Visual History of the World




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Dictionary of Art and Artists


The World Wars and Interwar Period 



The first half of the 20th century saw the world entangled in two global wars, conducted with an unprecedented brutality. The First World War developed from a purely European affair into a conflict involving the colonies and the United States. It altered Europe's political landscape and shifted the power balance worldwide. In World War II, the nations of Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa were drawn into the conflict through the aggressive policies of an ambitious Nazi Germany. The war was conducted with the most up-to-date weapons technology and cost the lives of more than 55 million people. The Holocaust, the systematic annihilation of the European Jews, represented an unparalleled moral catastrophe for modern civilization.


Pablo Picasso "Weeping Woman", 1937




The British Commonwealth:
Emancipation of the British Colonies 



Step by step, in the wake of strengthened and ever more vocal national movements, the colonies of the British global empire were granted independence. At first they became self-governing dominions of the British Empire, following which the colonies became completely autonomous in 1931 under the Statute of Westminster. A community of equal and sovereign states under the protection of the British crown, the British Commonwealth took the place of the British Empire.


Dominion: The Preliminary Stage to Independence

Great Britain granted numerous colonies domestic self-rule as "dominions" at the beginning of the 20th century, yet it was not until 1931 that they officially gained complete independence.


In 1867, Canada became the first British crown colony to be granted independence. It was followed in the early 20th century by Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, the South African Union— composed of Cape Province, Natal, Transvaal, and the Orange Free State—and, in 1922, Ireland. As dominions, they became sovereign nations with self-rule according to international law.

But the bond with Great Britain, particularly in issues of world and security policies, stayed intact, and the 1, 3 British monarch remained the formal head of state.

1 Crown of George V, Emperor of India, 1910

3 King George V

When Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, the 5 dominions were automatically also at war.

After the war, however, they defended themselves against having British will imposed. In 1919, they individually signed the Treaty of Versailles and joined the League of Nations.

At the 2 London Conference of 1926, the "Balfour Formula" promised the dominion's independence, which came into effect in 1931 with the Statute of Westminster.

As "autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status," they were free of British influence in legislation, domestic and foreign policies but "united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations" (4 Balfour). All of the sovereign colonies voluntarily joined the Commonwealth, from which they could withdraw. Australia joined in 1942 and New Zealand in 1947. Newfoundland was a special case. It was once again directly governed by Great Britain from the 1930s and became a part of Canada in 1949.

5 Canadian soldiers on the western front, 1916

2 London Conference, 1926

4 Arthur James Balfour,
British foreign secretary



Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl Balfour

Arthur James Balfour

prime minister of United Kingdom

born July 25, 1848, Whittinghame, East Lothian, Scot.
died March 19, 1930, Woking, Surrey, Eng.

British statesman who maintained a position of power in the British Conservative Party for 50 years; he was prime minister from 1902 to 1905, and as foreign secretary from 1916 to 1919 he is perhaps best remembered for his World War I statement (the Balfour Declaration) expressing official British approval of Zionism.

The son of James Maitland Balfour and a nephew of Robert Cecil, 3rd marquess of Salisbury, Balfour was a member of a highly intellectual, wealthy, and aristocratic circle. He was educated at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge, and, upon leaving Cambridge, he entered Parliament as a Conservative member for Hertford. In 1879 he published his Defence of Philosophic Doubt in which he endeavoured to show that scientific knowledge depends just as much as theology upon an act of faith. In the great Victorian struggle between science and religion, Balfour was on the side of religion. He continued to take a keen interest in scientific and philosophical problems throughout his life.

Balfour was president of the Local Government Board in his uncle’s first government (1885–86). In the second Salisbury ministry (1886–92), he was secretary for Scotland and then chief secretary for Ireland, with a seat in the Cabinet. An implacable opponent of Irish Home Rule, he earned the name “Bloody Balfour” because of his severity in suppressing insurrection. At the same time he opposed the evils of English absentee landlordism in Ireland and made various concessions for the purpose of “killing home rule by kindness.”

Known as a formidable parliamentary debater, Balfour became (1891) leader of the House of Commons and first lord of the treasury, thus being second in command to Lord Salisbury. During W.E. Gladstone’s last Liberal ministry (1892–94), he led the opposition in the House of Commons. In the last of Salisbury’s three governments (1895–1902), Balfour became more powerful as his uncle’s health declined. Although he disapproved of the policies that resulted in the South African (Boer) War (1899–1902), he insisted that the British win the war decisively.

