How were countries treated under imperialism

(Post) colonialism and global history

Dr. Fabian Klose

Dr. Fabian Klose is a research fellow in the Department of Universal History at the Leibniz Institute for European History (IEG).

From the campaign of conquest with superior weapons to the trade in people as a commodity to the planned extermination of entire population groups: Unbounded violence was not only a means of imperial expansion, but also served to consolidate rule in everyday colonial life.

Colonial violence in the course of British expansion in East India: During the Sepoy uprising, rebels are hanged on the gallows on May 10, 1857. (& copy picture-alliance)

Violence was a defining, indeed an elementary, component of European colonialism. Proponents of the colonial idea repeatedly veiled this fact by emphasizing the western civilization mission for the supposed good of the population on other continents and tried to legitimize the paternalistic foreign rule. In contrast, it was mainly leading intellectuals of the anti-colonial movement who relentlessly unmasked this myth of the supposed “burden of the white man” and pointed out the central function of violence in the entire colonial system. Both Aimé Césaire, one of the most important Afro-Caribbean poets and co-founder of the Négritude movement, and the Martinique-born doctor Frantz Fanon described colonialism in their influential writings as a fundamental dichotomy between colonizer and colonized, as a two-part world on the massive The use of violence by the European colonial rulers was based. According to Césaire, the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized was characterized by a brutal relationship of domination and submission:

"I look around and wherever there are colonizers and colonized face to face, I see force, brutality, cruelty, sadism, conflict [...] No human contact, but relations of domination and submission which turn the colonizing man into a class-room monitor , an army sergeant, a prison guard, a slave driver. "[1]

According to Fanon, colonial coexistence was based on the power of bayonets and cannons, and he characterized the "rule of violence" in colonies with a high proportion of European settlers as particularly dramatic. [2] Accordingly, the use of force was not limited to the phase of military conquest and expansion, but rather formed a constitutive element of everyday coexistence in the colonial situation. This colonial practice of rule can therefore rightly be described as a "reign of terror against the ruled population" [3]. Overall, violence was inherent in colonialism in its various phases - conquest, establishment and maintenance, as well as retreat.

Colonial expansion and indigenous resistance

The establishment and maintenance of European colonial rule was directly linked to the use of military force. This is evidenced by the numerous colonial wars that have been waged almost at all times of the existence of European empires. Starting from individual bases on the coast, the European colonial powers expanded deeper and deeper into the African and Asian hinterland in the course of the 19th century, with armed settlers and paramilitary militias often assuming a pioneering role in the expansion of colonial borders in the initial phase. As they advanced, the Europeans encountered resistance from the indigenous population, who, for example, under Emir Abd el-Kader, fought against the French occupation of Algeria from 1835 to 1847 or the Maori from 1843 to 1872 against British expansion in New Zealand . With a few exceptions, such as the successful defense against the Italian invasion of Abyssinia through the victory of the troops of Negus Menelik II on March 1, 1896 at the Battle of Adua, the indigenous peoples' attempts to stop the advance of the European colonial powers permanently. The decisive factor for the global triumphal march of colonialism was the great technological superiority of the European states in the areas of tropical medicine, transport and communication and, above all, modern weapon systems. In addition, the colonial powers used parts of the indigenous population as an indispensable reservoir of recruiting in order to be able to raise the necessary army of soldiers. Under the command of European officers, these colonial troops were then deployed in all parts of the empire and formed an essential pillar of colonial rule.

The dominant form of military conflict in the colonies was the "little war". In contrast to the “great war” of regular armies in Europe, this was an asymmetrical conflict scenario in which the indigenous resistance movements attempted to compensate for their complete technical inferiority to the European colonial powers through grueling guerrilla warfare. In the course of their colonial expansion, the European colonial powers were increasingly confronted with what from their perspective was completely unconventional warfare and finally came to the conclusion that colonial conflicts were fundamentally different from wars between “civilized” states. The leading British military theorist Charles Callwell represented in his standard work “Small Wars. Their Principle and Practice "the view that the" small wars "in the overseas territories are" expeditions of disciplined soldiers against savages and semi-civilized races "[4]. From a European perspective, the international law agreements on warfare in such conflicts were therefore fundamentally ineffective, which is why the ruthless action against the indigenous civilian population, for example to prevent support and supplies for the insurgents, was considered completely legitimate.

