In a multiple part series, Madison365 columnist Matthew Braunginn will be analyzing the history of the United States to explore ideas of change, from the European invasion of what became the Americas, to the enslavement of Africans, racial oppression, the Civil Rights Movement, to the current day changing demographics in a shrinking world facing a new crisis of climate change and what the United States, and, in turn, the world are facing today.
The late 19th and early 20th century experienced a class of power as the changes the industrial revolution were causing came to a head. More production, cheap labor, and the beginning of mass mining and use of human and natural resources, among many other changes. Over the next 100 years there would be more technological advancement than humanity saw in the past 1000. These changes shrunk the globe and made the intermixing of culture easier than it ever has been. But there were horrors to come along with these technological advancements; it was the worst of men, holding themselves up to be the best, who pushed these developments.
It was greed, lust of power, and domination that drove this revolution, where a handful of nations would reign supreme over much of the globe, enslaving, raping, robbing, mutilating, and killing many to the benefit of the few. A forcing of “Western” culture upon the world and an attempt to erase, suppress, and/or relegate to second-class status all others.
The 19th century saw an expansion and solidification of powers in Europe as the modern face of the continent began to take shape. New alliances we being made, treaties were being signed, and war posturing was taking place, as these nations would launch into a series of conflicts that would reshape the world for over half a century. Between the years of 1870 and 1914, European colonization of Africa exploded. In 1870 much of Africa had yet to be colonized, by 1914 only two African nations were able to resist colonization, Ethiopia and Liberia.
Philosophically at this point in time, superiority of “Western Civilization” was cemented into the social ideology of these nations. What grew from these philosophies was the growth of a national identity, the creation of nationalism. With European nationalism being the protection of a colonial ethno state or really ethnonationalism. European racism and white supremacy took different forms that that of the United States. There were ethnic and nationalistic divisions in Europe, but largely, European nations at this point were not as diverse ethnically as the United States or what was to come. Not that there weren’t immigrants from northern Africa, the Ottoman empire, or elsewhere, but because of how their empires operated, and because of geography, there was a protection of monoculture.
During the late 19th century and early 20th century, European powers carved Africa up to prevent all-out war. The rush for Africa was fueled by class stratification within Europe, these power used colonization as a way to stabilize their economies. They used cheap and slave labor, economic, and resource robbery to build their wealth and to feed their industrial economies.
The Berlin Conference of 1885 not only carved up Africa between the powers, it was also Germany’s coming of age as an imperial power in the world. This was a treaty that only European powers participated in, African nations were completely left out. Their ability to be economically independent and self-determined was ripped away from them and through the next 100 years, different forms of economic oppression would keep the robbery going to this day.
Before Europe tumbled into two of the most destructive and bloodiest conflicts in human history, they were pouring blood on the continent of Africa. From 1885 until 1905, Congo, as a colony of Belgium, experienced one of the worst genocides in history, under the direction of King Leopold II- The Butcher of the Congo. The total number of deaths that happened under his rule are hard to pin down, but 10-20 million Congolese died under horrific circumstances. The conditions that were created and enacted were ones of starvation, disease, rape, murder, and mutilation. European nations were long practicing the evils of humanity on those deemed lesser long before any whispers of Hitler. The same nations that would decry his genocide, committed just as horrific acts of their own.
During this same time period of European powers committing horrific atrocities, they were aligning themselves with one another, and facing off for conflict. One of the main goals of the Berlin conference was to avoid all-out war within Europe and among the powers; it did not.
Germany and Austria-Hungary formed an alliance that pushed Russia, France, and Britain to ally together. As Germany rose to power, France experienced a decline in global influence, and Germany pounced at the occasion annexing Alsace-Lorraine from France. A series of crisis starting in 1905 with the first Moroccan crisis, which was about the status of Morocco, led to a buildup of arms and growing tension that was bound to explode.
June 28th, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated and Europe hurled towards war. August 1st, Germany declared war against Russia, the next day they allied the Ottoman Empire, and then August 3rd Germany declares war on France, August 4th Britain declared war on Germany, and eventually Japan entered the conflict, declaring war on Austria-Hungary on August 8th of 1914. The world engulfed in a war that saw 37 million casualties, with 17 million people dying in four years- The New York Metro area currently has a little over 17 million people living there.
During this period of time, until 1917, the United States was staying “isolated” as it expanded itself westward, completing its genocide of this continent’s indigenous people. Breaking treaty after treaty, forcing families off their land, massacres, brutality, and trails of tears rained down upon the first nations that walked this land. In doing so, the United States built an empire of its own, an Empire of Liberty, forcing “freedom” upon the world.
The United States became a colonial state conquering large swaths of a continent and in doing so it created a nation where a trading of cultures became inevitable. And at the heart of the nation, a domestic colony, they created new level of white supremacist ideology to justify these horrific practices. The idea of whiteness firmly took hold, as those seen as inferior ethnicities (Italian, Irish, Polish, etc), became white, became “The American.”
As the United States claimed its “density,” the Monroe doctrine cemented itself as a staple of US Foreign policy. The Monroe Doctrine core tenet was to protect the “New World” from further “Old World” influences. It became a staple of US policy during a time period Spain and Portugal influences were waning. The United States took advantage of this, and used the doctrine as a way to exert its influence and power over the continents of the “New World.”
The United States, a colony that revolted against its original colonial parent nation, went on to have decades of colonial conquest. Wars that would lead to an empire the world has never seen, as of January 2017 the United States has special forces operating in 70% of the world’s nations. A nation that operates without borders, but demands all others do so.
