Breaking the status quo

For Asians, from India to China in particular, World War II would be a fabulous catalyst and would change the status quo. Many in Asia and elsewhere were not happy with the colonial status. Japan demolished the United States in the Philippines in 1942. The Dutch, who were in Indonesia, occupied Indochina and beat the British in Malaysia. Singapore fell in 1942. The chaos generated by the war encouraged all those who wished to put an end to their subjection.

The Japanese had demonstrated that the order imposed by the “whites” could be challenged. The disorder brought about by the war allowed nationalists as well as “Marxist-Leninist” revolutionaries to organize the conditions of a future liberation, in most cases by the force of weapons.

The turning point of the 1930s

In Morocco, although Abd el-Krim’s insurrection had been crushed in 1926, “pacification” operations were extended until 1934. In Nicaragua, the United States defeated Augusto Sandino’s insurrection (1927-1933). During this period, two organizations would stand out for their use of terrorism in their attempt to make a national cause triumph. One was the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), from 1890 to the 1930s. The IMRO would perpetrate the most spectacular attack of this half a century against the Sofia Cathedral in Bulgaria, killing nearly one hundred eighty political leaders and international representatives during high mass. But politically, it would fail. The other organization was the Irish Revolutionary Army (IRA) (1919-1921), led by Michael Collins who managed, shortly after World War I, to wrest the independence of Ireland (Eire), except for Ulster, where the majority of the population were Presbyterian protestants who had migrated to Ireland from England centuries earlier.

Outside of the North West Frontier, where insurrections were chronic, the major feature of the British way was to use primarily its police force. It was only when the latter failed to maintain order that the army intervened as a last resort. In India, the country was held by seventy thousand British soldiers for two hundred fifty million inhabitants. Very quickly, Gandhi’s passive-resistance movement gave protests a unique style. Riots were rare: during the Moplah Rebellion in 1921 and at Peshawar in 1930.

A colonial power dominating a considerable share of the world’s Muslims while having, through their reading of the Old Testament, particular bonds with the Jewish religious tradition—which was not the case in the Catholic states—Great Britain was in an ambiguous position. The ambiguity had already been expressed in the very terms of the Balfour Declaration (1917), in which a “national home” was to be provided for the Jewish people without encroaching on the prerogatives of the local populations.

In 1920, Arab enmity to the Jews was very clear; these were perceived as foreigners in every way, and culturally closer to the British than to the Arabs. The situation became worse after 1933, when some sixty-five thousand Jews emigrated to Palestine, including many from Germany. Riots broke out against the British, and in 1936, attacks were perpetrated against the Jewish settlers and were followed by a general strike of nearly one week, showing the extent of the movement of rejection.

It became necessary to resort to arbitration by the Peel Commission (1937), which proposed a partition into two states, a Jewish state in north and an Arab state in the South with, in the center, a buffer zone controlled by the British. Neither of the parties agreed to the Commission’s proposals. Armed hostilities increased while Arab volunteers came from Iraq to bolster the Arabs in Palestine. A British officer, Orde Wingate, trained units of the Jewish armed group Haganah to protect the Jewish settlements. Order was nonetheless restored. A conference held in London committed to restricting Jewish immigration and considered granting independence with no partition, which satisfied the Arabs temporarily and raised Jewish indignation.

The last act of the British Mandate would be played in 1944-1947, in an impassioned climate in which the Jewish side was determined to use force to compel Great Britain to change its policy. In the end, the destiny of Palestine would be entrusted to the United Nations, which would decide on a partition plan that the Arabs would reject. By winning the war (1948-1949) against four Arab armies (Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq, and Syria), Israel would ensure its right to existence.

The great Paris Colonial Exhibition (1931) symbolized both the pinnacle of the colonial period and its swan song. In Vietnam, the Yên Bái uprisings of the 1930s were brutally repressed. Protests were being heard in France. The young André Malraux prefaced Andrée Viollis’s explosive report, Indochine SOS (Gallimard, 1936).

But in the Far East in 1937, the situation was already changing radically. The Japanese, who had been in Manchuria since 1931, were engaging in an overall attack on China. The Chinese Communist Party had suffered serious reversals in urban areas (1927) and had retreated to rural areas. Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang tried in vain to destroy the Communist Party in 1930. The annihilation campaign was followed by three, better organized ones between 1931 and 1934. The last campaign forced the Communists to withdraw to Shaanxi in the north. The pressure from the Japanese led the Chinese nationalists to impose an anti-Japanese alliance on their leaders.