In addition, the colonial powers succeeded in keeping the new protective provisions of the emerging humanitarian international law away from their overseas territories. For example, while particularly insidious weapons such as poison gas and the devastating dumdum projectiles [5] were outlawed in wars between “civilized” states at the Hague Peace Conference of 1899, colonial conflicts remained unaffected by such bans. Rather, the various colonial powers repeatedly made use of these weapons in the military conflicts in their overseas territories, as clearly demonstrated by the use of gas by Great Britain in the fight against Afghan insurgents in 1920 on the Indian north-western border and Spain in the suppression of the Rif uprising in Morocco from 1921 to 1927. Fascist Italy in particular systematically used poison gas during its invasion of Abyssia from 1935 to 1936, with catastrophic consequences for the Abyssinian population, who were completely defenseless against gas attacks.

The radicalization and delimitation of violence in the colonial wars was primarily due to the totality of the war aims. Under the influence of social Darwinian ideas, the European colonial powers did not tolerate the slightest form of indigenous rebellion, but pursued the complete and permanent submission of an opponent who was also perceived as inferior due to racist views. Only in this way did the Europeans consider the establishment of a “colonial peace” according to their ideas and the associated implementation of their civilizing mission as possible. The military operations, euphemistically played down as “pacification” and “punitive expeditions”, did not always end with the military victory of the colonial power, but in extreme cases led to the complete annihilation of indigenous populations. A particularly striking example of this was the warfare of imperial protection troops against the Herero and Nama from 1904 to 1908 in German South West Africa, in which the majority of both ethnic groups fell victim to the targeted German extermination policy. Some historians speak of the first genocide of the 20th century in this context. The colonial conflicts, transfigured by the British writer Rudyard Kipling in his famous poem about the alleged civilizational “burden of the white man” for “Savage Wars of Peace” [6], were in reality wars without rules and norms in which all military measures appeared to be permitted there was a regular delimitation of violence.

The “normality of violence” in the colonial situation

The colonial war and the fight against open indigenous resistance certainly brought to light the most radical forms of colonial violence. However, even after such military operations, the colonial regimes were characterized by a great potential for violence and a high willingness to use violence. The everyday coexistence of European colonial rulers and indigenous people was almost characterized by a frightening "normality of violence". The main reason for this was the siege mentality of the Europeans, who characterized themselves as an "island of white in a sea of ​​black" [7]. Because of their own minority position in the overseas territories, they viewed the indigenous majority as a threat to their privileged position of power. The deep-seated fear of an impending uprising - the Haitian Revolution (1789–1804) in the French context and the great Indian uprising of 1857 in the British Empire - resulted in a militant pattern of behavior by the European colonial rulers towards their colonial subjects. Accordingly, the colonial state found itself in a latent state of siege and defense, in which it was believed that only draconian measures could secure its own position of rule.

The colonial rulers therefore saw the excessive use of corporal punishment and other forms of corporal punishment as a completely "normal" method of maintaining colonial order. They were part of everyday reality in the colonies. According to the racist view of many European colonial rulers, the indigenous population only understood the language of raw physical violence, as the following example of a white settler in East Africa shows: "His primitive mind regards discussion as a sign of weakness [...] Superior violence is the only law that he recognizes. I applied the law with my fist and boot. ”[8] Such a“ normality of violence ”was then often legitimized with the racist hint that Africans are less sensitive to pain than Europeans and therefore more resistant to corporal punishment. From the perspective of the colonial rulers, the position of strength and the associated prestige of whites always had to be preserved, whereby any form of alleged provocation or resistance was responded to with physical violence.

Legally, this discriminatory social order manifested itself in a colonial racial justice. For the indigenous population, the legal standards of the respective colonial metropolis did not apply, but were subject to the provisions of an arbitrary indigenous law such as the notorious "code de l’indigénat" in the French colonial empire. Such laws legitimized corporal punishment, forced labor, collective punishment, and the arbitrary confiscation of property. They were therefore a central instrument of colonial control and were accordingly perceived from an indigenous perspective as a symbol of unjust foreign rule. Without adequate protection under the rule of law, this also meant that the indigenous population was exposed to the arbitrary decisions of the colonial state at all times. Particularly in settlement colonies such as Australia, Algeria and Kenya, this led to the indigenous peoples being forcibly expelled from fertile parts of the country into inhospitable areas in favor of the arriving European settlers. Robbed of their traditional livelihood, they were then often forced to work as dependent workers without their own land rights on the now "white lands" for the colonial rulers.

