism was the major issue on which America and Britain disagreed. Churchill in fact believed strongly in the British Empire and only the German threat forced him to accepot the wording the Americans wanted in the Atantic Chasrter.

Britain

Britain was the world's premier colonial power. The Empire played an important role in Britain's World War I victory. The Empire played an even more important role in World war II. Some of the British Empire countries had obtained Dominion status (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa) and voluntarily joined Britain in the War, playing very important roles. Each of the Dominions were by themselves of only limited importance, but when considered as a whole became a major force. Imperisal possessions also played roles in the war. The British Indian Army played a key role in the Middle East. Two colonies were occupied by the Japanese (Burma and Malayia). The Japanese victory in Burma brought them to the border of India. The Empire was a major source of raw materials for the British war effort, providing important resources that the Germans lacked. Iraqi oil fueled the British fleet based in Alexandria as xwell as the 8th Anmy in the Western Desert. One of the reasons why the British were able to prevail when the Germans failed to win the war in the first 2 years. As in World War I, Germany was not able to win obce the War turned into a war of attrition. Unlike World War I, food did not prove to be decisive. In World War II it proved to be oil which America had in large supply and the British had begun to extract in the Middle East.

France

The French Empire became contested by Vichy and the Free French. France fell to the Germans (June 1940), so the French Empire, unlike World War I, was unable to offer much support to the French war effort. Most of the colonies declared alegience to Vichy. And some even supported Axis military and covert activities to vary degrees. This gradually changed as the War progressed. The British Royal Navy and the American Navy were factors here. The British and Free French launched several campaigns to replace Vichy authorities. German military reverses and expanding Allies naval power brought the remaining colonies over to the Free French after the Torch Landings in North Africa (November 1942).

Netherlands

The Dutch were neutral in World War I asnd wanted to remain neutral when Hitler lsaunched World War II. This time H\Germany invaded the Netherlasnds as well as Belgium. The Dutch like the French were invaded and occupied by the Germans (May 1940). Queen Wilihmina fled to London and set up a government in exile. The Dutch colonies remained loyal to that government. One was of critical importance--the Dutch East Indies (DEI). When after Japan invaded Indochina, America which was Japan's major supplier cut off oil exports. This meant Japan had to either end its aggresive poliy and withdraw from China or go to war. Japan would chose war. And the principal prize of the resulting Pacific War would be the oil fields of the DEI.

United States

The issue of colonialism was one of the few major issues dividing America and Britain during the War. This was a topic on which President Roosevelt and Prime-Minister Churchill disagreed. It came up at their first meeting and Churchill objected to provisions proposed in the Atlsntic Charter. (August 1941). And the issue of colonialism came up many times at War time conferences. America's only major colony was the Philippine Islands. Unlike many of the European countries, the United States found itself paying more to fund colonial administration than any economic value achieved. Well before the War, the United States had agreed to Philippine independence. In fact, independence was delayed only by the Japanese invasion (December 1941).

Soviet Union

While not often classified as one, the Soviet Union was a majorbcolonial powers with ethnic Russians ruleing over many other national groups in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Curiously, Stalin himself was not a Russian, but a Georgian. And Stalin was determined to recover the several non-Russian populated areas of the old Tsarist Empire. The result was the NAZI-Societ Non-Aggression Pact (1939). After the War, the Soviets despite the propaganda attacks on European colonislism, the Soviets proceeded to construct their own colonial empire in Eastern Europe, accomplishing in part whst the NAZIs had tried to achieve, but without the racial component.

The Axis

The Axis countries (Germany, Italy, and Japan) were countries aspiring the carve out and enlarge colonial empires. This was in fact the major reason why they launched World War II. Here the major focus was on the resources, not the people living on the territories to be acquired. Here the Axis powers differed, both from each other and former imperial colonizers

