The Old Order is Crumbling, and a New Order is Rising

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The Old Order is Crumbling, and a New Order is Rising

The Old Order is Crumbling, and a New Order is Rising

The end of Empires

In all the occupied areas of the Japanese, the three policies agreed on in November 1941 were applied with mixed results. The pursuit of order combined the threat or reality of draconian punishment with strategies for the same pacification and self-government committees at the village level practiced in China. In Malaya, Peace Committees were set up to restore order, using a large number of the incumbent Malayan officials inherited from the British colonial administration. Complaints or bad work were judged to be anti-Japanese and risked severe punishment. In time, neighborhood associations were introduced, like those in Japan and northern China, while local police and volunteers were enlisted in the paramilitary militia and auxiliary police forces. Eventually, local ‘advisory councils’ were inaugurated in most territories, but they had no authority and allowed the Japanese officials and military to gauge local opinion without conceding responsibility. Mass movements of solidarity, now modeled on the Imperial Way Assistance Association in Japan, were created as a social discipline. In the Philippines, political parties were dissolved, and a single ‘Association for Service to the New Philippines’ was established, superseded in January 1944 by a ‘People’s Loyalty Association.’ Overseeing their conduct was the Kempeitai, attached to each army unit.

The language of liberation exploited by the Japanese to mark the end of the regime of European and American imperialism was nevertheless real enough. Japanese commentators contrasted the new conception of an Asian order with the ‘egoism, injustice and unrighteousness’ of Western, mainly English, rule. Tōjō claimed that Japan’s purpose was now ‘to follow the path of justice, to deliver Greater East Asia from the fetters of America and Britain.’ But this was not intended as a ‘Wilsonian moment’ in which Japan would grant total independence because President Wilson’s promises in 1918 were regarded among Japanese leaders as mere hypocrisy. As the Total War Institute put it in the same 1942 analysis, independence was not ‘to be based on the idea of liberalism and self-determination’ but was defined in terms of being a cooperative member of the Japanese sphere. Nor was the vision of the globe a product of Pan-Asianism, as many anti-colonial nationalists at first believed because of Japan’s earlier flirtation with the concept, because Pan-Asianism assumed equality between the peoples of Asia. A candid assessment by the Southern Area Army of independence for Burma made clear the relationship many of the conquerors had in mind. Any new regime ‘shall have the appearance of independence on the surface, but in reality … shall be induced to carry out Japanese policies’. In Japanese government and military circles, independence was usually, though not invariably, viewed as an opportunity to acquiesce to Japan’s unique status as the imperial center. How this might have worked in the case of India as an Asian ‘brother’ of Japan was never put to the test, but it was something Japanese leaders thought about a good deal.

Even before the southern advance, contact was made with the Bangkok-based Indian Independence League, led by Rash Behari Bose. Once installed in Malaya, with large numbers of captured Indian soldiers willing to abandon prisoner-of-war status, the Japanese set up an Indian National Army (INA) under the Sikh captain Mohar Singh to co-operate with the League. Tensions led to the arrest of Singh and the near-collapse of the INA. Still, in March 1943, it was reactivated under the former Congress politician Subhas Chandra Bose, who, with Tōjō’s consent, declared on 21 October 1943 the Provisional Government of Free India (Azad Hind) with himself as head of state, prime minister, minister of war and minister of foreign affairs. A division of the INA fought in 1944 in the failed invasion of northeast India, with catastrophic casualties, and Free India under Japanese supervision never materialized.

In January 1942, Tōjō announced to the Japanese Diet that Burma and the Philippines might both at some point win independence if they proved loyal to Japan and its interests. Before the invasion, Burmese and Filipino nationalists had visited Japan as a potential supporters of anti-colonial campaigns. The Japanese army agreed to establish a Burma Independence Army in December 1941, composed initially of a group of thirty ‘Thakin’ nationalists, including Aung San, the later nationalist leader. The army made no promises, and when the BIA swiftly grew to 200,000 strong, it was dissolved, and a Japanese-led and trained Burma Defence Force was established in its place. In 1943, Burma was finally promised independence, and on 1 August, the new state was declared, with the nationalist Ba Maw, freed from British exile in East Africa, as head of state. Although lip-service was paid to Burmese sovereignty, in reality, the Japanese kept a close controlling hand. ‘This independence we have,’ complained Aung San in June 1944, ‘is only a name. It is only the Japanese version of home rule.’ Much the same happened in the Philippines following Tōjō’s promise. The military administration allowed a puppet regime in January 1942, led by the Filipino politician Jorge Vargas. Its role was advisory, and the provisional council of state made clear its willingness to support the military administration and work for inclusion in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In summer 1943, a new constitution was introduced without political parties or popular suffrage, and Salvador Laurel, rather than Vargas, was appointed head of state. Unlike Burma, the Filipino elite made their peace with the Japanese and accepted that the new state had limited sovereignty so long as the Japanese military presence remained.

Initially, there was no intention of offering ‘independence’ to the rest of the captured region, which was to be integrated with Japan. When the Greater East Asia Ministry organized a Great East Asia Conference in Tokyo in November 1943, only Burma and the Philippines were invited from the southern sphere. Changing circumstances as defeat loomed opened up the possibility of further ‘independence.’ On 7 September 1944, Tōjō’s successor, Koiso Kuniaki, announced that Indonesia might win independence ‘at a later date’ and allowed the nationalist flag to be displayed, as long as it flew next to a Japanese one. Concessions were made to integrate Indonesians with the Japanese administration, though, in a secondary role, notional independence was only offered in the last days before Japan’s surrender. The only other case was in the anomalous French possession of Indochina. Growing Japanese irritation with the attitude of French officials and business people in 1944, following the liberation of France and the end of Vichy rule, resulted in a recommendation from the Supreme War Leadership Conference in Tokyo on 1 February 1945 for the military to take complete control of Indochina to create pro-Japanese independent regimes. On 9 March, Japanese troops launched Operation ‘Meigo Sakusen’ (‘bright moon action’) when they began disarming French colonial forces; desultory fighting continued until May. Although Japan did not formally grant independence, the former emperor of Cochinchina, Bao Dai, declared an independent Vietnam on 11 March. Cambodia declared its independence two days later, and Luang Prabang (Laos) on 8 April. Each state had a Japanese ‘advisory board’ and had to collaborate with Japanese forces. Each had a Japanese governor-general and general secretary, severely circumscribing any real idea of independence. The final concessions in the Southern Region owed something to the need to win a measure of popular support for imminent military action against the invading Allies. Still, it seems likely that Japan wanted to create aspirations for independence that would make it difficult for the returning colonial powers to reassert their authority, as indeed proved to be the case. How Japan’s Greater East Asia would have evolved if Japan had won the war or reached a peace compromise remains speculation.

