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World War II: Last Nail in the Coffin

By: Lalam Arvindh Kumar
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Too often, we end up so focused in our small worlds, that we remain blind to the big picture. This makes us mere pawns in the larger game.

70 years ago on Sept 1, Adolf Hitler set into motion a sequence of events that changed the world map, literally. In 14th Century, Europe saw the onset of Renaissance and Colonialism encouraged by religious zeal of the then Catholic Church. Thus started the reign of Europe over the whole world for the next 6 centuries.

While the colonization was kicked off by the Spanish, the new age of exploration southwards was driven by Portuguese efforts to find a sea route to India and China for spice trade, then known as the "Indies". The first phase of colonization saw Spanish and Portuguese compete to occupy new lands while the second phase of colonization saw Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Belgium vie for territories.

First Phase of Colonization (Year 1402)

In 1402, Spanish empire occupied Canary Islands archipelago that lies 100KM off the northwest coast of Africa. In next 20 years, Portuguese Empire started expanding by occupying Ceuta in North Africa, just south of the Strait of Gibraltar. More Portuguese incursions follow in other areas of Africa, but still closer to Strait of Gibraltar. Earlier, sailors used to fear going south of Cape Bajador (1400 Km south of Strait of Gibralter) on the north African coast for fear that they may not able to return. But once overcome, several parts of Muslim West Africa became the Portugal"s area of influence.

In 1441, Portuguese bring the first consignment of slaves from Africa to Lisbon, kicking off Slave trade of next few centuries. This provided cheap labor and became one of the engines of European world conquest. In 1452, Pope grants King of Portugal the right to reduce any "Saracens, pagans and any other unbelievers" to hereditary slavery, legitimizing slave trade under Catholic beliefs of that time. This is believed to have been used as justification for subsequent slave trade and conversion of indigenous people to Christianity.

Starting in 1481, the Church passed a series of "papal bulls" (edicts) dividing the new worlds between Span and Portugal in order to resolve growing disputes between the two colonial powers. Once areas of exploration were demarcated, further conquests begin. By 1488, Portuguese continue further south along the west coast of Africa and reach the southernmost tip of Africa, Cape of Good Hope. Christopher Columbus sails West in search of a shorter way to India and discovers the Americas. This is quickly followed by discovery of South America and its colonization. These newly discovered lands begin to be referred as the "New World".

In the meantime, Vasco-Da-Gama proceeds beyond Cape of Good Hope and becomes the first Portuguese explorer to discover sea route to India in 1498. By 1511, Portuguese continue eastward and capture Malacca, in present day Malaysia.

By the end of 16th century, Spain and Portugal have navigated most of the seas and discovered most of the previously unknown lands (Map of Spanish and Portuguese Empires). The Spanish-Portuguese conquests have also resulted in destruction of the indigenous population and conversion remaining natives to Christianity.

Second wave of colonization (Year 1600)

In a second wave of colonialism, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and Italy competed to rule the world. This era saw a continuation of missionary activity of some explorers and had been a cause for conflicts with several indigenous people.

Owing to Vasco-Da-Gama"s discovery, by the end of 16th century, riches and plunder from the "Indies" and other eastern states start pouring into Europe through the sea trade. Other European powers start taking notice as Spain and Portugal zealously guard their possessions in "New World" and Asia.

As part of an ongoing struggle between Catholic Spain and Protestant England, Spain plots to invade and conquer England. Encouraged by Pope"s reward for a successful campaign, this was also meant to preempt England"s attacks in the "new world". However the defeat of Spanish Naval Fleet (1588) turns the tide against Spanish empire. Emboldened by naval successes, English trade ships are encouraged to venture out.

In 1600, British crown grants "Royal Charter" to a joint-stock company, came to be known as "East India Company". It was granted right to build cities and full monopoly for trade between tips of African and South American tips (which includes all of Asia). In next few years, British settlements also appear in North America. The British East India Company gradually gains more area in India, fueling tensions with other colonial powers, and eventually muscles other powers out.

France joins the race in 1605, with creation of a colony in North America, now referred to as Nova Scotia in Canada. Spanish empire starts to wane in 17th century as it gradually loses the territories to France and England. At the same time Portuguese gradually see their prominence fall. Portuguese territories of Bombay and Tangiers are given away to England as part of Portuguese princess"s dowry.

By the end of this era, British Empire spans across North Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia. France controls parts of North America, India, South East Asia and Africa. Germany and Italy also hold some areas in Africa bringing most of the world under Europe"s control (Map of European Colonies)

Revolutions and World Wars (Year 1776)

By 18th Century, revolutions in the North America and South America result in loss of some colonial territories of Britain, France and Portugal.

The British colonies of North America, which were established by European immigrants, adopt the "Declaration of Independence" in 1776. This and American Revolution eventually lead to the independent country, the United States of America. Encouraged by the success of American Revolution, new generation of leaders liberate almost all of South America by 1825 from Spain and Portugal.

On the eastern front, "East India Company" witnesses the first war of independence (1857). East India Company crushes the revolt, but ends up handing over control to the British Crown. The struggle for Independence persists and gains momentum during the early 20th century.

During the First World War, some territories of colonial powers change hands (1914-1918). World War I also results in considerable human loss and devastation. A second World War (1939-1945), just 20 years after the World War I ended, causes further attrition among all the Colonial powers. Europe witnesses tremendous devastation of its industries and economy. After enjoying the fruits of monopoly and suppression of colonies for centuries, European nations are economically weakened.

In spite of previous riches, Britain becomes insolvent after the war and borrows US$3.75 Billion, Canadian $1.25 and British Pounds 2.5 Billion. Even though victorious, Britain witnesses rationing of various commodities including food and coal in the aftermath of the war. In the years following the war, it is forced to free its colonies in Indian subcontinent, South East Asia and Africa.

Germany loses 11% of its population to the war and had to pay $20 Billion as reparations to the Allies. In addition, US vigorously carried on a program to acquire as much of scientific know-how and patents as possible. France surrenders early in the War and only regains its territory later on, largely due to the American intervention.

Post Wars (Year 1945)

While the discontent among various European colonies was brewing for some time, World War II becomes death-knell for the colonial powers of Europe. As Europe tries to cope with the aftermath of the wars, United States and Soviet Russia emerge as new world powers. From spearheading the explorations and conquering territories, Europe is relegated to becoming playground for the two superpowers of the 20th century.

The old colonies and new superpowers can thank Hitler for that!

Note : This by no means condones Hitler"s actions. Widely acknowledged Hitler"s attrocities along with the several untold massacres by the other Colonial powers in India, Americas and Africa resulted in loss of ten"s of Millions of innocent lives, which were not deemed worthy enough. The burden of these atrocities is only Europe"s" to bear.

Lalam Arvindh Kumar

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