Hello Europeanists! This is our video for Week 10, Day 1. Our subject is Decolonization, and our teaching assistant is Dante.
Let’s start with announcements. Thank you for your good work on the blog these past two weeks. I think we are managing to have good conversations there, despite our difficult circumstances.
Now that we’re in Week 10, it’s time to start thinking about your final papers. I know, it feels quick and we’ve just started to get our bearings with remote learning. But the end of the semester is coming up, so we need to start working on our final projects. I sent out the assignment to you by email on Sunday, and you can find it on the course website under Assignments, too. In this paper, I am asking you to build a historical argument by putting multiple primary sources on context with each other. I’ve given you five topics to choose from. They are meant to be broad and open-ended, so that you can develop your own, unique argument based on your interests. As part of that breadth, the prompts are fairly long. The question you must be sure to answer is the question in bold. Everything else in the prompt is there to help you think through your ideas. You don’t need to respond directly to anything other than the bold question.
I’ve scaffolded this assignment into a few different steps, to make it more manageable. Your first deadline is in on Sunday, April 19 at 5pm. That is the due date for your Introduction + Outline. Please review the assignment sheet for details. And remember to carefully read the HIS 270 Writing Handout, which you can find under Writing Resources on the course website.
After you have submitted you Intro + Outline, I will meet with each of you individually on April 23 to talk through your materials. I will create a sign-up sheet as a shared document, so keep an eye out for my email sharing it with you soon. If you’re not able to do a video meeting on Teams, you should still sign up, but let me know your situation. We can do your meeting by phone. If you have any questions about the final paper assignment, please let me know!
That’s all for announcements. Now let’s talk about Decolonization. The partial textbook chapter I gave you (“Decolonization” from John Merriman’s History of Modern Europe) gives you a good overview, so I won’t go into too much detail here. You may have noticed that the way Merriman writes is different from our usual secondary source author, Mark Mazower. Merriman mostly recounts facts, while Mazower works synthetically to build an argument. Hopefully, this comparison gives you an appreciation for Mazower’s writing; it’s often more interesting to see how a historian interprets historical facts than to just get the facts themselves. Unfortunately, Mazower didn’t include a chapter on Decolonization. And since this history is often not taught in high schools, I thought Merriman’s overview would fill in some necessary information to help you think through our primary sources.
You might wonder, Why do we need to learn about Decolonization in this class? It didn’t happen in Europe, after all. That’s true, but Decolonization had a tremendous impact on European history. For major imperial powers like Britain and France, it marked a difficult moment when they ceased to dominate the globe as they had for most of the modern period, and it caused them to rethink their place in Europe and in the world. What’s more, the process of Decolonization became intimately bound up with the Cold War. In Asia, the Western and Eastern Blocs used independence struggles as proxy wars for their own conflicts. And in Africa and the Middle East, they vied with each other for influence in newly independent nations. In the best case scenario, emerging nations were able to play the Superpowers off against each other and benefit from both. But they often found themselves on the losing end all around, subject to dictators propped up by the US or the Soviet Union and waiting for aid that never quite matched up to what they had been promised. In other words, we’re studying Decolonization in this class because even after emerging nations in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East liberated themselves from colonial domination, they remained substantially at the mercy of Europeans’ own power struggles.
A quick note on terminology: Merriman refers to these new states in the global south and east as “Third World countries.” That phrase is now outdated. We don’t use it anymore, because it implies a hierarchy in which “First World” countries (Western Europe and the US) are at the top, and everyone else is trying to be like them. That is not an accurate or respectful characterization. Instead, we can use terms like “emerging countries” or “developing countries.”
Some maps will also be helpful for you. I can’t show you the maps in this video, because I don’t know how. But I will put links to them in the Transcript:
- You can find a map of global colonial possessions in 1945 here.
- You can find a map of global colonial possessions in 1945 with the names and dates of the post-independence nations here.