After Salisbury’s retirement, Balfour served as prime minister from July 12, 1902, to Dec. 4, 1905. He sponsored and secured passage of the Education Act (Balfour Act; 1902), which reorganized the local administration of elementary and secondary schools. The Wyndham Land Purchase Act (1903) encouraged the sale of land to tenant farmers in Ireland. The Committee of Imperial Defense (created 1904) made possible a realistic worldwide British strategy. None of these measures was especially popular with the voters. Balfour also decided to meet a shortage of miners in South Africa by importing large numbers of indentured Chinese, a decision that was condemned by humanitarians and by British organized labour. After a Cabinet crisis in 1903, Balfour regained prestige in the completion of negotiations for the Anglo-French agreement (Entente Cordiale; 1904), a major change in British foreign policy, by which the supremacy of Great Britain in Egypt and of France in Morocco was recognized. Increasing Conservative disunity over the question of abandoning free trade finally caused him to resign, although he remained the official party leader until November 1911.

On May 25, 1915, when H.H. Asquith formed a wartime coalition ministry, Balfour succeeded Winston Churchill as first lord of the Admiralty. In the political crisis of December 1916, he ceased to support Asquith and turned to David Lloyd George, in whose new coalition he became foreign secretary. In that office he had little to do with the conduct of World War I or with the peace negotiations.

His most important action occurred on Nov. 2, 1917, when, prompted by the Zionist leaders Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow, he wrote a letter to Baron Rothschild, head of the English branch of the Jewish banking family, that contained the so-called Balfour Declaration. This declaration, pledging British aid for Zionist efforts to establish a home for world Jewry in Palestine, gave great impetus to the establishment of the state of Israel.

After the war Balfour served twice (1919–22, 1925–29) in the Cabinet post of lord president of the council. He was largely responsible for the negotiations that led to the definition of relations between Great Britain and the dominions—the Balfour Report (1926)—which was to be expressed in the Statute of Westminster in 1931. In 1922 he was created an earl. His Chapters of Autobiography (1930) was edited by his niece, Blanche E.C. Dugdale.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



The Dominion of South Africa

The Dominion of South Africa began setting the foundations for the future apartheid state in 1910. The British and the white "Afrikaners," descendents of Dutch colonists, were united in the suppression of the black Africans.

For non-whites, ownership of land was allowed only within reservations, forms of employment were greatly restricted, and migration to urban areas and sexual relations with whites were prohibited.

In 1912, black Africans founded the African National Congress as a common protest organization against injustice.

Durban, in the South African province of Natal,
ca. 1910

Mausoleum of John Langalibalele Dube,
ANC founder, Inanda, Natal




The Disintegration of the British Empire

At the end of World War I, the British Empire was larger than ever before. But financial burden and powerful independence movements in the colonies brought the empire to a gradual collapse after World War II.


The British Empire expanded one last time after the First World War.

Great Britain took over the League of Nations mandates of Palestine, Iraq, and the former German colony of 6 Tanganyika.

6 Young Bantu women, 1936

It also gained influence over New Guinea and Namibia because the former was governed by the British dominions of Australia, the latter by South Africa.

In terms of actual control, however. British power was becoming ever weaker in the regions it controlled. The motherland was suffering under a difficult economic crisis  and thus reduced funds and the size of its administration and military in the colonies.

In addition, after 8 World War I the African and Asian peoples demanded, if not complete 10 independence, at least more self-determination and an end to denigration at the hands of white Britons.

8 Indian soldiers, 1914

10 Gandhi when he was an activist
in South Africa, 1913

In contrast to the dominions that had been granted independence and could decide whether or not they wanted to become members of the newly founded British Commonwealth, the remaining colonies were compelled to do so.

Britain's situation worsened further after 7 World War II.

Financial problems and increasingly powerful movements aiming for 9 independence in the colonies accelerated the breakup of the empire.

In 1947, India, the most important of the British colonies, shook off British rule.

Burma and 11 Ceylon followed in 1948. The phase of decolonization could not be halted.

7 Australian soldiers in the service of the British crown, Burma, 1944

9 Independence negotiations between
the British viceroy Lord Mountbatten
and the leader of the Indian Muslim
League, Mohammed All Jmnah (right),

11 Tea harvesting in Ceylon



Crown Colonies

The British world empire possessed Crown colonies on every continent except Antarctica after 1918.

In Asia, these included India, Burma, Malaya, North Borneo, British New Guinea, and Sarawak.

In Africa—apart from the special status of Egypt—there were the Gold Coast (Ghana), Sudan, St. Helena, Nigeria, British Somaliland (Somalia), Sierra Leone, Aden, British East Africa (Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya), and Gambia.

In the Americas, British Guyana, British Honduras, and the islands of Barbados, Jamaica, Bermuda, and the Bahamas were all British possessions.

Luxury hotel in Aden, ca. 1890




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