During the Communists’ retreat, known as the Long March, Mao Zedong became the unquestioned leader of the party apparatus (1934-1935). It was during the period extending from 1936 to 1938 that he innovated on the ground and managed to change the Communists’ guerrilla warfare into revolutionary warfare.

The Japanese were not, however, seeing the Communists as the main adversary. The Kuomintang seemed more dangerous to them, and in fact the Communist guerrillas had launched only one major offensive, in 1940. In 1941-1942, the Japanese unleashed a fierce repression policy for which the Communists paid a heavy price, as they lost one-fourth of their troops.


Effects of the Great War

Already, shortly after World War I, while the colonial system was at its peak, harbingers of its possible decline had appeared, to which perhaps out of pure sufficiency, not enough attention was paid. This was the case for the Rif insurrection.

Abd el-Krim inflicted a severe defeat on the Spanish forces at Annual, in the Spanish Sahara (Rif region). About twelve thousand men were killed (1922)! In the years that followed, the Rif insurrectionists went largely beyond the perimeter held by Spain. In the spring of 1925, it opened the road to Fez. Out of some sixty-five outposts, the French troops had to evacuate about thirty of them in haste and lost a dozen. That year, Abd el-Krim’s forces amounted to twenty thousand men and ten thousand back-up troops. They had about one hundred 75 mm field guns and machine guns taken from the enemy. To oppose this advance and counter Abd el-Krim, no less than a hundred thousand men were needed, with support of artillery and aviation. Abd el-Krim surrendered the following year. But what was new was the extent of the means henceforth necessary to win, in singular contrast with those needed before the Great War.

During World War I, the western front was the main theater—the eastern front had collapsed as testified by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk while the Gallipoli (Dardanelles) Campaign had been a costly failure— in a classic conflict, where belligerents discovered just how much fire was lethal, and that applying the ‘attaque à outrance’ (all-out offensive) doctrine got nowhere while devouring men.

Guerrilla warfare, at the time, was playing only a very marginal part in secondary theaters. Two figures stood out in it: Thomas Edward (“T.E.”) Lawrence and Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck. The first belonged to the winning side. “To the frontal offensive at all costs that prevailed at the time, the irregular soldier that was Lawrence substituted a dynamic use of space, thus changing into an advantage the weaknesses of the Bedouins, who were unfit for the cohesion of a disciplined shock troop. . . . His advantages: accurate intelligence to prepare effective raids, surprise, material superiority at a selected point (machine guns, mortar), and mobility.”1

Lawrence, a British agent dispatched by his state to try to exploit to the advantage of Great Britain the anti-Ottoman revolt being led by the Sharif of Mecca, carried out his mission remarkably well, with creativity and courage. Thereafter, he would transform it into a literary work.

The second character, a Prussian officer, arrived in Tanganyika, then a German colony, with about two hundred German officers and two thousand local back-up troops, to face down one hundred fifty thousand men of the British army.2 Using guerilla-warfare techniques, falling back when necessary to close-by Mozambique, he finished the war unvanquished and did not surrender until several weeks after the Armistice. He was welcomed in Germany as a hero. His testimony, a factual report, is very interesting but does not have Lawrence’s literary genius. Moreover, he belonged to the losing side.

When World War I ended, the two major colonial states divided up most of defeated Germany’s possessions: Tanganyika, the African southwest, Cameroon, and Togo in Africa, and all its island possessions in the Pacific.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement and Kemalist Turkey

The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), which had planned a three-way division from which Bolshevik Russia was now excluded, was applied in its main features. In 1920, the Ottoman sultan signed the Treaty of Sèvres. This treaty was a compromise between what had been provided by Sykes and Picot, and US President Woodrow Wilson’s will to add the granting of Armenia. And so a state, cut out on a map, was granted to the Armenians who had survived the mass killings of 1915-1916, which would be later designated as genocide.3

The Ottoman Empire, reduced to Turkey, was severed in the northeast of the future Armenia (which the survivors hardly populated anymore and did not have the means to defend except in the event of a US mandate, as was President Wilson’s intention) and in the southeast of Cilicia, which came under French protectorate.4 As for the southwest, it came under the authority of Italy, a late-coming ally. The straits (to which the Russians had aspired) were controlled de facto by the British Empire. Meanwhile, the Greeks, concentrated on the Ionian coast, wished to widen, with military means, the settlement area that they had occupied around Smyrna for nearly three thousand years…

The treaty was accepted by the sultan, but Mustafa Kemal, the hero of Dardanelles, having gathered a national parliament in Ankara and having armed forces at his disposal, was opposed to it. The colonial dismemberment left to the Turkish state only a portion of territory in the northern center of the country.

