Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

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




Africa under Colonial Rule 



With the exceptions of Ethiopia and Liberia, Africa was completely divided up among the European colonial powers by the end of the 19th century. In World War I, German colonial masters were replaced by British, French, or Belgian rulers. The same thing happened to the Italian colonies in World War II. The South African Union had been granted the status of a dominion since 1910, and Egypt gained limited sovereignty in 1922. Only after World War II did liberation movements start to organize in the rest of Africa.


Africa in the First World War

Germany lost its African colonies with its defeat in World War I. They were placed under mandates by the League of Nations in 1920 although still administered as colonies.


The African war zones during World War I were Egypt and particularly the German colonies.

The British, French, and Belgians and their colonial troops were able rapidly to conquer Togo, Cameroon, and 5 Southwest Africa.

5 Farmers in southwest Africa

Only in German East Africa (present-day Tanzania) was the 2 Askari colonial force under General von Lettow-Vorbeck able to defend the colony through the end of the war; the army there ceased hostilities only after receiving explicit instructions to do so from Berlin in November 1918.

2 Askari colonial forces fighting on the side of Germany in World War I

The colonial powers in World War I relied on troops from the native peoples.

Segregated from the white soldiers and paid much less, almost half a million Africans fought on the side of the 1, 3 French, for example; Senegalese and Moroccan tirailleurs were also deployed in 4 Europe.

The desire for independence increased after the end of the war. In the eyes of the returning soldiers, the colonists had morally discredited themselves in the "war of the white tribes." The reinforcement of the peoples' right to self-determination through the Treaty of Versailles initiated the trend toward decolonization.

New forms of colonial rule represented a first step toward formal emancipation of the colonies. In 1920 the former German colonies were placed under the mandate of the League of Nations. This theoretically imposed limits on the powers of the colonial administrators, as they now had to answer to a larger and officially organized international public. In practice, however, little changed for the African people; they remained at the mercyr of European power interests.

1 Frenchman with natives from Cameroon, ca.1917

3 Colonial troops in the service of France

4 African soldiers of the French Army
fighting at the western front near
Verdun during World War II




How notions of colonists' superiority—which stemmed from the, racism of European and American colonists—became embedded in African politics can be seen in the case of Liberia. It was founded as an American colony for the settlement of free slaves and had been a republic since 1847.

According to the constitution, only American immigrants had civil rights— the native population was treated as slaves. The settlers' feeling of superiority was similar to that of the white settlers in other colonies. It was not until the 1940s, under President William V. S. Tubman,  that native Africans were granted the vote.

President William Tubman




African Economic Development

The world economic depression of 1929 abruptly ended Africa's economic upswing. World War II later placed more instruments of power in the hands of the colonies.


World War I had proven to the warring colonial powers the extent of Africa's economic potential and its importance in supplying both raw materials and manpower for the war effort.

The same powers then began the systematic economic development and exploitation of the continent by developing its 7 infrastructure following the war.

7 Distribution of radio stations over the African continent, 1936

A 6 railroad network spanning all of Africa, corresponding almost to that of the present day, had been built by the end of the 1920s.

The global economic depression of the 1930s interrupted the modernization push that had meant relative prosperity for the inhabitants. European import goods were suddenly unaffordable, and about half of the African wage earners lost their jobs. The Africans stood helpless in the face of these developments, while the white colonial authorities attempted to stabilize profits through tax increases, among other things.

Many Africans tried to earn their living in urban 8 industrial areas, thus beginning the expansion of the cities; in the countryside, there was a return to older forms of exchange such as bartering.

6 Oldest steam engine of the Zambesi Sawmill Railway, built 1925

8 Worker in a copper factory in the Belgian Congo

The outbreak of World War II in 1939 improved material conditions and brought a noticeable economic improvement. As the white population for the most part had to return to their homelands for military service and the need for raw materials increased, many new jobs were created. This strengthened the influence of the indigenous population. Europe's dependency on a functioning colonial economy presented the Africans with the opportunity to obtain pay increases and better working conditions. In 1940 Great Britain passed the Colonial Welfare Act, with the goal of preventing further strikes in the areas they controlled. In 1951, it became the first colonial power after the war to grant an African state— 9 Libya—sovereignty, thereby launching a wave of more or less violent decolonization.

9 Modern housing estate for Italian colonists in Tripoli, Libya, 1935



The Pan-African Movement

The importance of the pan-African movement grew after World War II. Active participation in the war and the experience of being economically indispensable reinforced the self-confidence of the Africans in relation to the colonial powers, as they realized the reliance of their colonial masters on their countries and resources.

Serious efforts toward autonomy were still absent, however, past Western influences were still too strong for a return to the traditional order, yet too weak for the formation of national states along the European model.

Independence movement in Senegal, 1947




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