Racism: The Two Faces of Empire

The Allies may be regarded as the 'good guys' of the Second World War, but the hypocrisy apparent in their treatment of colonial peoples drove many subjects into the arms of their enemies, as Mihir Bose explains.

The Second World War is well established as the classic fight between good and evil. We all know who the goodies were, yet the war saw many people choose to favour the baddies. They argued that they had to do so as the goodies had skeletons in their cupboards that made them not much better than the baddies and sometimes worse. These choices were made largely in Asia by leaders of countries fighting to be free of Western colonial rule. Given the mountain of material the war has inspired, you would expect historians to tackle this subject with some frequency. Yet it has merited little attention, particularly in the West.

George Orwell was­ an exception. With the prescience that made him one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, he wrote on this issue just as the war was about to begin, with an article, published in Adelphi magazine in July 1939, entitled, ‘Not Counting Niggers’. Seventy years later it remains a classic. Orwell’s essay was provoked by a much-discussed book published in the same year, Union Now, by an American writer Clarence K. Streit, who argued that the only way to combat the dictators was for the world’s democracies to form a bloc, a United States of Democratic Countries. They would share a common government, currency and completely free internal trade. Such a bloc would so unnerve the dictators that they would crumble before a shot was fired. Streit’s 15 democracies included the US, France, Britain, the self-governing dominions of the British Empire and the smaller European democracies. All 15 were ‘white’ countries with dependencies full of colonial peoples, including the US which then ruled the Philippines.

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