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Hi, I’m John Green; this is Crash Course
World History and today we’re going to talk
about decolonization. The empires European
states formed in the 19th century proved about
as stable and long-lasting as Genghis Khan’s
leading to so many of the nation states we
know and love today. Yes, I’m looking at
[singing] DID YOU EVER KNOW YOU’RE MY BURUNDI?
STAN, DON’T CUT TO THE INTRO! I SING LIKE
So unless you’re over 60-- and let’s face
it, Internet, you’re not-- you’ve only
ever known a world of nation states. But as
we’ve seen from Egypt to Alexander the Great
to China to Rome to the Mongols, who, for
once, are not the exception here, [Mongoltage]
to the Ottomans and the Americas, empire has long
been the dominant way we’ve organized ourselves
politically -- or at least the way that
other people have organized us.
Mr. Green, Mr. Green! So to them
Star Wars would’ve been, like, a completely
different movie. Most of them would’ve been
like, Go Empire! Crush those rebels!
Yeah, also they’d be like what is this screen
that displays crisp moving images of events
that are not currently occurring? Also, not
to get off-topic, but you never learn what
happens AFTER the rebel victory in Star Wars.
And, as as we’ve learned from the French
Revolution to the Arab Spring, revolution
is often the easy part. I mean, you think
destroying a Death Star is hard? Try negotiating
a trade treaty with Gungans. Right, anyway.
So, the late 20th century was not the first
time that empires disintegrated. Rome comes
to mind. Also the Persians. And of course
the American Revolution ended one kind of
European imperial experiment. But in all those
cases, Empire struck back… heh heh, you
see what I did there? I mean, Britain lost
its 13 colonies, but later controlled half
of Africa and all of India. And what makes
the recent decolonization so special is that
at least so far, no empires have emerged to
replace the ones that fell.
And this was largely due to World War II because
on some level, the Allies were fighting to
stop Nazi imperialism. Hitler wanted to take
over Central Europe, and Africa, and probably
the Middle East-- and the Ally defeat of the
Nazis discredited the whole idea of empire.
So the English, French, and Americans couldn’t
very well say to the colonial troops who’d
fought alongside them, “Thank you so much
for helping us to thwart Germany’s imperialistic
ambitions. As a reward, please hand in your
rifle and return to your state of subjugation.”
Plus, most of the big colonial powers-- especially
France, Britain, and Japan-- had been significantly
weakened by World War II, by which I mean
that large swaths of them looked like this.
So, post-war decolonization happened all over
the place: The British colony that had once
been “India” became three independent
nations. By the way, is this Gandhi or is
this Ben Kingsley playing Gandhi? In Southeast
Asia, French Indochina became Cambodia, Laos,
and Vietnam. And the Dutch East Indies became
Indonesia. But of course when we think about
decolonization, we mostly think about Africa
going from this to this.
So we’re gonna oversimplify here, because
we have to, but decolonization throughout
Afro-Eurasia had some similar characteristics.
Because it occurred in the context of the
Cold War, many of these new nations had to
choose between socialist and capitalist influences,
which shaped their futures. While many of
these new countries eventually adopted some
form of democracy, the road there was often
rocky. Also, decolonization often involved
violence, usually the overthrow of colonial
But we’ll turn now to the most famous nonviolent--
or supposedly so, anyway-- decolonization:
that of India. So the story begins, more or
less, in 1885 with the founding of the Indian
National Congress. Congress Party leaders
and other nationalists in India were usually
from the elite classes. Initially, they didn’t
even demand independence from Britain. But
they were interested in creating a modern
Indian nation rather than a return to some
ancient pre-colonial form, possibly because
India was-- and is--hugely diverse and really
only unified into a single state when under
imperial rule by one group or another, whether
the Mauryans, the Guptas, the Mughals, or
the British. Okay, let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
The best known Indian nationalist, Mohandas
K. Gandhi, was a fascinating character. A
British educated lawyer born to a wealthy
family, he’s known for making his own clothes,
his long fasts, and his battles to alleviate
poverty, improve the rights of women, and
achieve a unified Indian independence from
Britain. In terms of decolonization, he stands
out for his use of nonviolence and his linking
it to a somewhat mythologized view of Indian
history. I mean, after all, there’s plenty
of violence in India’s past and in its heroic
epics, but Gandhi managed to hearken back
to a past that used nonviolence to bring change.