Two years later, Mustafa Kemal reversed the situation by the force of arms. The Armenians were easily driven back around Erevan; the French, deprived of military means, were forced to leave Cilicia. The Greeks started an offensive with no logistics or political cohesion and collapsed while Smyrna went up in flames.

Mustafa Kemal established an officially homogeneous nation state, based on the European model—just like in its time Meji’s Japan had done. A population exchange of Greeks for Muslims was organized following the Treaty of Lausanne, giving birth to modern Turkey (1923). The caliphate was abolished in 1924, and Mustafa Kemal declared that Turkey was the exclusive country of the Turks. This is when the “Kurdish question” arose, involving about twenty percent of the population, whose only alternative was to assimilate or revolt.
In 1928, Turkey adopted a secular constitution, and Islam ceased to be the state religion. From 1925 to 1937, the Kurds rose up and were repressed with the fiercest severity; they were deported and their region was left to deteriorate economically while being most of the time under siege.

The British and the French in the Near East

During the war, the British had suggested the prospect of an Arab kingdom in the Near East. Faisal I, the Hashemite, would finally have to be content, not with Syria, which the French wanted at all costs, but with Iraq. Contrary to the Turks, the Arabs had no means to impose their will.

Iraq, which geographically covers Mesopotamia, was formed by the British out of three vilayets (provinces): Basra, Shia; Baghdad, mainly Sunni; and Mosul. This latter province was added to Iraq because Great Britain (unlike France) knew that it was an oil-producing area. It was Kurdish in its majority and included many Turkmens. From the start, the Kurds and the Shias went into dissidence while the British relied politically on the Sunni Arabs (approximately twenty percent of the population), a logical choice in a Muslim world, Sunni in its large majority and dominated by Great Britain from Egypt to India. Militarily speaking, the British back-up troops were Assyrians who, in the 1930s when the country had become independent, would pay a heavy price for their collaboration.

The severe casualties of World War I determined the British to utilize aviation, of very recent use, to subdue the rebellions. The Royal Air Force, in the early 1920s, was used in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Darfur (Sudan), and in Somalia. The insurrectionists, initially surprised and distressed, learned to disperse in order to minimize their losses. In Syria, the French had to face the Jabal al-Druze revolt in the 1920s. It should be pointed out that it was France that established the Alawite state.

The Bolshevik Revolution facing resistance

On its side, the Bolshevik Revolution was fighting off with strength and determination, every attack on what it considered to be the correct line: the peasant rebellion in Tambov (1921), that of Kronstadt (1921) paradoxically led by working-class sailors, guerrilla warfare in Daghestan in the Avars (1920-1921), the Dashnak insurrection of Armenians opposed to the Sovietization of their republic (1920), and Finnish guerrillas in Karelia (1921). And, of course, the Bolsheviks struggled to put down Makhno’s massive anarchist insurrection in Ukraine (1919-1921), with which it had to make do for a while.

Many revolts were attributed to the Kulak land-owning peasantry, whereas resistance was, depending on the area, ethnic and often religious or was activated by brutal collectivization.5
In Central Asia, a Muslim revolt led by the Basmachi broke out; its most active phase went from 1920 to 1923, then it continued with less intensity until the late 1920s. It was during this revolt that the Turkish leader Ismail Enver Pasha was killed, he who, shortly after the end of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, had offered his services to Lenin then gone over to the insurrectionists’ side. His dream had been to found a Turkish-speaking empire in Central Asia. He was killed in 1922. The Soviet counterinsurgency was led by Mikhail Frunze, who knew the societies involved well, and by Marshal Mikhail Nikolayevich, who published his conception of counterinsurgency at the end of his campaign.6 Neither of the two hesitated to strike without a second thought, all the less so that the Bolshevik Revolution was being threatened by more or less archaic counterrevolutionaries who were using Afghanistan as a sanctuary.


