World War II, Africa

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World War II, Africa

World War II was ignited by competing territorial ambitions or claims on land in Europe, where tensions that would precipitate the war had been simmering since 1918, when a vindictive peace had been forced on Germany. Africa became embroiled in this conflict, which saw Germany make a bid to regain territories as well as colonies that it had lost during World War I. Earlier, Mussolini, seeking to revive the glory of Rome, had invaded Ethiopia in 1935 to avenge the defeat that Italy had suffered at the hands of Ethiopia in 1896. This unprovoked invasion aroused much anger and indignation on the part of Africans, who saw it as yet another instance of European colonial violence—in this case directed against one of only two remaining independent African countries.

Africa was called upon by the colonial powers (as it had been during World War I) to supply manpower for combat purposes both on and outside the continent. The numbers were quite staggering: half a million men were recruited by the French and the British to serve in the war. It was only in South Africa (given the racial politics of its white-led minority governments) that African soldiers were not allowed to bear arms.

Africa was drawn into the war in Tunisia and Egypt, where Italian and German armies (led by Erwin Rommel) were pitted against Allied forces (a significant number of whom were Africans); by 1943 allied victories had reversed earlier gains by Germany. In 1941 Allied forces and African troops liberated Ethiopia, which had been under fascist Italian occupation for at least six years. In addition, large numbers of Africans recruited by European powers saw action in Europe and in Burma against the Japanese, who had overrun most of Southeast Asia.

Africans also contributed to the war effort in other ways, including the production of food staples to feed the fighting men. Moreover, funds raised in Africa in support of the war effort were crucial to the production of munitions for the colonial powers.

Colonial recruiting strategies were quite sophisticated and often alarmist—antifascist propaganda focused on what life would be like under fascist/racist German rule for people of color—and anger over the Italian invasion may also have induced some to enlist. Nonetheless, more coercive pressure was also exerted on local chiefs to induce them to round up recruits and forced labor was used in key sectors of the economy to mobilize resources for the war effort. As a result, there were, as in the previous war, some Africans who were opposed to Africa's involvement in a war that called for sacrifice and a life of hardship (conscripted labor, increased taxation, declining cash crop prices, reduced imports, etc.) ostensibly to "make the world safe for democracy." This was, for instance, the case in the Congo, where Africans were forced to work in difficult and inhuman conditions in the mines. Such forced labor was considered necessary because during the war years Africa became a major supplier of raw materials such as rubber, sisal, and minerals (such as tin in Nigeria), especially after a number of Asian countries fell to imperialist Japan.

What did Africa have to show for its war effort in the service of the colonial masters? To begin with, prior to World War II Europeans had not seriously entertained the idea of granting African countries their independence. In fact, the period after World War I was characterized by European expansion or consolidation of colonial administration. While there were some movements here and there seeking a greater role for Africans in the administration of colonies, none of these efforts resulted in significant progress toward independence. World War II led to African aspirations being placed in check while the war was being waged. It soon became apparent, however—particularly as hundreds of thousands of Africans were drafted to fight in Burma and in Europe—that some future reward would have to be offered in recognition of the African war effort. In 1941 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Atlantic Charter, which promised Africans the right to choose the form of government they wanted to live under after the war. Many Africans thus had high hopes for a new future with better jobs and better opportunities.

Not surprisingly, the end of the war ushered in a new era in which Africans expected to earn their freedom; after all, hadn't they fought so well in the name of freedom and democracy to liberate Europe? Yet, European colonial rule was anything but democratic; it was autocratic, authoritarian, and even racist—especially in those colonies with a substantial European population. Despite this European intransigence, African movements for self-rule—and indeed freedom movements around the world—received a major boost in 1947 when India gained independence. Mahatma Gandhi in particular provided an ideological example for the independence fighter Kwame Nkrumah of the Gold Coast, later renamed Ghana.

World War II had also shattered any notions of European superiority, as African soldiers in Europe had witnessed the purveyors of a so-called higher civilization slaughtering each other. Africans began to revise their thinking about their place in the world and formed organizations or movements to express their nationalist sentiments. African intellectuals, who articulated African grievances against the colonial order, were at the head of these postwar movements, which sought to organize rural and urban populations into mass political parties. Nationalist parties emerged all over Africa and spearheaded the struggle for independence, whether through civil disobedience, as in the Gold Coast, or guerrilla warfare, as in Algeria. Clearly, African nationalism had been transformed (through a process that began as early as the 1930s) from a reformist movement to a revolutionary one.

Africans had flocked into the cities both before and during the war as colonial economies shifted to the production of war matériel. This demographic shift both expanded the population of Africa's urban centers and made the formation of mass parties more possible. At the same time a new elite, either locally or foreign educated, had emerged (as a product of the colonial order), which now had a mass audience (including proletarianized African workers) for its nationalist ideas. This elite realized that slavery and racism had created common bonds between Africans and people of African descent living in the areas of the African diaspora. More specifically, the Garveyist idea of racial pride filtered back to Africa through major African nationalists such as Nkrumah. Nkrumah saw Africans wherever they were as being united by their colonial experience or oppression at the hands of Europeans. These sentiments were expressed at the first Pan-African Congress, which was held in London in 1945 and brought together like-minded people from both the continent and the areas of the African diaspora. Among those present were future leaders of future independent African nations, including Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, and Hastings Banda.