The old order is crumbling, and a new order is rising. Throughout the world, the foundations of the aging society are being shattered. The downtrodden people are turning in their misery and degradation and are fighting back.’ Amanke Okafor, Nigeria: Why We Fight for Freedom, 1949. 1

Four years after the end of the war, the Nigerian law student and communist George Amanke Okafor, his activities closely monitored by the British security services, wrote and published a pamphlet in London setting out the post-war case for African independence from colonial domination by Europeans.2 A foreword was added by the American civil rights campaigner and singer Paul Robeson, endorsing the movement across Africa to ‘shake off the shackles of colonialism. The defeat and liquidation of the Italian, Japanese and German empires by 1945 prompted a widespread popular rejection of the imperialism still practiced by the British and French victors and by the liberated Belgians and Dutch. Despite the determination of the victor powers to cling on to imperial rule over people still living, according to the post-war Labour minister Lord Pethwick-Lawrence, ‘in a state of primitive civilization,’ the most significant geopolitical consequence of the war was the collapse within less than two decades of the entire European imperial project and the establishment of a world of nation-states. In 1960, Nigeria, Britain’s largest remaining colonial possession, was granted independence, restoring, in Okafor’s words, ‘the dignity of the African peoples.’ 3 

The history of the immediate post-war years has been dominated by the vast humanitarian crisis generated by the conflict, the development of a renewed global system of economic collaboration and international cooperation, dominated by the West, and – above all – by the onset of the Cold War between the Second World War’s erstwhile allies. Less attention has been given to the end of imperialism. Yet, the unraveling of empire, old and new, was the context that shaped the humanitarian crisis, the new internationalism, and the emerging Cold War. The defeat and disappearance of the Axis empires were swiftly followed by the final death throes of the older empires that the Axis had sought to supplant. In Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, the geopolitical structure was radically altered with the retreat of the European powers and Japan to be replaced by political geography that has persisted into the twenty-first century. 

The end of  empire-building begun in 1931 with the invasion of Manchuria

The defeat and surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945, and the earlier surrender of Italy in 1943, brought to a sudden and dramatic end the fourteen years of violent empire-building begun in 1931 with the invasion of Manchuria. None of the three Axis states did the circles that had supported the new imperialism try to revive it or seek to sustain the radical nationalism that had fuelled it. The destruction of all three empires exposed the enormous human cost that this imperialism had carried in its wake, a price that was now visited upon the large populations of Germans, Japanese, and Italians stranded in what had briefly been colonial or imperial territory. The destruction of the new empires had been a central aim of what came to be called from January 1942 onwards the ‘United Nations, a term Roosevelt dreamt up during Churchill’s visit to Washington in late December 1941, but one that soon came to define the Allies as a whole.4 In discussions about Axis surrender, it was assumed that Germany (and its European allies Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary) would have to abandon all its territorial gains; that Italy would forfeit its colonies in Africa and the territories seized in Europe; and that Japan would lose all the colonies, mandated territories and protectorates occupied in East Asia and around the Pacific. All three would be confined within their national boundaries as defined by the victors. They would be nations but no longer ‘nation-empires.’

 The most radical national reconstruction took place in Germany. Not only were the Allies determined to restrict Germany to the territory held after the Versailles Treaty of 1919, but, following an agreement with Stalin at the Yalta Conference, Poland was to be compensated for the loss of the eastern territories occupied by the Soviet Union in September 1939 by a large slice of east Germany. The three significant Allies had also agreed that what was left of Germany would be partitioned between them in three zones of the military government, with the final constitution of a new German nation gone indefinite; after pressure from the provisional French government in 1944, France was also allotted a small zone of occupation in the south. There were even suggestions in London that Germany is turned temporarily into a British dominion while Germans learned the lessons of democracy.5 In the end, the occupying powers disagreed on a united German future and in 1949 created two separate nations: the German Democratic Republic in the Soviet zone and the Federal Republic of Germany constructed from a union of the three Western zones. The situation was more straightforward in Japan. There was only one occupation authority under the Allied supreme commander, Douglas MacArthur. Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria, and the pre-war League mandate islands were no longer Japanese. Okinawa, the largest of the Ryūkyū Islands, was taken under American administration until 1972. By agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union, Korea was divided at the 38th Parallel. It had been in 1904 when Japan and Russia had first delimited zones of influence. Soviet forces occupied the north, American forces the south. Taiwan and Manchuria were awarded to Chiang Kai-shek’s China, with concessions to the Soviet Union in Manchuria. In contrast, the Pacific islands were awarded to the United States as United Nations’ trust territories. 