Another question that arises when we study Decolonization is: Why was Asia more likely to experience proxy wars, while the Middle East and Africa were more like to experience political interference and influence peddling? Of course, the lines are not always so clear cut. But if we look on a broad scale, we can see that the Cold War proxy wars in Asia had a great deal to do with geography, and particularly with developments in China. China had been embroiled in civil war since the late 1920s, and it became a Soviet aligned communist country in 1949. The Sino-Soviet Alliance only lasted until 1960, but that was long enough to convince the Western Bloc, led by the US, that if they didn’t do something, the Soviet Union would soon control all of Asia, as it did nearly all of Eastern Europe. This, of course, is the famous “domino theory”: if you let one domino fall to communism, the rest will fall, too.
Fears about Soviet and Chinese communist influence fueled three major proxy wars in Asia. In the Korean War (1950-1953), the Western powers used their combined influence to send United Nations forces to ensure that the Korean Peninsula remained divided into two states: North Korea, protected by the Soviet Union and China, and South Korea, protected by the US. In Vietnam, the thing we call the Vietnam War was really two wars. The First Indochina War (1946-1954) was primarily an independence struggle waged by France’s Asian colonies (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) against the Metropole. “Metropole” is the term for an imperial power in relation to its colonies. Because the independence fighters were led by communists, the US contributed weapons and military advisors to the French side. Even so, the Viet Minh beat the pants off the French, and they decided to cut their losses and grant independence in 1954. The peace settlement divided Vietnam the same way as Korea, with a communist north and a liberal democratic south, but the North Vietnamese soon invaded the south. Because they were communist, the US decided on its own to intervene. That started the Second Indochina War (1955-1975), which, as you’ve probably learned elsewhere, ended with the defeat of the South and the entire country becoming a communist dictatorship, which it still is today.
As Americans, we tend to think of these wars in terms of the suffering of American military personnel. That suffering is real, it’s important, and it’s still with us. But it’s equally important for us to consider the long-term suffering of Southeast Asians. One of the major reasons these wars happened at all was that Europeans claimed for themselves the right to determine the fates of emerging nations in this region. And these wars were longer, bloodier, and more devastating because the arsenals of the Cold War Superpowers came into play. Koreans, Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians are still suffering the social and environmental effects of these wars, alongside the effects of imperialism more broadly.
When we look to the Middle East and Africa, we can see that Decolonization took a different course. For the most part, there is less military action. There are a few major exceptions: British involvement in the Suez Crisis in 1956 and the Algerian War of Independence against France (1954-1962). Merriman gives you a good overview of these conflicts, which you can read on your own. One more military conflict worth mentioning is the Mau Mau Rebellion, which took place in Kenya while it was still a British colony from 1952 to 1959. Like the French in Algeria at about the same time, the British in Kenya used concentration camps and torture against the independence fighters. This was less than a decade after the end of WWII.
On the whole, however, the independence process in the Middle East and Africa was more peaceful than in Asia. But after independence, many of these new nations descended into civil war and became subject to dictatorships. If you read the international news, you will see that versions of these conflicts continue in many places today. As scholars, we need to be very careful how we interpret this information.
A narrative that we are often given is that these conflicts arose because of deep ethnic hatreds that have been raging since the dawn of time. Middle Easterners and Africans, we are told, are tribal and backward. They are not ready for liberal democracy. They may not even be suited to liberal democracy. Dictatorship is the only thing they understand. If there is one thing I want you to take away from this class, it is that that narrative is absolutely false. The conflicts in former imperial territories around the world were created by Europeans through the process of imperialism. Look at the map I’ve given you and notice how the borders are drawn. These lines only make sense on a map. In real life, they cut through some communities while forcing together others who have little in common. Europeans drew these lines to accommodate their own balance of power. And within the territories they carved up, they pursued a consistent policy of stirring up ethnic and religious differences, turning cultural groups against each other as a method of divide-and-conquer. It’s hardly surprising that those tensions still have effects today.
