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World War II undermines the colonial system

This map is part of a series of 14 animated maps showing the history of Decolonization after 1945.

The myth of the invulnerability of colonial powers and of white supremacy was seriously undermined by World War II.

In Europe, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France collapsed within a few short weeks when Germany launched its offensive. In Asia, the European powers were unable to defend their colonies against attacks from Japan.

 In 1940, Japanese troops occupied French Indochina.

A surprise raid on the American bases at Pearl Harbor gave Tokyo control of the skies and the seas and allowed Japanese troops to launch sudden attacks against South-East Asian countries and numerous archipelagos in the Pacific.

Hong Kong fell on 25 December 1941 and Singapore on 15 February 1942. In the Philippines, the last American troops surrendered on 6 May.

 Within a few months, Japan, sometimes with support from native populations only too happy to throw off the colonial yoke, took control of almost all the French, British, American, Dutch and Australian possessions from Burma to New Guinea.

 In other colonies, there were strong and increasingly radical calls for nationhood during the war.

- In India, violent riots broke out in 1942. The Congress Party called for the immediate departure of the British Raj with the famous slogan “Quit India”.

- The Sultan of Morocco demanded that the French protectorate be withdrawn in January 1943 and created the Istiqlal Party.

- In February 1943, the Algerian leader, Ferhat Abbas, set aside his plans for reforms and published a “Manifesto for the Algerian People”, which included specific demands for an autonomous state.

 Meanwhile, these same territories were required to contribute to the war effort.

Mobilized into a gigantic military camp, India sent more than 2 million soldiers to fill the ranks of the British armed forces, while France’s possessions in North and Black Africa provided nearly 250,000 combatants.

 This encouraged the colonies to hope that their sacrifices would be acknowledged after the war, especially given the promises made by the world powers for their future:

-       In August 1941, the US President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter, which contained a number of fundamental principles for future peace including “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they wish to live”.

-       In February 1944, General de Gaulle gave a speech in Brazzaville in which he made a commitment to reforms once the war was over. 

-       In San Francisco, in June 1945, the United Nations members signed a Charter recognizing that all peoples were equal and had the right to decide their future.