The treatment of Italy was a more delicate matter because, from September 1943 onwards, Italy had been co-belligerent with the Allies. In May 1945, it became a united country again within the frontiers of 1919. A military stand-off as the war ended between the British army and Tito’s Yugoslav partisans over the future of the Adriatic port of Trieste ended with the city once again in Italy; the second stand-off with French forces in the Val d’Aosta in the western Alps prevented a French annexation of the Italian territory.6 The former Italian colonies were all under British military administration, while Ethiopia had been restored as an independent nation in 1941 under the reinstated Emperor Haile Selassie. A nationalist lobby in Rome existed that hoped to take back some or all of Italy’s former colonies as a measure of prestige in a renewed world of empire. Still, the situation in 1945 was entirely different from 1919. The post-war wave of anti-colonial sentiment meant there was scant international sympathy for Italian efforts, and article 23 of the Treaty of Peace signed with Italy in February 1947 specifically ruled out any return to an imperial role. But that did not resolve severe arguments between the former wartime Allies over what to do with Italy’s lost colonies. At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, the Soviet government requested trusteeship of at least one Italian territory. Britain and the United States did not want a Soviet foothold in Africa. They persisted in refusing Soviet involvement, an attitude that added one more nail in the coffin of possible post-war cooperation between them. Neither did the United States want a solution that strengthened Britain’s imperial position in Africa. So it rejected British proposals for the Horn of Africa and the future of Libya, which would have given the British a continued presence there.7 In the end, failure to reach an acceptable compromise led the Allies to hand the issue over to the United Nations. In May 1949, the UN General Assembly rebuffed both Italian diplomatic efforts to overturn the ruling in the peace treaty and British hopes to reorganize the region in their interest. Libya was granted independence, Eritrea was eventually federated with Ethiopia. Finally, in December 1950, the Assembly agreed to give Italy the United Nations’ trusteeship of Somalia, the poorest and smallest of Italy’s former colonies. Faced with numerous difficulties in finding the funds and personnel to run the trusteeship in the face of organized Somali nationalism, Italian officials prepared the trust territory for independence, and the last vestige of Italian imperialism was extinguished on 30 June 1960.8

An exodus, partly voluntary, accompanied the end of the Axis empire but in the most part coerced, of An exodus, partly voluntary, accompanied the end of the Axis empires of the now-defunct empires. Most were not recent colonists but long-established communities dating back well before the onset of the violent expansion in the 1930s (in the German case, some were hundreds of years old). Still, they were penalized as somehow representative of these imperial ambitions, as some were.9 Many Italian emigrants had already returned well before 1945, including 50,000 from Ethiopia. Still, in Italian Somaliland, there were more than 4,000, in Eritrea 37,000, and in eastern Libya some 45,000, so that by the end of the 1940s, the total of those returning to Italy reached over 200,000. An additional 250,000 fled or were driven out of Italy’s brief European empire in Istria and Dalmatia. The colonists were challenging to reintegrate into Italian society; many were placed in refugee camps, only cleared by the early 1950s.10 The numbers were nevertheless small compared with the millions of Japanese and Germans who were uprooted and returned to the motherland. When the war ended in August 1945, an estimated 6.9 million Japanese military and civilians were spread out across China, South East, and the Pacific. The Allies planned to repatriate more military personnel, but there was no clear-cut policy for civilians. The United States took the lead in assuming that the deportation of civilian Japanese was necessary, in part to protect them from violence and in part to signal the demise of the imperial project.11 Many civilians had long roots in the colonies and lost possessions and wealth when they were ordered to leave; the rest were recent migrants to Manchuria and north China or officials and businessmen running the empire.

The experience of those repatriated or deported varied widely. In Manchuria, the majority were women and children who were given little assistance, were harassed or violated by Soviet forces, and possessed few means of transport or access to food. Their ordeal was the harshest, abandoned for nine months or more among a hostile population and occupying force. The 223,000 peasant settlers began a flight eastward when the Red Army arrived, but many, perhaps most, had their goods and food stolen, leaving tens of thousands to beg or steal. Only 140,000 ever returned to Japan; 78,500 died from violence, disease, or starvation.12 Organized repatriation of the rest of the Japanese population in Manchuria began only in 1946 when over a million civilians were moved to camps in Japan. In the regions under American and Chinese control, the repatriation program began earlier. It was less arduous than in Manchuria, thanks to the supply of American shipping, but it nevertheless involved compulsory resettlement and the loss of home and goods. In the half of Korea occupied by American forces, repatriation of Japanese troops and civilians was declared mandatory on 17 September 1945, shortly after the surrender, and the transport to Japan began that same month; however, many civilians chose to remain, so in March 1946 they were ordered to leave by the beginning of April or face punishment. The small amount of money and possessions they could take as prescribed by the American military government. In Taiwan, the Nationalist Chinese gave similarly short notice, announcing in March 1946 there would be compulsory deportation, to be completed by the end of April. Within a matter of weeks, 447,000 Japanese were shipped to Japan, abandoning their colonial past. There began a long period of readjustment on the home islands from the repatriation centers to regular civilian life. Mainland Japanese put an invisible barrier between themselves and the expellees, who remained a symbol of the failed imperial project and its grim costs.13

On mainland China, the deportation of civilians, chiefly in American boats, began in November 1945 and was primarily completed by the following summer; numerous Japanese military units, by contrast, were kept by the Chinese government to provide public order in Shanghai and Beijing and to combat the insurgent Chinese Communists. The slowest repatriation took place in the area under Lord Louis Mountbatten’s South East Asia Command. Conditions for Japanese soldiers and civilians were deliberately poor. Military captives were redefined as ‘Surrendered Military Personnel’ rather than prisoners of war so that the British authorities could avoid the requirements of the Geneva Convention. They were kept as forced laborers. Even when the bulk of Japanese forces were finally repatriated in summer 1946, using American shipping again, 100,000 were held as laborers until early 1949 in defiance of the Convention.14 Civilians had a difficult transition. Many were placed in poorly run camps with authoritarian labor regimes. One Japanese government official in Indonesia recalled the grueling routine at the British prison camp in which he was interned, where semi-naked prisoners were forced to clean airbase runways with a wire brush in full sun with little water or food; later, he was transferred to Galang Island near Singapore, in an isolated camp with no shelter from the sun, no natural water supply, and a ration of less than half a cup of rice a day. Conditions improved only following an inspection by the Red Cross.15