Germany

Hitler in Mein Kampf waxes enviously about the resources of the East and Germasns need for Lebensraum and resources. One reason that the Whermascht High Command was so reluctant about Hitler's initial step for War was Germany's limited resources and industrial capacity. The major powers when Hitler began his meteoric rise was Britain with its Empire, the Soviet Union, and the United Stastes. The idea that Germany could conquer Europe seemed mad. Only temerity and miscalulations by the Allies (Britain and France) and the Soviet Union, gave Hitler his chance. Even so he had to launch the major war of the 20th century involving mechanized warfare without significant oil resources and with an army that still heavily dependenty on horses. The highly professional, and brutal, Wehrmacht was to bring Hitler close to wining the War despite Germany's limited resources. Hitler was not anxious to clearly enuciate their war aims in the way that Chirchill and Rossevelt did in the Atlantic charter. This was because the aims would only alienate other Europeans. Hitler's vision for Europe, especially the East was a vast colonial empire. The economies of Western Europe were to be reoriented toward the Reich, but the East would be NAZI Germany's European colonies. That vission was expressed in Generalplan Ost. There was a major difference between the NAZI concept of coloniaslism than thast of the other European powers. The first non-German people Hitler seozed were the Czechs (March 1939). He had assured Primen\minister Chsmberlain that he wanted no Czechs. Here he was not realy lieing. He didn't want Czechs--he wanted the territory not the people. But even with this first foreign acquisition, the basic problen for the NAZIs emerged. Hitler and many NAZIs wanted to racially purify not only the Reich, but also the Eastern domains. Yet to fight the War successfully they needed the Czechs to serve as a labor force. Thus there was no major effor at ethnic clleansing. The same problem presented itself with their next step Poland (September 1939). Here there were ethnic cleanings operations, but Hitler had to constrain Himmler so as not to totally disrupt the Polish economy. And this conflict between ethnic cleansings and running a war time economy followed the Germans into the Soiviet Union (June 1941). The NAZI impulse for colonial control, supression of nationalist groups, ethnic cleasing, indescriminate violence, forced labor roundups, and plunder alienated populations that would have willingly joined Hitler's anti-Bolshevik crusade. Ironically a SS study group warned that Germsany could have raciasl purity or imperial dominions, but it could not have both. [Kotkin]

Italy

Italy had aspirations to become a great colonial power. After World War I it had moved against Libyan nationslists. The first major aggression of the European Axis was the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (1935). Allied complaints in the League of Nations alliensted Mussolini who increasingly moved toward Hitler and the NAZIs. Hitler showed some appreciation for Mussolini's support, but the two never clearly set out the deparation of their imperial spheres. Both countries were expanionist, but there was a major difference. Hitler wanted to expand, but he also wanted a racially pure Reich. Thus the people on the land he wanted had to be removed. The Italians approsch was more assimilation and aculturation. The Italians wanted to seize British and French possessions in North Africa and to move into the Balkans. Italy was the weakest of the three major Axis countries. The country, however, did not have the industry to support a modern military. Mussolini's Army proved to be a hallow shell, poorly eqquipped and trained and with no real desire to fight. Hitler had to intervene to support the Italians both in North Africa and the Balkans. The Itaian Navy proved more of a challenge to the British. The only major Italian successes in the War was seizing British Somaliland from a small British garrison (1940). The next year, the British and Ethiopians liberated Ethiopia and seized the rsst of Italian East Africa. Thanks to the intervention of Rommels's Africa Korps (1941),s eizing Libya proved more difficult. The Battle of El Alemain opened up Libya to the British (1942). Mussolini was removed after the fall of Sicily (July 1943). The Italians withdrew from the War when the Allies invaded (September 1943). This also mean the end of their Balkan colonies.

Japan


Colonial Peoples

The colonial people reacted differently to the War. India was Britain's major colony and played an important role, although complicated by Congress' refusal to support the British. The Arabs reacted to the War in large measure according to who the colonial power was which in most cases was Britain and France. NAZI Germany's anti-semitism was another factor.

India

The independence movement led by Mahatma Ghandi and the Congress Party gained considerable strength during the 1920s and 30s. The British were having increasing difficulties governing India. India was Britain's major colony and played an important role in the early phase of the War, especially in the Middle East. Indian units helped the British hold Egypt and overthrough a pro-NAZI coup in Iraq. The Indian role was complicated by Congress' refusal to support the British. Indian units helped the British repulse the Japanese invssion from Burma. India was also an important source of raw cmaterials for the Btitish war effort. Axis efforts to undermibe British rule were not effective. The War proved, however, to be the death nell of the British Raj.

The Arabs

The Arabs reacted to the War in large measure according to who the colonial power was which in most cases was Britain and France. NAZI Germany's anti-semitism was another factor, especially in Palestine and the surrounding countries. Iraq attempted to join the Axis and therewas also support for the Axis in Syria. The Grand Mufti had tried to drive the British out of Palestine even before the War began. The Young Officers in Egyot were prepared to offer the Afrika Korps with open arms. The Libyans having experienced Axus (Italian) colonial rule were less enthusiastic. Arab leaders for the most part seemed oblivious to the New Order that an Axis victory would have brought. While British and French colonialism may have been unpleasant to the Arabs, it was nothing like Italin and German colonial rule would have been and that is not even including the NAZI racial attituides toward Arabs. And even after the War, Aran leaders (the Bath and Moslem Brotherhood) continued to be influnced by NAZI totalitarianism.

Sources

Kotlin, S. "World War II and labor: A lost cause?" International Labor and Working-Class HistoryVol. 58 (Fall 2000), pp. 181-91.





CIH







Navigate the CIH World War II Pages:
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Introduction] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Climatology] [Clothing] [Disease and Health] [Economics] [Geography] [History] [Human Nature] [Law]
[Nationalism] [Presidents] [Religion] [Royalty] [Science] [Social Class]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Children in History Home]





Created: 10:34 PM 7/10/2008
Last updated: 7:49 AM 7/1/2009