Although the European colonial powers tried to justify their advance into Africa with the supposed humanitarian goal of combating slavery, they themselves often forced the African population to do forced labor for colonial projects such as railroad and road construction or agriculture. One of the worst systems of exploitation established itself in the so-called "Congo Free State". In this huge territory, which was privately owned by the Belgian King Leopold II, Africans were forced to collect the valuable natural rubber with the most extreme repression measures. The colonial rulers responded with the most brutal violence to any form of resistance and failure to meet the required collection quotas, for example burning entire villages and chopping off limbs of African women and children held as hostages. This reign of terror by Leopold II assumed such proportions that the Congo "became one of the great extermination sites of the modern age" [9] and, overall, a symbol of the excessive use of colonial force. Public campaigns led by activists such as E. D. Morel and Roger Casement against these "Congo atrocities" finally led in 1908 to international pressure that resulted in the Congo territory being withdrawn from Leopold's possession and placed under the official supervision of the Belgian state.

Bloody farewell to European colonialism

Even in its last phase, its worldwide retreat from 1945, European colonialism had a high potential for violence. In the course of decolonization, there was even another significant radicalization of this violence, which can be exemplified by the date of May 8, 1945. While this day marked the end of World War II in Europe and the final end of Nazi rule was celebrated with euphoria in many European countries, violent protests by Arab demonstrators against French colonial rule broke out in the Algerian villages of Sétif, Guelma and Kherrata. France responded to these unrest with a massive military operation which, according to current estimates, killed between 20,000 and 30,000 Algerians within a month. From a colonial perspective, the hour of the liberation of Europe was one of the bloodiest in European colonial history and marked the beginning of the contested decolonization from 1945 to 1975.

The upheavals of the Second World War had deeply shaken the foundations of the European colonial empires and significantly promoted the rise of anti-colonial liberation movements. Especially in Asia, where Great Britain, France and the Netherlands had lost large parts of their colonial empire to Japan during the war, there was a veritable wave of revolution in the immediate post-war period. The various national movements now offered bitter resistance to the various attempts at recolonization of the European colonial powers and forced them into a whole series of bloody wars of decolonization that lasted for years. In addition to the Netherlands in Indonesia (1945-1949) and Great Britain in Malaya (1948-1960), France waged a costly war against the Viet Minh national movement from 1945 to 1954 in order to maintain or restore its rule over French Indochina. It was not until the battle of Dien Bien Phu in the spring of 1954, which became the symbol of the defeat of the “white man”, that the end of French colonial rule in Southeast Asia was finally sealed. The nine-year conflict cost an estimated 500,000 Vietnamese lives and left behind a torn country that was soon to be ravaged by a new war, then marked by the East-West conflict.

The withdrawal from the “white” settlement colonies in North, Central and East Africa was even more conflictual than in Asia. There, the European settlers insisted on the continuation of their racist minority rule and strictly rejected any form of political concessions to the African majority population. Rather, they demanded unrestricted military support from their governments in the metropolises against the emerging African aspirations for independence. As a result, settlement colonies, such as the British crown colony of Kenya from 1952 to 1956 and French Algeria from 1954 to 1962, developed into the scene of two extremely brutal wars of decolonization that claimed hundreds of thousands of deaths among the indigenous population.With the declaration of a state of emergency and the associated special emergency laws, Great Britain and France created the legal basis for the radicalization of the colonial apparatus of repression, which resulted in phenomena such as the violent resettlement and mass internment of the indigenous civilian population in camps, the systematic use of torture and arbitrary mass executions Expression came.