By far the most significant movement of deportees and refugees from the new empires involved those Germans who had found themselves involuntarily part of the new Reich as it spread out across Central, Eastern, and South-eastern Europe, including the German inhabitants of lands lost under the Versailles settlement but regained after 1939, and now lost again. The number of those displaced to occupied Germany is estimated to be between 12 and 14 million (more precise figures are beyond historical recovery); they came predominantly from Czechoslovakia and the Polish ‘Recovered Territories’ in eastern Germany but was now transferred to Poland. There were also expulsions to German territory from Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary, together with an unknown number of the Soviet Volga Germans who had managed to flee westwards with the retreating German armies. The Soviet military deported 140,000 Germans from Romania and Hungary the other way, eastwards to camps inside the Soviet Union.16 The bulk of expellees were women, children, and the elderly; many fit men were kept back by the authorities to provide labor for the region’s economic recovery. Despite the Allied hope expressed at Potsdam that expulsions should be ‘orderly and humane,’ the wave of retributive violence that followed German defeat was visited indiscriminately on German minorities with little order or humanity. Estimates of the deaths among the expellees vary widely, from half a million to 2 million, but what is not in doubt is that hundreds of thousands did die from hunger, hypothermia, disease, and deliberate killing.17 The first six months after the end of the war was a period of so-called ‘wild expulsions’ when German communities were forced to march across the frontier into the four Allied zones of occupation or were crammed into unsanitary trains with little food or clothing for lengthy and debilitating journeys to German territory. In the first wave of retribution, police and soldiers treated the Germans as the Jews had been treated in the deportations to the East. In one atrocity in June 1945, Czech soldiers forced 265 Sudeten Germans from a train at Horní Moštěnice. The group, including 120 women and 74 children, were forced to dig a mass grave behind the station and were then shot in the back of the neck into the pit.18 In many cases, expellees were given only a few hours’ notices, sometimes only a few minutes, and could take little with them. Boxcars were filled up so that the expellees could only stand, crushed against each other, and trains were sent off with no water or food onboard; the dead were removed at stations along the way. Some were first confined in makeshift camps where the men did forced labor in conditions familiar to all concentration camps – poor food, lice, typhus, routine brutalities. 

For the Allies, the first waves of expulsion were challenging to deal with in zones where problems of food and rehabilitation were challenging enough for the existing German population. There were occasions when the reception authorities refused entry. American officials worried that they were colluding with what one called ‘these terrible and inhumane things.’ British officials reported back to London the routine atrocities they witnessed. Still, the Foreign Office view was to avoid condemning the Czechs or Poles lest the British got the reputation ‘of being unnecessarily softhearted with the Germans’.19 Eventually, the Allies agreed to impose some order on the expulsions. In October 1945, a Combined Repatriation Executive was established, responsible for the logistical program of moving expellees to Germany and ‘Displaced Persons’ back to their countries of origin, a total of more than 6 million people. In November, an Allied Control Council agreement was announced, allocating numbers of expellees for each zone (2.75 million for the Soviet Zone, 2.25 million for the American, 1.5 million for the British, and 150,000 for the French), and for the following year, the expulsions continued under Allied supervision. Conditions remained poor for the deported Germans despite efforts to establish regulations about their treatment and transfer, but conditions in Germany were seldom better. The Allies had not anticipated the vast exodus of Germans from Eastern and Central Europe. They were settled in makeshift camps, even former concentration camps, with little food and welfare and poor employment prospects. In the Soviet Zone, there were 625 camps by the end of 1945. In the Western zones, thousands more. As in Japan, reintegrating the expellees proved a long and strenuous process among the resident German population, many of whom distrusted the new arrivals and disapproved of the cost of keeping them.20 

While the flow of expellees from the new empires moved one way, millions of men, women, and children displaced by the war as refugees, orphans, forced laborers, or prisoners moved in the opposite direction, either to return home or to seek a new home overseas. This new wave of empire-building victims numbered tens of millions, victims of an unprecedented scale of forced displacement. In East Asia, the most significant removal occurred in China, where Chiang Kai-shek’s government estimated that 42 million ended the war having, in the official term, ‘fled to another place. Post-war estimates for the entire refugee population, including those who moved more than once, suggest that 95 million people, a quarter of the people, were displaced at some point during the war. 35 and 44 percent of the population moved away from the occupied provinces in the north and east. Most returned as best they could to the formerly occupied areas, often after months of further movement, but state aid was provided for fewer than 2 million of them. Some abandoned the effort and remained permanently displaced. Refugees who returned found the family networks broken up. Their homes and possessions were taken over by those who had stayed behind, an outcome that provoked a growing resentment at the communities that had not fled the Japanese but had collaborated by implication.21 The return of forced laborers, colonial troops mobilized for the Japanese armed forces, and the numerous ‘comfort women’ forced into prostitution was the responsibility of the American and British occupation authorities and was carried out during 1945 through a program of repatriation based on a rough estimate of assigned nationality. 

In the European theatre, the wartime Allies had realized long before the end of the war that the new German empire had created a potentially unlimited displacement problem through the exploitation of slave labor, racial deportation, and terror. In this case, the DPs were not refugees from the German new order but were mainly taken from their home communities to service the German war machine or fill up the concentration camps. Some were volunteers for the German military machine from the occupied East, now stranded by German defeat. In 1943, two years before the formal United Nations Organization was established, the probationary ‘United Nations’ inaugurated the Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) to anticipate the issues confronted once Germany and its allies were defeated. Welfare was to help, in Roosevelt’s words, ‘the victims of German and Japanese barbarism.’ 22 UNRRA operated in sixteen countries in Asia and Europe, distributing food aid between 1945 and 1947 valued at $10 billion. In Western Europe, the administration was organized in small teams of thirteen people, composed of medical, welfare, clerical and organizational staff, more than half of them from continental Europe to help with the anticipated language problems. In the Soviet Zone, UNRRA missions collaborated with local authorities in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, and Belorussia. Still, goods had to be handed over at ports or at the frontier, to be distributed by government agents rather than UNRRA.23 By summer 1945, 322 teams were administering some 227 centers in the Western zones of Germany and 25 in Austria; by 1947, there were 762 DP centers in Italy, Austria and Germany.24

The total number of displaced non-German populations has been estimated at 14 million, but precise figures are impossible to calculate once again. Figures for the areas occupied by the Red Army are uncertain since UNRRA did not operate directly in the Soviet zones. Millions made their way home in the weeks following the war’s end, aided by American trucks and priority trains. Out of the 1.2 million French deportees and prisoners in Germany, only 40,550 were left by June 1945. By July, 3.2 million DPs had returned home, leaving 1.8 million in the centers run by UNRRA.