French African colonies had served France well during its hour of need (when France fell to Germany in 1940), first of all by providing a base or capital for Charles de Gaulle's Free France movement in Brazzaville, French Congo. Moreover, a significant number of French divisions that fought in France were made up of African soldiers. France fulfilled some of the promises it had made during the war: it abolished both the unpopular indigenat legal system and forced labor, and granted citizenship to all inhabitants of its colonies. Nevertheless, by not spelling out clearly what the rights of citizens were, the French managed to deny citizenship to indigenous African populations on the paternalistic pretext that they were not ready for it. Moreover, the colonies sent only a small number of delegates to the Chamber of Deputies in France, well below the proportion of their population relative to that of France. Worse, the French did not plan to grant independence to their African colonies. They only did so after the costly Algerian revolution forced them to work out an arrangement that provided independence to their colonies while maintaining French influence through formal economic and other ties.

In France after the war, French soldiers were welcomed as heroes, but African soldiers were pushed into the background. In fact, France repatriated African soldiers to Africa, thus giving the impression that they wanted to weed them out of the army to keep it white. Some Africans believed that De Gaulle did not want French colonies to see Africans as liberators of France, as this would have serious implications for France's relations with its colonies. France did make an exception for Africans in France who were French citizens, as these soldiers were allowed to stay. Nevertheless, repatriation exposed the assimilation policy as a sham, because Africans were treated differently despite their efforts in the service of the French motherland.

The repatriated Africans were kept in temporary camps, as it was believed that once out of the army they would not be tied down by discipline. Disturbances did, in fact, break out in some of the camps where the ex-servicemen complained against white racism and low wages. In one such camp in Dakar, for instance, disgruntled protesters held a French commander-in-chief hostage. By the time order was restored, thirty-five people had been killed and over a hundred injured. Some of these ex-soldiers, despite being war heroes, were tried and some were marched through the city to humiliate them.

Riots and general strikes in the post-World War II period were not limited to Francophone areas of Africa only. Ex-soldiers and a new industrial class of workers, as well as other social groups, were involved in disturbances that brought educated elite leaders of the nationalist struggle, such as Nkrumah, into the political limelight. Nkrumah's Convention People's Party (CPP) organized protests and strikes that effectively paralyzed the colonial administration and forced it to negotiate with nationalist leaders over some of their demands. The catalyst for these actions was first provided by a mass demonstration in 1948, in which several ex-soldiers who had served in Burma were killed after security forces began firing into the crowd. With this disturbance, the Gold Coast in particular entered into a new era of full-fledged nationalism in which European colonial rule was no longer acceptable. Africans, especially the ex-servicemen, felt that the British had not been quick enough to honor the pledges made in the Atlantic Charter. They believed that only protests and demonstrations or, if necessary, resorting to violence (as was the case in Kenya, though loss of prime farming land to white settlers was the crux of the problem there) would convince Europeans that the old colonial order had died with World War II. More significantly, the superpower rivalry of the Cold War era, which saw the Soviets willing to finance nationalist struggles in Africa, revealed the inability of weaker colonial powers such as Portugal to hold on to their colonies indefinitely.

The war had other consequences for Africa as well: large numbers of African soldiers were either killed (one quarter of those who served in France) or injured. Others suffered from physical disabilities and, more seriously, psychological trauma as a result of racist mistreatment in Nazi prison camps. Furthermore, unlike their white counterparts in postwar Europe, the widows and families of servicemen were not sufficiently cared for or supported.

During the war itself, not only African soldiers but also the general African population suffered many difficulties, such as recurring shortages both of imported foodstuffs (rice and flour in particular) and local staples. The supply of staple foods had been partly affected already in some areas by the prewar colonial policy of diverting labor away from the raising of subsistence crops to the production of cash-crops such as sisal and commodities such as copper. As living conditions got worse in the countryside (partly exacerbated by the practice of forced labor, both for public projects and also for military service), a significant number of rural people migrated to the cities to avoid production geared toward satisfying external needs.

Kenya was amongst the countries most seriously affected by migration to its urban centers, especially Nairobi. The pressure for increased agricultural production that caused this migration was brought about, ironically, by African troops and their Italian prisoners, whose presence promoted a demand for both beef and maize. Moreover, the increased demand for sisal (a plantation crop), which was no longer available from Southeast Asia following the Japanese occupation of that region, benefited mainly European settler farmers. The migration of land-deprived Africans from rural areas to cities not only weakened African family bonds, it also led to the development of shantytowns in Nairobi and the creation of health, employment, and crime-related problems.

The war witnessed a number of infrastructural projects (using forced labor, which until then had been limited mainly to rural areas), such as the construction of airstrips in West and East Africa to aid in the transportation of fighting men and goods to North Africa and the Middle East. Africans were called on not only to build these projects, but also to provide housing for European and American settlers and personnel who came to Africa during the war years. More significantly, it was during this period that the United States' role in Africa increased as its need for vital mineral resources from the central Southern Africa region grew.

The war stimulated the South African economy with respect to the production of industrial goods and munitions. South Africa, which had derived its industrial base from the gold and diamonds discovered in the second half of the nineteenth century, now become a major manufacturing power as well. Indeed, the size of the industrial labor force and the level of industrial output grew by leaps and bounds. The South African economy therefore underwent its second major transformation in less than a century.

see also Decolonization, Sub-Saharan Africa; Nationalism, Africa.


Akurang-Parry, Kwabena. "Africa and World War II." In Africa, Vol. 4: The End of Colonial Rule: Nationalism and Decolonization, edited by Toyin Falola. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2000.

Killingray, David, and Richard Rathbone, eds. Africa and the Second World War. London: Macmillan, 1986.

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