Gandhi and his compatriot Jawaharlal Nehru
believed that a single India could continue
to be ruled by Indian elites and somehow transcend
the tension between the country’s Hindu
majority and its sizable Muslim minority.
In this they were less practical than their
contemporary, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader
of the Muslim League who felt-- to quote historian
Ainslie Embree-- "that the unified India of
which the Congress spoke was an artificial
one, created and maintained by British bayonets.”
Jinnah proved correct and in 1947 when the
British left, their Indian colony was partitioned into
the modern state of India and West and East Pakistan,
the latter of which became Bangladesh in 1971.
While it’s easy to congratulate both the
British and the Indian governments on an orderly
and nonviolent transfer of power, the reality
of partition was neither orderly nor nonviolent.
About 12 million people were displaced as
Hindus in Pakistan moved to India and Muslims
in India moved to Pakistan. As people left
their homes, sometimes unwillingly, there
was violence, and all tolled as many as half
a million people were killed, more than died
in the bloody Indonesian battle for independence.
So while it’s true that the massive protests
that forced Britain to end its colonization
of India were nonviolent, the emergence of
the independent states involved really wasn’t.
Thanks, Thought Bubble.
All this violence devastated Gandhi, whose
lengthy and repeated hunger strikes to end
violence had mixed results, and who was eventually
assassinated by a Hindu nationalist who felt
that Gandhi was too sympathetic to Muslims.
Oh, it’s time for the open letter?
An Open Letter to hunger strikers.
But first, let’s see what’s in the secret
A cupcake? Stan, this just seems cruel. These
are from Meredith the Intern to celebrate
Merebration, the holiday she invented to celebrate
the anniversary of her singleness.
Dear hunger strikers, Do you remember earlier
when I said that Gandhi hearkened back to
a mythologized Indian past? Well it turns
out that hunger striking in India goes back
all the way to, like, the 5th century BCE.
Hunger strikes have been used around the world
including British and American suffragettes,
who hunger struck to get the vote. And in
pre-Christian Ireland, when you felt wronged
by someone, it was common practice to sit
on their doorstep and hunger strike until
your grievance was addressed. And sometimes
it even works. I really admire you, hunger
strikers. But I lack the courage of your convictions.
Also, this is an amazing cupcake.
Best wishes, John Green
Since independence, India has largely been
a success story, although we will talk about
the complexity of India’s emerging global
capitalism next week.
For now, though, let’s travel east to Indonesia,
a huge nation of over 13,000 islands that
has largely been ignored here on Crash Course
World History due to our long-standing bias
against islands. Like, we haven’t even mentioned
Greenland on this show. The Greenlanders,
of course, haven’t complained because they
don’t have the Internet.
So, the Dutch exploited their island colonies
with the system of cultuurstelsel, in which
all peasants had to set aside one fifth of
their land to grow cash crops for export to
the Netherlands. This accounted for 25% of
the total Dutch national budget and it explains
why they have all kinds of fancy buildings
despite technically living underwater. They’re
like sea monkeys. This system was rather less
popular in Indonesia, and the Dutch didn’t
offer much in exchange. They couldn’t even
defend their colony from the Japanese, who
occupied it for most of World War II, during
which time the Japanese furthered the cause
of Indonesian nationalism by placing native
Indonesians in more prominent positions of
power, including Sukarno, who became Indonesia’s
first prime minister.
After the war, the Dutch-- with British help--
tried to hold onto their Indonesian colonies
with so-called “police actions,” which
went on for more than four years before Indonesia
finally won its independence in 1950. Over
in the French colonies of Indochina, so called
because they were neither Indian nor Chinese,
things were even more violent. The end of
colonization was disastrous in Cambodia, where
the 17-year reign of Norodom Sihanouk gave
way to the rise of the Khmer Rouge, which
massacred a stunning 21% of Cambodia’s population
between 1975 and 1979.
In Vietnam, the French fought communist-led
nationalists, especially Ho Chi Minh from
almost the moment World War II ended until
1954, when the French were defeated. And then
the Americans learned that there was a land
war available in Asia, so they quickly took
over from the French and communists did not
fully control Vietnam until 1975. Despite
still being ostensibly communist, Vietnam
now manufactures all kinds of stuff that we
like in America, especially sneakers.