The oppressor’s values

The first generation, in countries with a state tradition like Egypt, China, and Vietnam, could find no other response to the challenge of colonization than to take refuge in religious (Muslim) or moral (Confucian) values. In fact, these resistance ideologies were not good for taking up the challenge. Might the emperor have lost the “Mandate of Heaven”? Was the Muslim leaders’ faith perhaps not strong enough? In any event, the elites often collapsed and it was in fact people from more modest backgrounds (provincial scholars among the Vietnamese, for example) who resisted.

The following, urbanized generation, among which some spoke the colonizer’s language—after having studied in London, Paris, or Geneva—was better informed. It now knew that the colonizer’s superiority was not due only to its weapons. The new elites attributed this superiority to their institutions: political parties, deliberative authorities such as parliament, a constitution, and so on. The early twentieth century was the time of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran (1904-1911), the Young Turk revolution (1908), the Xinhai Revolution in China (1910) and, a little later, in Egypt, the foundation of the Wafd Party. These headways were more or less successfully achieved, but did not seem to be the key to the problem.
The third generation—including among others Gandhi, Hồ Chí Minh, Zhou Enlai, Sukarno, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—is the one to be credited with having understood the role of modern nationalism. It grasped the importance of a body of emancipatory ideas, and they saw no reason why these should be an exclusively European prerogative. But these avant-gardes were very much a minority, lacking grounding in the masses. How could these be mobilized?

The role of ideology

In eastern Asia, the Bolshevik seeds of anti-imperialism resonated among the people and led to some severely repressed workers’ uprisings in Canton and Shanghai in the mid-1920s. Marxism, in its Leninist version, offered a powerful innovation: the vanguard party. Lenin, in What Is to Be Done? (1902) calls up the need for a vanguard, a party of professional revolutionaries made up of intellectuals and semi-intellectuals intended to lead and organize the labor movement, which according to Lenin, was spontaneously more trade-unionist than revolutionary.

The image given of the world was otherwise undoubtedly a simplified one, but easily comprehensible and, above all, a mobilizing one. After many failures, the Chinese Communist Party, against the backdrop of the war against Japan (1937-1945), succeeded in changing into a daunting force and in ultimately being victorious in 1949, to everyone’s surprise.

The effects of Leninism had been much less convincing in Western Asia. The Baku Congress (1920), which portrayed itself as anti-imperialist and invited peoples to free themselves from colonial subjection, went practically unheard in the East.

In India, Gandhi managed to mobilize a mass movement all the more difficult to counter that it was nonviolent. There were protests in Great Britain after troops fired on an unarmed crowd in Amritsar in 1919 and killed about four hundred demonstrators. This third generation, which included nationalists and Marxists (especially in eastern Asia), called the established order into question in increasingly organized ways and would turn against the colonizers the nationalist ideology that had been so useful to the latter for imposing their domination.

Chapter 4 – The “clash of civilizations”

This expression was popularized by Samuel Huntington to indicate, shortly after the Cold War, that conflicts would henceforth be played out with Islamists and Confucians.1 Actually, the clash of civilizations was related much more to what had been felt in the past, in the Asian and African worlds.

Only Japan was able to come up with an appropriate response to the danger of white imperialism, which was to learn from the European school. This was helped by its insularity, its national cohesion (all Japanese Catholics, previously evangelized by the Portuguese, perhaps three hundred thousand of them, had been eliminated), and by Emperor Meiji’s ability, with the support of two samurai clans, to impose a revolution from the top on a highly disciplined society.

Elsewhere, the clash was experienced with distress and incomprehension. Why were these foreigners so powerful? Nonetheless, foreign domination not only brought humiliation and exploitation, it also spread, willy-nilly, radically new ideas. This was admirably summarized by a long, relevant text by Maxime Rodinson, who wrote:

“Europe, at the same time that it was digging its iron heel heavily into the peoples of the continent, was also showing something else. It was the oppressor’s much-hated country. But at one time or another, it revealed a model, even several models of liberation. To the elites crushed by despotism and hopeless before it, the West exhibited a model of government in which all subjects could make actions in favor of their interests and aspirations felt institutionally. To all those who had been broken by so many centuries of resignation, it gave the example of a world of perpetual protest. As this face of the Western world unveiled, it was understood that fighting for a better state or society was possible.2

Discovery and adoption of the oppressor’s values happened gradually, which means that several generations can be distinguished within the resistance movements.