Conditions at first were chaotic as the displaced were housed and fed in improvised barracks. Food was scarce despite the priority given to DPs, and by 1947, when there were still more than half a million DPs in the camps, daily calorie intake was down to 1,600 per head, well below the level necessary to sustain total health.25 The Western Allies assumed that all those displaced would want to return home after their ordeal, but in practice, the issue of repatriation was far from straightforward. Jewish DPs were given special status as ‘United Nations nationals’ to protect them from being returned to areas where they had been the victims of persecution.26 The principal problem was the reluctance of millions of East Europeans to return to life under Communist rule. By September 1945, some 2 million Soviet citizens had been returned home from across Europe. Still, the West had little understanding of what the transfer meant for men and women who were treated on their return as if their contact contaminated them with fascism. Screened by the NKVD or the military intelligence agency Smersh, some were allowed home, others exiled to remote parts of the Soviet Union, while thousands were sent to the Soviet concentration and labor camps. From the 5.5 million soldiers and civilians who were repatriated, some 3 million were punished in one way or another. Around 2.4 million were allowed home, but of these, 638,000 were later rearrested.27 Soviet officials and officers toured the Western DP camps seeking out those they classified as Soviet citizens for repatriation. Western armies initially collaborated in forcing reluctant deportees into Soviet hands, with the single exception of nationals from the Baltic republics, whose independence had been destroyed in 1939–41 through Soviet occupation. Thousands of Yugoslavs who had fought against Tito’s partisans or who supported the royalist cause were returned by the British army against their will. They were slaughtered or imprisoned on their return.28 

By October 1945, there was enough evidence of systematic abuse of those who returned into Communist hands that Eisenhower, as supreme commander in the West, formally directed that DPs from the region could choose whether to return or not, despite vigorous Soviet protests and the decision was confirmed by the United Nations General Assembly in February 1946 ‘This so-called tolerance,’ bemoaned the Soviet delegate, Andrei Vyshinsky, ‘is known to history in one word: Munich!’ 29 Nevertheless, over the following two years, UNRRA and its successor, the International Refugee Organization, were made great efforts to persuade Russians, Poles, and Yugoslavs to return home. A hardcore of 450,000 Soviet soldiers and civilians refused to return. In the end, Western states allowed large numbers of DPs to emigrate, stimulated by post-war labor shortages. In Britain, 115,000 veterans of the Polish units that fought in the West were allowed to stay; Canada took 157,000 by the end of 1951, Australia a further 182,000. Under pressure from a cross-party lobby group, the Citizens’ Committee on Displaced Persons, President Truman was persuaded to pass two enabling acts in June 1948 and June 1950 to allow 400,000 DPs to settle in the United States. By 1952 there was only 152,000 dependent DPs left, most elderly, disabled, or chronic tuberculosis. The last centers were closed down by the German Federal government in 1957.30

United Nations in coping with the aftermath of the Axis empires

The early involvement of the United Nations in coping with the aftermath of the Axis empires anticipated a broader commitment, enshrined in Article 1 of the founding Charter, finally agreed in June 1945, to respect the self-determination of peoples. This was more than a response to the destruction of nations at the hands of the Axis empires. It implied that the other, older colonial empires should see the destruction of German, Japanese and Italian colonialism as a prelude to a broader global program eventually to end all territorial empires. ‘The colonial days are past,’ declared Roosevelt’s Republican rival Wendell Willkie on a world tour in 1942, ‘… this war must mean an end to the empire of nations over other nations,’ and few Americans would have disagreed.31 ‘Imperialism is imperialism whether it is old or new,’ ran an editorial in the American Mercury in February 1945, ‘and the daily routine violence necessary to maintain old tyrannies is almost as inexcusable as new aggression.’ 32 The end of the war in 1945 produced a fundamentally different outcome from 1919 when popular demands for self-determination evaporated in the face of resistance from the imperial powers. Three out of the four significant victors in 1945 – the United States, the Soviet Union, and China – were opposed to surviving imperial power and colonial possession. Although Britain and France hoped that as senior members of the United Nations and permanent members of the Security Council, the new international organization might help protect and revitalize their empires after years of wartime crisis, they were quickly disabused. The war was a watershed for the European empires. Anti-colonial critics argued that the fight against the Axis had been about securing political independence for all peoples, not just the independent states of Europe. Drawing on the language of the 1941 Atlantic Charter and Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the Nigerian nationalist Nnamdi Azikiwe (later the first president of independent Nigeria) drafted a ‘Freedom Charter’ in 1943 that included a right to life, freedom of expression, and association, and the right to self-determination. Both the earlier documents, so Azikiwe argued, confirmed ‘the right of all people to choose the form of government under which they may live.’ 33 The Iraqi premier, Nuri al-Sa’id, wrote to Churchill that he hoped ‘the authors of the Atlantic Charter will not fail to find a way for the United Nations to secure [independence] for the Arabs … ’34 In the event, the United Nations did not define ‘self-determination’ as a substantive right until December 1950, and then it was not legally binding until UN Resolution 1514 was passed in December 1960, by an overwhelming majority, under the title ‘Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Peoples and Countries’. This became, the British Colonial Office noted, a ‘sacred text of the United Nations.35

