World Wars I and II

Although Africa did not play a significant role in either World War I or World War II, the wars had a major impact on the continent. Africans participated in fighting, and African colonies supplied the European powers with food and raw materials. A number of colonies changed hands as a result of the wars, and the wartime struggles inspired Africans to seek their freedom from European domination.

Africa: World Wars I and II

World War I

From the African perspective, the primary aim of World War I was to oust the Germans from their colonies in Africa. Military campaigns took place in four main areas: the German colonies of Togoland, Kamerun (present-day CAMEROON), German South-West Africa, and German East Africa. Africans became involved in these campaigns on the side of the Germans or the Allies (Britain, France, and Belgium in Africa), depending on which European powers governed them at the time.

Encounters between the Germans and the Allied forces in Africa took place over several years. An English and French invasion of Togoland in 1914 removed the German administration in a matter of weeks. The campaign in South-West Africa in 1914–1915 was also relatively brief and led to the withdrawal of German troops. The British and French effort to remove the Germans from Kamerun took longer, some 15 months between 1914 and 1916. The most important conflict, in German East Africa, lasted from 1914 to 1918. This campaign, which involved large numbers of troops and modern military equipment such as trucks and airplanes, most nearly resembled the war in Europe. In North Africa, Britain and France used their colonies mainly as a base of operations for fighting in Europe, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa.

The immediate impact of World War I on Africans was the transfer of German colonial possessions. France and Britain divided Togoland and Kamerun. Britain and Belgium split German East Africa, while SOUTH AFRICA took control of German South-West Africa. The former German colonies were all placed under League of Nations mandates, which gave Britain, France, Belgium, and South Africa the right to administer them. During the war Africans participated directly and indirectly as soldiers, supply carriers, agricultural producers, and in many other occupations. Some African troops served in Europe and the Middle East with the British and French. For the most part Europeans had to force Africans to serve. African soldiers and laborers in the war effort had poor training and equipment and received inadequate medical care. An estimated 250,000 Africans were wounded or killed in the war.

Many Europeans feared that the war would change political attitudes in Africa, awakening a desire for independence from colonial rule. While the war did inspire some calls for freedom, the European concern was largely unfounded. Africans achieved unexpected gains in employment in jobs previously limited to whites, such as managers and colonial administrators. For the most part, however, such gains were shortlived and the old colonial order was eventually restored.

World War II

Most of Africa’s involvement in World War II took place in North Africa, the scene of various battles between German and Italian forces and those of the Allies, which included Britain, France, and the United States. The region also served as a base of operations for the Allied invasion of Italy and southern Europe.

Sub-Saharan Africa was not a major center of operations in World War II, with two exceptions. In 1940 the Allies attempted to seize the port of DAKAR in SENEGAL. The following year they liberated ETHIOPIA from the Italians and they freed MADAGASCAR from the Vichy government of France. Nonetheless, the significance of the war for the history of Africa was considerable.

The near defeat of Britain, France, and other European nations in the war, combined with the devastating effect on their economies, ended European claims to “great power” status. Instead, two new superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—came to dominate world politics. Both of these superpowers were hostile to colonialism. In addition criticism of colonialism surfaced in the newly created UNITED NATIONS.

In Africa, World War II unleashed forces of nationalism that contributed to the rise of INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENTS. Wartime demand for African products and raw materials stimulated economic growth and helped bring about social change on the continent. Many Africans who served in the armed forces acquired literacy and other skills. Returning to their homelands, these troops often faced low wages, inflation, and other economic problems. Few felt they had been adequately rewarded for their wartime service.

After the war the colonial powers generally tried to regain their authority over Africans, which had been relaxed during the conflict. However, the Europeans faced a changed atmosphere in which large numbers of Africans saw colonial policies as unfair. Many Africans assumed that the end of the war would bring about reforms and greater freedoms. They expected improvements in housing, education, health care, and employment benefits. They also believed that they deserved the same freedom from oppression that had been the basis of the war against Germany, Italy, and Japan. Such feelings fueled the movements that eventually led to the independence of European colonies throughout the continent. (See also Colonialism in Africa, Global Politics and Africa, History of Africa, Nationalism, Warfare.)