This radicalization of colonial violence with the most serious violations of human rights in turn meant that colonialism as a whole, especially in the context of the Algerian war, was increasingly pilloried by the global public. The resulting international criticism ultimately deprived the idea of ​​colonial foreign rule of any legitimacy and accelerated the process of dissolving the European colonial empires until the mid-1960s. Only the dictatorship of Portugal persistently refused to accept this international development and defended its overseas empire in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique in three brutally waged wars with heavy losses. The so-called Carnation Revolution on April 25, 1974, the causes of which were deeply rooted in the three anachronistic colonial wars, ultimately led to democratic change in Portugal and in 1975 finally ended the violent foreign rule of the oldest European colonial power on the African continent.

Colonial violence and colonial war in current debates

The topic of colonial violence and colonial war has recently found a prominent place in very topical debates. In the course of the so-called global "war on terror", anti-terrorism experts from Western military circles began to deal intensively with the wars of decolonization after 1945. They analyzed the historical conflict scenarios with regard to the counterinsurgency measures used by the British and French armies in their missions in Malaya, Kenya and Algeria in order to gain valuable strategic insights for today's operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A number of historians, who in recent years have increasingly grappled with the contested decolonization, again sharply criticized these tendencies and warned against an unreflective consideration of the decolonization wars under the aspect of a model for today's military operations. Instead of the supposed military-strategic added value, the scientists rather emphasized that the British and French measures with the disregard of all principles of international humanitarian law, the creation of unlawful areas through extensive emergency legislation, the establishment of internment and resettlement camps contrary to international law, the systematic use of torture and serious war crimes resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. They urgently warned of the fatal consequences of using such strategies for democratic constitutional states and vehemently pointed out the historical responsibility of the former colonial powers in coming to terms with their dark colonial past.

The legal dispute with the colonial crimes of European states on other continents has only just begun. For example, in July 2011 the UK Supreme Court upheld a lawsuit brought by four former African inmates at a British internment camp during the war of decolonization in Kenya. Ultimately, this led to the UK government granting financial compensation not only to the four original plaintiffs, but to over 5,000 Kenyans for the mistreatment and serious health problems they had suffered. The total damages amounted to over £ 20 million. The judicial decision on a further 40,000 Kenyan cases is currently still pending in Great Britain, although there are clear tendencies towards solving their colonial crimes in other European countries as well. The excessive colonial violence perpetrated by European colonial powers on other continents is therefore no longer just a topic of historical, but also of legal reappraisal.


  • David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged, The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire, New York / London 2005.
  • Raphaelle Branche, La torture et l’armée pendant la guerre d’Algérie 1954–1962, Paris 2001.
  • Tanja Bührer, Christian Stachelbeck, and Dierk Walter (eds.), Imperial Wars from 1500 to today: Structures - Actors - Learning Processes, Paderborn 2011.
  • Andreas Eckert, Colonialism, Frankfurt 2006.
  • Frank Füredi, Colonial Wars and the Politics of Third World Nationalism, London 1994.
  • Adam Hochschild, shadow over the Congo. The story of an almost forgotten crime against humanity, Reinbek 2002.
  • Thoralf Klein and Frank Schumacher (eds.), Colonial Wars. Military violence under the sign of imperialism, Hamburg 2006.
  • Fabian Klose, human rights in the shadow of colonial violence. The wars of decolonization in Kenya and Algeria 1945–1962, Munich 2009.
  • Michael Mann, The violence disposition of modern colonialism, in: Mihran Dabag, Horst Gründer and Uwe-K. Ketelsen (ed.), Colonialism. Colonial Discourse and Genocide, Munich 2004, p. 111 135.
  • Aram Mattioli, experimental field of violence. The Abyssinian War and its International Significance 1935–1941, Zurich 2005.
  • Jürgen Osterhammel, colonialism. History, Forms, Consequences, Munich 2006.
  • Bruce Vandervort, Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa 1830–1914, London 1998.
  • Dierk Walter, Organized Violence in European Expansion. Shape and logic of the imperial war, Hamburg 2014.
  • Hendrik L. Wesseling and Jaap A. de Moor (eds.), Imperialism and War. Essays on Colonial Wars in Asia and Africa, Leiden 1989.
  • Jürgen Zimmerer and Joachim Zeller (eds.), Genocide in German South West Africa. The colonial war (1904-1908) in Namibia and its consequences, Berlin 2003.