This was not the outcome that the European imperial powers wanted. They assumed that 1945 would be very like 1919, with self-determination re-established in Europe (though in a very different guise in the area dominated by the Soviet Union) but not applied to empire territories. In the aftermath of the war, all the imperial powers prioritized rebuilding the peacetime economy and exploiting the empire as a way to re-establish political credibility and prestige after the sudden wartime lapse of political and moral authority. An OSS report to Washington warned that the British Labour government that replaced the wartime coalition in July 1945 ‘is as empire-minded as was its Conservative predecessor under Churchill.’36 The new British prime minister, Clement Attlee, thought the ‘simple surrender’ of colonial territories to be ‘undesirable and unpractical.’ When Montgomery, now head of the Imperial General Staff, went on a tour of Africa in November and December 1947, he reported to the government that he considered the Africans to be still ’a, complete savage’. He favored exploiting the empire ‘so that Britain may survive.’37 In 1944, General de Gaulle, at the Brazzaville Conference in French Congo, called for greater integration between the colonies and France while ruling out ‘any idea of autonomy, any possibility of evolution outside the French bloc of empire.’38 The Dutch government, on its return to the Netherlands, set out at once to develop a new form of Dutch’ commonwealth’ in a restructured empire, now that all prospects of the Dutch settlement in the conquered German East had disappeared.39 All the wartime imperial allies understood that to be respectable in the new post-war order, they would have to emphasize their commitment to the economic and social development of their empires, as they had done in the inter-war years, while at the same time avoiding the promise of independence. 

For Britain and France, the changed balance of power at the end of the war was difficult to accept. They had been the two major global powers in 1939 thanks to empire, and empire might again restore their great-power status. The British delegate at the founding conference of the United Nations could even claim that the empire had been ‘one vast machine for the defense of liberty and should be retained.40 Both governments feared that the United States might insist at the founding of the United Nations in May 1945 that all colonies become trustee territories under international supervision. Their success at the San Francisco Conference in introducing Article 2 (7) to the Charter, confirming that colonial rule was an internal affair and not subject to interference, allowed them to develop an empire again to underpin their global status. The British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, was a consistent defender of empire as a means to create a ‘third power’ between the Soviet Union and the United States, taking up the idea of a ‘tripartite system’ already developed by the Foreign Office in May 1945 to ensure that the European victors were treated as equals.41 Bevin opposed independence for India, hoped to extend the British Empire to Libya, and disliked the UN trusteeship scheme. There was a strong preference for expanding the idea of ‘Commonwealth’, a loose (and loosely defined) association of independent states, dominated by Britain, as a third global force. (The prefix ‘British’ was dropped from the Commonwealth’s title in 1949 to avoid accusations of neo-colonialism.)42 

Bevin took up another Foreign Office idea for a bloc of European imperial powers – Britain, France, Belgium – exploiting ‘Eurafrica’ to help secure. He told the British Cabinet in January 1948, ‘an equality with the Western hemisphere and the Soviet blocs.’43 Hugh Dalton, chancellor of the exchequer, thought that with the exploitation of African resources, ‘we could have the US dependent on us.’44 The project petered out because of lukewarm support from the French government. Instead, the French planned to create a new constitutional framework for their empire, which would bind the colonies more closely to metropolitan France by promising citizenship status to colonial subjects and a limited version of local autonomy. The French Union was founded following a plebiscite in 1946. Still, it soon became apparent that its purpose was to ensure the long-term survival of a colonial relationship in which colonial subjects would not enjoy the same suffrage, civil rights, welfare provision, or economic opportunities enjoyed by the French. There was no intention that the Union would allow national independence; Union meant ties that bound the empire more tightly.45


The critical factor for Japan, Italy, and Germany was territory. Control over a domain, exercised in various formal and informal ways, lay at the heart of the empire. The model for ‘territoriality’ was the forty years of violent territorial expansion and pacification that preceded the 1930s and were still going on. In this more extended context, the decisions taken in Tokyo, Rome, or Berlin to wage their local wars of aggression make historical sense. The discourses of ‘race and space’ that had supported empire since the late nineteenth century had lost none of their explanatory force for the generation that came to power in the 1930s. Though this form of imperialism appears anachronistic, even delusional, the paradigm of empire seemed familiar and near. The results of the redistribution of territory in 1919–23, or the consequences of the economic catastrophe after 1929, only strengthened rather than weakened the belief that seizing more territory and resources was an indispensable means to save the nation. From the Manchurian Incident to Word War II.

It is not clear when Hitler decided that living space in the East could be found more usefully in Poland. Until 1938, the Poles were regarded as potential allies in a German-dominated anti-Soviet bloc. They would hand back the German lands they were granted at Versailles and voluntarily became a German satellite. Only when the Polish government repeatedly refused the German request for an extra-territorial rail and road link across the Polish Corridor and the incorporation of the League-run Free City of Danzig back into Germany did Hitler decide to launch against the Poles the small war he had been denied in 1938, and to take Polish resources by force. Poland now contained the vast former German coal and steel region in Silesia and promised vast areas for German settlement and an agricultural surplus to feed the German population. At the meeting on 23 May 1939, when Hitler presented to the military leadership his intentions against Poland, he claimed that ‘Danzig is not the object in this case. For us, it involves rounding off our living space in the East and securing our food supplies.’ Food supply could only come from the East because it was sparsely populated, continued Hitler. German agricultural proficiency would raise the productivity of the region many times over. From the Manchurian Incident to Word War II, part two.

The calculation that Hitler would be deterred by the sight of the rapidly rearming British and French empires or by the wave of anti-fascist sentiment washing across the democracies was not entirely misplaced. A weaker hand had forced Hitler to climb down from war in 1938. Intelligence sources suggested a severe economic crisis in Germany, even the possibility of an anti-Hitler coup. Even after the German invasion of Poland on 1 September, Chamberlain allowed him to withdraw his forces rather than face a world war. The idea of a conference was briefly mooted by the Italian leadership on 2 September, echoing Mussolini’s intervention in September 1938. Still, the foreign secretary Lord Halifax told his Italian counterpart Ciano that the British condition was ‘the withdrawal of German troops from Polish soil,’ which ended any prospect of peace.60 Historians have searched for convincing evidence that Chamberlain wanted to wriggle out of his commitment even at this late stage, but there is none. Only a complete German capitulation to British and French demands for an end to the violence would have averted world war, and by 1 September, that was the least likely outcome. Neither containment nor deterrence had in this case worked. Chamberlain announced a state of war on the radio at 11.15 on the morning of 3 September; Daladier announced a state of war at 5 p.m. that afternoon. A temporary alliance of imperial elites and democratic anti-fascists had made possible a new world war. ‘We can’t lose,’ observed the British army chief of staff in his diary. When the war of empires started in Manchuria not included Western Europe.

