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.