A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.
Introduction - the scenario in 1938
1938 was the last year of the glorious age of Imperialism. This age which had commenced about 200 years earlier was at its zenith at that time. France and England were the protagonists of this age and between then physically controlled half the world. In addition their writ ran in all the four corners of the globe. A look at the map will show the enormous encompass of the French and British empires. The British empire was double the size of the French and controlled the world as the number one power.
The French Empire
The French empire was smaller than the British. Both nations had been fighting incessantly all over the globe but the British were invariably winners. They had to be content with the poorer section of earth and their main conquest was in Africa,
The British Empire
The British Empire was bigger than the French and covered half the Globe. They had repeatedly defeated the French. India was the prize colony but again the French were defeated .The empire had colonized large tracts of land in South East Asia and Africa and the British writ ran in remote corners of the world. The adage the sun never sets on the British Empire was coined when the empire was at its apogee.
The Frame of Mind of the French and English
In 1938, the French and British constituted the pillars of the age of imperialism. Having got their empires they reached an understanding to keep what they had. There aim was to perpetuate Anglo-French rule till eternity. The reason was the raw materials and vast markets available. They were just happy to keep their empires.
To hold onto their empire they were prepared for appeasement of any other nation that could upset their applecart. They thought if they could placate a rival empire or power their colonies would remain intact and so would their prosperity. When Hitler rose to power in Germany, the first thought in the mind of the British and the French was that a strong Germany may become a threat to their empires The rise of Hitler in Germany was seen as a threat to the Empires. All the British and French wanted was to be left in peace, so that their empires could flourish. For this they were ready to make concessions. The British were ready to appease Hitler and give him domination over Europe so that their colonial empire survives. Similarly the French were ready to allow Hitler to be the main power in East Europe. They thus concluded the Munich Pact in 1938. In retrospect one can see that the Munich pact signed the death warrant of the Empires.
The Munich pact signed in 1938 recognized the dominant role of Germany in Europe.
After the signing of the pact an exuberant Neville Chamberlain grandly announced that he had won peace for our time. Both the French and the English assumed that once they had made concessions, Hitler would would be happy and not do anything about their global empires.
The Importance of the empires
England and France in terms of area and population in the global scenario are small nations. They were sustained as great powers by the fact that they controlled almost half the world. These colonized areas were the fodder for the great power status of the French and English. Bereft of the empires the French and British were like the Cobra without its fangs. Thus it was vital that they hold on to their colonies and perpetuate the age of imperialism.
In 1938 after the Munich pact the leaders of the British and French felt they had scored a tactical victory over Hitler and their empires were safe.
The Role of the USA
The USA was the ally of the British and the French. But despite some lip service to the cause of freedom of the colonies, the USA did precious little for the colonized people. In fact the USA practiced a racial discriminatory policy at home and generally joined hands with the British and French, particularly Great Britain who they considered as ‘natural allies’ on the basis of race and language. Thus the freedom movements in India or other parts of the world were never actively supported by the USA
Beginning of the end of age of Imperialism
The British and French gravely miscalculated in signing the Munich pact. Hitler in a way at that stage played his cards adroitly with the battle of France. In 1940 German armies surged across the French republic and inside 40 days the French were defeated. Marshal Petain signed on the dotted line and the mother country of the French empire ceased to be independent. In hindsight the Battle of France was the beginning of the end of the age of empires and imperialism.
The French had been defeated despite an army of over 5 million and a system of defense fortifications facing Germany called the Maginot line.
The Beginning of the End
The British were now left alone and had Hitler shown that he was ‘great’, he would have finished England and like France the home of the British empire would have ceased to exist. But he was not a great man and gave the British a life line by attacking Russia.
But what Hitler didn’t do was executed by the Japan. The Japanese army moved across South East Asia and drove the French and British from their colonies. In a matter of a year the colonies were out of the grasp of the imperialists. Things were never going to be the same after that despite the entry of the USA in the war.
Result of the War: a Pyrrhic Victory
Riding piggy back on the back of the Red Army and the USA, England and France scratched a victory against Hitler. But both countries energy was sapped and they were economically shattered. They just could not hold on to the empires. Forces were unleashed and the movements of Subhas Chandra Bose in India and Ho Chi Minh in Indo China made the imperialist powers realize that they could not hold on to the empires.
Similarly an insurrection against the French in North Africa shattered the French as well as the total rout at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
Loss of the Empires and End of Imperialism
The Second World War ended the age of imperialism. Empires that had taken decades to build collapsed like a pack of cards. The great power status of both England and France evaporated.. Hitler despite his defeat has sounded the death knell of the age of imperialism. When the history of the destruction of the empires is written a 100 years hence, historians will have to conclude that the nails in the coffin of the British and French empires were executed by Hitler; at that time there may be a different assessment of Hitler in world history.