While the collapse of resistance on the northeast front continued in late May, the significant Allies began to consider the awful capitulation scenario unthinkable two weeks before. Weygand, despite his apparent resilience and energy, told the French Cabinet on 25 May to think about abandoning the fight, and Reynaud was the first to pronounce the word ‘armistice,’ though it was an ambiguous term, as the Germans had discovered in November 1918. According to a commitment made on 25 March 1940, this had to be agreed with the British that neither ally would create a separate peace. On 26 May, Reynaud flew to London to explain to Churchill that France might consider giving up. Unknown to him, the British War Cabinet had begun to discuss a proposal from the foreign secretary, Halifax, presented to him by the Italian ambassador, for a possible conference convened by Mussolini. Italian motives remain unclear since, by now, Mussolini was also preparing to declare war to profit from what seemed to the Italian leadership a ripe opportunity for exploiting the imminent conquest of France. After three days of debate, the British decided against any initiative. Though often seen as a turning point at which the appeasers might nearly have triumphed, some discussion of the consequences of a comprehensive defeat was inevitable, and not even Halifax had favored any settlement that compromised Britain’s primary interests. Eventually winning support from Chamberlain, who kept a seat in the War Cabinet, Churchill carried the debate to reject any approach to Mussolini. British leaders were already contemplating war without France. ‘If France could not defend herself,’ Churchill told his colleagues, ‘it was better that she should get out of the war. The war in the West deepens while at the same time it spread further into the western colonies.

The British Empire did not collapse or accept defeat in 1940, but the year was a turning point in the long history of European imperialism. Failure and occupation in Europe undermined the claims of the other metropolitan powers, France, Belgium fatally, and the Netherlands. Fatally undermined For the British Empire, the crisis raised awkward questions about the future. Nevertheless, the British government refused to confront the paradox of emphasizing the value of the empire to Britain’s war effort while at the same time using force to stifle demands for greater political autonomy in India and running Egypt under virtual martial law. The priority was the survival of the home islands. Neither side, German nor British, could find a strategy capable of undermining the other’s war willingness or achieving a decisive military result. Still, it seems almost certain that with an army of 180 divisions and the spoils of much of continental Europe, Germany would have found a way in 1941 of bringing the war in the West to an end if Hitler had not turned to the East. Britain, by contrast, had no way of achieving victory over Germany. Expelled from Europe twice in Norway and France, facing a crisis in Africa, economically weakened, desperately defending its access to the broader world economy, Britain faced strategic bankruptcy. The war Britain waged for a year after the fall of France was the one prepared for in the 1930s – air defense, a powerful navy, and lesser imperial conflicts. This was the war Chamberlain had prepared for, but Churchill was the one forced to wage it. War almost lost.

The two major campaigns against British Malaya and the American Philippines protectorate began on 8 December. Pilots with specialized training for extended overseas flights attacked the Philippines, flying from Japanese Empire bases on Taiwan; as in Oahu, they found American aircraft lined up on the tarmac at Clark Field and destroyed half the B-17s and one-third of the fighters. Amphibious landings began on the 10th on the main island of Luzon and made rapid progress towards the capital, Manila, which surrendered on 3 January. The United States commander, General Douglas MacArthur, appointed earlier in the year, withdrew his mixed American–Filipino force south to the Bataan peninsula. The staff was doomed with no air cover and only 1,000 tons of supplies shipped by an American submarine. MacArthur was evacuated to Australia on 12 March to fight another day. Bataan was surrendered on 9 April. On 6 May, after a grueling and tenacious defense of the island fortress of Corregidor, the surviving American commander, General Jonathan Wainwright, gave up the fight.

The Japanese Fourteenth Army captured almost 70,000 soldiers, 10,000 of them American. They were marched along the Bataan Peninsula to an improvised camp; ill, exhausted, and hungry, they suffered beatings, killings, and humiliation from Japanese Empire forces. The geopolitical transformation of Asia and the Pacific.

In 1942 the new Fair Employment agency was absorbed by the War Manpower Commission, limiting the prospects for using the agency to combat racial inequality. In the South, the administration offered subsidies and training programs to help raise the productivity of white farms while turning a blind eye to the increased control over black workers that wartime reforms made possible. The president remained largely silent on the paradox presented by his rhetoric of freedom and the survival of racial segregation and discrimination at home. The same held for Roosevelt’s view of racism in the British Empire, which was prudently cautious about undermining the wartime alliance, despite his private view that the colonial empires were morally bankrupt and ought to be brought under international trusteeship or granted independence. When the British authorities arrested Gandhi in August 1942 and thousands of other Indian supporters of his ‘Quit India’ campaign, Roosevelt made no public statement condemning the decision or the violence. Walter White, secretary of the NAACP, canceled a speech he was to make on behalf of the Office of War Information in protest and sent a telegram to Roosevelt linking the civil rights movement to the broader world struggle for emancipation from Western imperialism: ‘One billion brown and yellow people in the Pacific will without question consider ruthless treatment of Indian leaders and peoples typical of what white people will do to colored people if United Nations win. How the various countries justified WWII.


1. Amanke Okafor, Nigeria: Why We Fight for Freedom (London, 1949), 6. 

2.  The National Archives London (henceforth TNA), KV2/1853, Colonial Office to Special Branch, 22 Sept. 1950; Security Liaison Office to Director General, MI5, 20 Oct. 1950, ‘G. N. A. Okafar’; Director General to Security Liaison Office, West Africa, 12 June. 1950. 

3. Okafor, Nigeria, 5, 30, 39. 

4. David Roll, The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler (New York, 2013), 173–4. 

5. TNA, FO 898/413, Political Warfare Executive, ‘Projection of Britain’, propaganda to Europe: general policy papers. 

6. Jean-Christophe Notin, La campagne d’Italie 1943–1945: Les victoires oubliées de la France (Paris, 2002), 692–3; Richard Lamb, War in Italy 1943–1945: A Brutal Story (London, 1993), 259–60; David Stafford, Endgame 1945: Victory, Retribution, Liberation (London, 2007), 354, 469–70. 