“It wasn’t just card-carrying members of the KKK that were contributing to this violence. The people committing and participating in these lynchings were police officers, teachers, workers, fathers, brothers, mothers … many people’s grandparents and great-grandparents participated in a lynching. These were ‘regular’ people, ‘ordinary Americans,’ committing horrific acts. Acts America has yet to take a responsibility for.”
In solidifying its western expansion, and beginning its global reach, the United States started to assert itself as a global power. Using many of the same horrific tactics European nations were utilizing in the robbery of other people to enrich their own coffers. The United States expanded into the Philippines, Panama, Cuba, The Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and many other places around the globe. Colonialism is a horrific robbery of human dignity and of resources.
Domestically, the United States quickly dismantled the budding growth the reconstruction years brought to Black America. And it replaced it with years of terror, establishment of Jim Crow, and more economic robbery. This came in the form of convict lease programs and black code laws or vagrancy laws. Across the nation, laws were passed that were almost exclusively enforced on Black Americans, and once arrested and convicted they would be leased out to plantations; many times the very same plantations they once worked under slavery.
Then there were the years of terror, from reconstruction to the beginning of the civil rights era, there were over 4000 known, public lynchings in the United States. Entire towns would join together to lynch a black person. The KKK and other white supremacist organizations came to prominence all across the country, not just relegated to the south. In the 1920’s Wisconsin became a prominent location of the KKK. And in Madison, as all across the country, they were law enforcement officials, business owners, not backwoods rednecks, but prominent members of the community.
It wasn’t just card-carrying members of the KKK that were contributing to this violence. The people committing and participating in these lynchings were police officers, teachers, workers, fathers, brothers, mothers…many people’s grandparents and great-grandparents participated in a lynching. These were “regular” people, “ordinary Americans,” committing horrific acts. Acts America has yet to take a responsibility for.
Lynchings weren’t the only form of terror enacted upon black America, the 1900s saw a plague of race riots break out across the nation. It is estimated in the 30 years following the civil war, over 50,000 Black Americans were killed in these riots. These race riots were white mobs going into black neighborhoods, burning, killing, and looting- Displacing and destroying any wealth accumulation.
One of the most egregious race riots, were the Tulsa riots of 1921 (I should note, two years earlier, 1919 saw 26 such riots across the country. There were over 100 race riots following the civil war). Tulsa, Oklahoma had the largest concentration of Black wealth in the nation, the neighborhood was dubbed Black Wallstreet. A black man in the white part of town goes to walk on an elevator, a white woman is scared and screams, he was arrested and there were calls for a lynching. At the courthouse, there was a standoff of a smaller black group looking to protect him and a large white mob. The group of black residents retreated back into their neighborhood and a white mob followed. It is believed 300 people were killed, mostly black, and thousands were displaced, and in a flash, Black Wall Street was gone and the community wealth never regained.
The depth of racial terror or even class strife of this era should be common knowledge but isn’t. The environmental destruction of the planet took root during this period as well and must be understood. The myths of progress and progressivism took root, because there was some small progress in the breaking up of banks and robber barons, helping spread economic equity. Even though workers won many rights, lesser so for people of color and women, economic stratification was prevalent, with a short gap closure mid-century. But as generations passed the myths of inevitable progress, the myths of America working to overcome the worst of itself took a firm hold.
As the United States witnessed its white population terrorize Black Americans, use and xenophobic racist rhetoric to pass racist laws, and take advantage of immigrant labor, along with its expansion of empire, there was a hesitancy to join World War I. But in expanding its influence across the Pacific and Atlantic it saw itself be pulled into the war.
Aggressive Germany blockades and u-boat warfare, pushed the US into the war on the side of the triple alliance and officially joining the war in 1917. A combination of the German war machine falling apart, due to a two-front war, US entry, and new technology broke the years-long stalemate on the western front. The war would change the world.
Russia ended up exiting the war as the Bolshevik revolution took hold, from 1917-1923 the Russian revolution/civil war was fought and the Soviet Union came into existence. Setting a major player in place for the next 70 years of global conflict.
Another major impact was the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the fracturing of the middle east- but let’s not forget about the Armenian genocide before its fall. French and British mandates carved up the area into controlling sectors, as many states fought for independence, European forces fought to keep these states under their control. The fall of the Ottoman empire sowed the seeds of the past 50 years of interventions, wars, and conflicts in the region; cumulating in the current “war on terror.” Some states gained independence and others were under foreign rule, but western nations started a habit of intervention within the region when they felt a government no longer served their interests.
In the aftermath of World War I, many other nations fought for their independence, communist revolutions were sparking, the tide of European imperialism had stalled, but was largely intact. Germany’s colonies were divided among the allied forces that defeated them, and strict restrictions were forced upon them; embarrassment, resentment, and despair took hold of the nation. Other impacts of the war were the dividing up of the Austria-Hungary empire, along with China and Japan making a formal entrance onto the world stage.
Many nations, outside of Germany under strict economic repression, saw an economic boom in the 1920’s, with devastating collapse and depression in the late 20s and early 30s. Japan grew an eye for an empire, communist revolutions continued, and a new ideology, Fascism, took hold in Europe. One of the most important aspects of the events leading up to and the aftereffects of World War I, is it being a prelude to what was to come. The colonialism was horrific, the imperialism was vast, but it created a world where cultural change and exchange would become inevitable. It’s important to look at these events in such a light as what they set off.
The 1930’s wouldn’t only set the stage for the next great war, it’d be the stage setting of the next 70+ years of global conflict, and ever-evolving forms of western imperialism. The colonized world would work to rebel, with varying success, but many proxy-wars between two great powers would happen. These wars created millions of refugees and opened the world up in a way that it’s never seen. Those that had power worked to exalt it over those that didn’t and worked to hold onto it in a rebellious world. But things change and so does culture, empires end and crumble, attempts to stall the change only further cements its guarantee.