More about that next week, too, but now to
Egypt. You’ll remember that Egypt bankrupted
itself in the 19th century, trying to industrialize
and ever since had been ruled by an Egyptian
king who took his orders from the British.
So while technically Egypt had been independent
since 1922, it was very dependent independence.
But, that changed in the 1950s, when the king
was overthrown by the army. The army commander
who led that coup was Gamal Abdul Nasser,
who proved brilliant at playing the US and
the USSR off each other to the benefit of
Egypt. Nasser’s was a largely secular nationalism,
and he and his successors saw one of the other
anti-imperialistic nationalist forces in Egypt,
the Muslim Brotherhood, as a threat. So once
in power, Nasser and the army banned the Muslim
Brotherhood, forcing it underground, where
it would disappear and never become an issue
again. Wait, what’s that? …Really?
And finally let’s turn to Central and Southern
Africa. One of the most problematic legacies
of colonialism was its geography. Colonial
boundaries became redefined as the borders
of new nation states, even where those boundaries
were arbitrary or, in some cases, pernicious.
The best known example is in Rwanda, where
two very different tribes, the Hutu and the
Tutsis were combined into one nation. But,
more generally, the colonizers’ focus on
value extraction really hurt these new nations.
Europeans claimed to bring civilization and
economic development to their colonies, but
this economic development focused solely on
building infrastructure to get resources and
Now whether European powers deliberately sabotaged
development in Africa is a hot-button topic
we’re going to stay well away from, but
this much is inarguably true: when the Europeans
left, African nations did not have the institutions
necessary to thrive in the post-war industrial
world. They had very few schools, for instance,
and even fewer universities. Like, when the
Congo achieved independence from Belgium in
1960, there were sixteen college graduates
in a country of fourteen million people.
Also, in many of these new countries, the
traditional elites had been undermined by
imperialism. Most Europeans didn’t rule
their African possessions directly but rather
through the proxies of local rulers. And once
the Europeans left, those local rulers, the
upper classes, were seen as illegitimate collaborators.
And this meant that a new group of rulers
had to rise up to take their place, often
with very little experience in governance.
I mean, Zimbabwe’s long-serving dictator
Robert Mugabe was a high school teacher. Let
that be a lesson to you. YOUR TEACHERS MAY
HAVE DICTATORIAL AMBITIONS. But most strongmen
have emerged, of course, from the military:
Joseph Mobutu seized power in the Congo, which
he held from 1965 until his death in 1997.
Idi Amin was military dictator of Uganda from
1971 to 1979. Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya
from 1977 until 2011. The list goes on, but
I don’t want to give the wrong impression
Because while the continent does have less
freedom and lower levels of development than
other regions in the world, many African nations
show strong and consistent signs of growth
despite the challenges of decolonization.
Botswana for instance has gone from 70% literacy
to 85% in the past 15 years and has seen steady
GDP growth over 5%. Benin’s economy has
grown in each of the past 12 years, which
is better than Europe or the US can say. In
2002, Kenya’s life expectancy was 47; today
it’s 63. Ethiopia’s per capita GDP has
doubled over the past 10 years; and Mauritania has
seen its infant mortality rate fall by more than 40%.
Now, this progress is spotty and fragile,
but it’s important to note that these nations
have existed, on average, about 13 years less
than my dad. Of course, past experience with
the fall of empires hasn’t given us cause
for hope, but many citizens of these new nations
are seeing real progress. That said, disaster
might lurk around the corner. It’s hard
to say. I mean, now more than ever, we’re
trying to tell the story of humans… from
inside the story of humans.
Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week.
Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan
Muller. Our script supervisor is Meredith
Danko. The associate producer is Danica Johnson.
The show is written by my high school history
teacher, Raoul Meyer, and myself. And our
graphics team is Thought Bubble. Last week’s
phrase of the week was “Meatloaf’s Career.”
If you want to guess at this week’s phrase
of the week or suggest future ones, you can
do so in comments where you can also ask questions
about today’s video that will be answered
by our team of historians. Thanks for watching
Crash Course and as we say in my hometown,
Don't Forget To Be Awesome.