7. Nicola Labanca, Oltremare: Storia dell’espansione coloniale italiana (Bologna, 2002), 428–33; Saul Kelly, Cold War in the Desert: Britain, the United States and the Italian Colonies, 1945–52 (New York, 2000), 164–7. 

8. Antonio Morone, L’ultima colonia: Come l’Italia è tornata in Africa 1950–1960 (Rome, 2011), 131–3, 176–7, 383; Kelly, Cold War in the Desert, 169–71. 

9. Ian Connor, Refugees and Expellees in Post-War Germany (Manchester, 2007), 8–10 on early German settlements. 

10. Labanca, Oltremare, 438–9; Gerard Cohen, In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order (New York, 2012), 6. 

11. Lori Watt, When Empire Comes Home: Repatriation and Reintegration in Postwar Japan (Cambridge, Mass., 2009), 1–3, 43–4. 

12. Louise Young, Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism (Berkeley, Calif., 1998), 410–11. 

13. Watt, When Empire Comes Home, 43–7, 97. 

14. Ibid., 47–50. 

15. Haruko Cook and Theodore Cook (eds.), Japan at War: An Oral History (New York, 1992), 413–15, testimony of Iitoyo Shōgo, official in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. 

16. Connor, Refugees and Expellees, 13.

17. Raymond Douglas, Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War (New Haven, Conn., 2012), 1–2, 93–6. 

18. Ibid., 96. 

19. Ibid., 126, 149. 

20. Ibid., 124–5, 160–11, 309; Ruth Wittlinger, ‘Taboo or tradition? The “Germans-as-victims” theme in the Federal Republic until the mid-1990s’, in Bill Niven (ed.), Germans as Victims (Basingstoke, 2006), 70–73. 

21. Diana Lary, The Chinese People at War: Human Suffering and Social Transformation, 1937–1945 (Cambridge, 2010), 170. 

22. G. Daniel Cohen, ‘Between relief and politics: refugee humanitarianism in occupied Germany’, Journal of Contemporary History, 43 (2008), 438. 

23. Jessica Reinisch, ‘“We shall build anew a powerful nation”: UNRRA, internationalism, and national reconstruction in Poland’, Journal of Contemporary History, 43 (2008), 453–4. 

24. Mark Wyman, DPs: Europe’s Displaced Persons, 1945–1951 (Ithaca, NY, 1998), 39, 46–7. 

25. Ibid., 17–19, 37, 52. There were 844,144 DPs dependent on UNRRA in March 1946, 562,841 in August 1948. 

26. Cohen, ‘Between relief and politics’, 445, 448–9. 

27. R. Rummell, Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder since 1917 (London, 1996), 194–5; Mark Edele, Stalin’s Defectors: How Red Army Soldiers became Hitler’s Collaborators, 1941–1945 (Oxford, 2017), 139–42. 

28. Nicolas Bethell, The Last Secret: Forcible Repatriation to Russia 1944–1947 (London, 1974), 92–118; Keith Lowe, Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II (London, 2012), 252–62. 

29. Cohen, In War’s Wake, 26. 

30. Wyman, DPs, 186–90, 194–5, 202–4. 

31. James Barr, Lords of the Desert: Britain’s Struggle with America to Dominate the Middle East (London, 2018), 22. 

32. Jessica Pearson, ‘Defending the empire at the United Nations: the politics of international colonial oversight in the era of decolonization’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 45 (2017), 528–9. 

33. Jan Eckel, ‘Human rights and decolonization: new perspectives and open questions’, Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism and Development, 1 (2010), 114–16. 

34. Stefanie Wichhart, ‘Selling democracy during the second British occupation of Iraq, 1941–5’, Journal of Contemporary History, 48 (2013), 525–6. 

35. Eckel, ‘Human rights and decolonization’, 118; Dane Kennedy, Decolonization: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2016), 1; W. David McIntyre, Winding up the British Empire in the Pacific Islands (Oxford, 2014), 90–91. 

36. Lanxin Xiang, Recasting the Imperial Far East: Britain and America in China 1945–1950 (Armonk, NY, 1995), 38. 

37. Peter Catterall, ‘The plural society: Labour and the Commonwealth idea 1900–1964’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 46 (2018), 830; H. Kumarasingham, ‘Liberal ideals and the politics of decolonization’, ibid., 818. Montgomery citation from ‘Tour of Africa November–December 1947’, 10 Dec. 1947. 

38. Kennedy, Decolonisation, 34–5. 

39. Geraldien von Frijtag Drabbe Künzel, ‘“Germanje”: Dutch empire-building in Nazi-occupied Europe’, Journal of Genocide Research, 19 (2017), 251–3; Bart Luttikhuis and Dirk Moses, ‘Mass violence and the end of Dutch colonial empire in Indonesia’, Journal of Genocide Research, 14 (2012), 260–61; Kennedy, Decolonization, 34–5. 

40. Mark Mazower, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton, NJ, 2009), 150–51. 

41. Anne Deighton, ‘Entente neo-coloniale? Ernest Bevin and proposals for an Anglo-French Third World Power 1945–1949’, Diplomacy & Statecraft, 17 (2006), 835–9; Kumarasingham, ‘Liberal ideals’, 815–16. 

42. Christopher Prior, ‘“The community which nobody can define”: meanings of the Commonwealth in the late 1940s and 1950s’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 47 (2019), 569–77. 

43. Harry Mace, ‘The Eurafrique initiative, Ernest Bevin and Anglo-French relations in the Foreign Office 1945–50’, Diplomacy & Statecraft, 28 (2017), 601–3. 

44. Deighton, ‘Entente neo-coloniale?’, 842–5. 

45. Martin Thomas, Fight or Flight: Britain, France and Their Roads from Empire (Oxford, 2014), 86–90. 

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