As for the issue of dictatorship, it’s worth considering that imperial rule is not good training for liberal democracy. And this, of course, sits alongside our knowledge that when emerging nations did democratically elect a new leader, if that leader was socialist or communist, the Western powers often used covert methods to overthrow them and install a Western-friendly dictator instead. I encourage you to look back in your notes to see how similarly negative statements were made after WWI about the capacity for democracy among the new nations of Eastern Europe. Hopefully, putting these pieces together will help us understand the full impact of imperialism around the world and its continuing impact today.
Okay, that was pretty long, but I think it was necessary, and I hope it’s given you a lot to think about. Now we’re going to turn to Frantz Fanon’s essay “Algeria Unveiled,” which is your primary source for today. As the introduction to the document notes, Fanon was a product of French imperialism. He was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique and went to France to study psychiatry. He then set up a practice in Algeria, where he made the observations that underlie this essay. Fanon was an important theorist of African anti-imperialism, and during the Algerian War, he was a leading member of the Algerian National Front, or FLN.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. Fanon makes a bold assertion in the very first paragraph: “The way people clothe themselves, together with the traditions of dress and finery that custom implies, constitutes the most distinctive form of a society’s uniqueness.” (Fanon, 43) Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not? What might be the danger in identifying a society by its clothing? Can you think of another way to identify a society that is as immediate?
2. Fanon tells us that the French claim they want Algerian women to take off their veils because veils represent oppression. But he doesn’t believe this is their real motive. Really, he says, they want to cause a breakdown in traditional Algerian society. But the French already control Algeria. So, why should they want to destroy traditional society when they already have political power? What else does this give them? And if this is their goal, then why do they want Algerian women themselves to reject the veils? Why not just make a law against wearing them? How does this issue help us think about the subtleties of imperial domination?
3. One of the ways the French coerce Algerian women into taking off their veils is by linking it to food aid. Charitable organizations offered women free supplies, but on the condition that they listen to a lecture on why the veil is a tool of oppression. There ae still versions of this today. In impoverished areas around the world, aid agencies offer food, medicine, and other goods, but recipients must listen to a lecture on religion or democracy or capitalism. How do you assess these practices? Do you think it’s ethical to make aid contingent on listening to a particular message? Or should aid agencies be required to leave their message at home?
4. The French also pressure Algerian men to participate in the unveiling of women. And if a man refuses, they use a particular kind of logic to devalue his choices. Make a close reading of p. 46. Can you unpack Fanon’s argument here? How do the French use Algerians’ refusal to reject the veil as an argument for continued French domination? How does Fanon turn things around by using European ideas and terms to describe Algerians’ reason for their refusal?
When we look at it this way, does Algerian resistance to unveiling become more comprehensible? Would Europeans behave any differently, if Africans colonized them and told them they should no longer wear a piece of traditional clothing?
5. Fanon notes that before the French made a big deal about veils, they weren’t all that important to Algerian women. But they become important when the French begin to demonize them. He explains this in the last full paragraph on p. 50. Can you unpack this dynamic? How does the behavior of the colonizers affect how the Algerians think about the veil? What does the veil come to symbolize to them through this process? Are we willing to accept the veil as a tool of political liberation in this context?
6. Fanon describes the role of women in the resistance movement. Initially, they are able to get past the colonial soldiers by taking off their veils and passing as Europeanized. How does the colonizers’ own rhetoric about veils contribute to the success of this “camouflage”? Fanon gives a long description of how such a woman feels without her veil on p. 52. Read this page closely. Can you unpack what’s going on here? How does it influence your thinking about how clothing shapes the way we understand our place in the world?
7. Eventually, the French catch on to the ruse of the women in the liberation movement pretending to be Europeanized. They start searching Europeanized women, so the fighters put their veils back on and evade the guards once again. At this point, after the veil has gone through several semiotic shifts, can it have a meaning independent of the imperial situation? Can we consider the question of whether veils are “good” or “bad” for women outside of the context of imperialism? How should we think about these questions today, nearly 60 years after Algerian independence?
8. What does the story of the veil in Algeria reveal about how imperialism shapes the traditional cultures of the colonized peoples? How does this shape your thinking about the impact of imperialism beyond the Age of Imperialism?