At its height the British Empire had some measure of control over ¼ of the worlds population, an imperial super power by any definition. Between 1922 and 1960 however, it lost the majority of its colonies, and while still a large world influence, England was no longer the grand empire it once was. While there are several contributing factors to the demise of British colonial reign, I argue that the happening and conclusion of WWII was a catalyst and driving influence for England’s rapid decolonization.
In the late 1930s-early 1940s Churchill continually reassured the masses that England and its colonies were united as ever. As shown by the propaganda pamphlets on the left, it was not a shared sentiment among those in the colonies. Britain involved the colonies in the war without consultation, making the colonials evermore frustrated with Britain’s continued exploitation and disregard. With little choice, they contributed to the war effort, resulting in subjects from the colonies fighting alongside Americans and British alike. From this they learned of, and quickly became envious of, an ideal form of government from the Americans. They mocked the democracy they were fighting for, when it was something they themselves had yet to experience. They grew even more frustrated as they were introduced to western technology and lifestyle. Marie Parkers’ account of her time stationed at a hospital in India explains that the locals didn’t even know what a toothbrush was (Parker 1942). Colonial soldiers were also disillusioned of England’s invincibility. Soldiers were witness to several British war embarrassments, namely where British troops lost control of Singapore to a smaller Japanese army (Boulan 2013). This military failure, among others, gave those in the colonies confidence in rebelling against England. This newfound doubt of Britain’s capabilities was key as Britain often relied on bluster and the illusion of military grandeur, rather than actual force, to keep the colonies in line. As Lawrence James said, the war “had produced fighting men less deferential, more politically radical and aware of the world than their predecessors in 1918”. With that newfound awareness and confidence, rebellion broke out against England, leading to decolonization.
England was not equipped to handle dissonance in the colonies post WWII. The war-torn country had lost 28% of its wealth, as well as racked up E1,200 million in debt to India and $30 billion in goods to the US, creating an economic crisis (Boulan 2013). The general public was also in mourning, over 380,000 people died during the war, and those who survived were less than eager to go to war with the colonies (Hitler Historical Museum 1996). These factors, among others, resulted in England not having enough men, money, or resources to expend on keeping their territories in check. The colonies became low priority as the government frantically tried to rebuild infrastructure and get the economy back on track at home.
England had a massive debt to both India and the anti-imperialist United States in the wake of WWII. This debt was so substantial that it has led some historians to hypothesis that British decolonization was contributed mostly to pressure from the United States. England putting their colonies up ‘for sale’ being a move to placate their new ally. There was indeed tension between the US and England over imperialism, to the point that there was anti-British propaganda in the U.S. (Warwick digital collection 1941). However, many point out that this view ignores the dissonance within the colonies as well as the influence the USSR had on U.S. imperialistic views. In the end it was a blend of all of these components that led to Britain giving up its world rule. The effects of WWII were a catalyst of all the right conditions to destabilize the British Empire.
Boulan, Valentin. 2013. “What impact did the Second World War Have upon British imperial authority?” wordpress. Accessed November 30, 2016. https://publishistory.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/what-impact-did-the-second-world-war-have-upon-british-imperial-authority/
Congress, Trades Union. 1941. “Anti-British propaganda.” Warwick Digital Collections. Accessed November 29, 2016. http://contentdm.warwick.ac.uk/
New World Encyclopedia. 2015. “British Empire.” New World Encylopedia. July 31. Accessed November 30, 2016. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/British_Empire.
Indian Independence League. circa 1939. “ILL WW2 Propaganda Leaflet.” blogspot. Accessed November 30, 2016. http://stampomania.blogspot.com/2011/04/declaration-of-war-against-britain-and.html.
Hitler Historical Museum. 1996. “World War 2 Death Count.” Hitler.org. Accessed November 30, 2016. http://www.hitler.org/ww2-deaths.html
Parker, Marie. 1942. “The Voices of World War II.” wwiihistoryclass.com. Accessed November 30, 2016. http://www.wwiihistoryclass.com/education/transcripts/Parker_M_143.pdf.
Unknown. 1939. “1930’s Illustration, Magazines, Posters and Advertising.” Pinterest. Accessed November 30, 2016. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/134474738847274509/.