Last Sunday on a rain-swept afternoon in London, I revisited the Cabinet War Rooms after almost a decade. It was from here that Winston Churchill provided higher direction to the Allied war effort during the Second World War. This subterranean warren of rooms has a fascinating museum depicting the life and times of one of England’s most celebrated statesmen. Churchill, of course, is a deeply polarising figure in India. Opposed to Indian Independence he was also squarely responsible for the Great Bengal Famine of the 1940s. He also disdained if not despised Indians.
However, Churchill is just a peg for this piece. The visit triggered a think about the great ideologies that arose around the world between the end of the First and Second World Wars. They individually and collectively influence the course of human history even to this date.
The first was the rise of Communism and the establishment of the first Communist state in Russia. In the Great October Revolution of 1917 Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown by the Bolsheviks bringing to an end 300 years of Romanov rule. It saw the rise of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by his alias Lenin, who laid the foundations of the Soviet state and ruled from 1917 to 1924. The first Communist state finally ended on December 26, 1991, but Communism still continues to have appeal for millions of people around the world.
The next was the rise of Fascism in Italy under Benito Mussolini. Though Italy was on the winning side in World War I, it saw the spectre of Fascism taking hold of all aspects of Italian life from 1921 onwards. Fascists believed in a totalitarian dictatorship that controlled all aspects of the state be it government, Army, press or even schools. However, unlike the Soviet Communism, it allowed free enterprise and private property, thus alluring itself to business-oriented middle classes. Fascism was intensely nationalistic and aggressive in its foreign policy. Mussolini ruled Italy between 1922 and 1943 and then over a puppet German state till his execution on April 28, 1945. His decision to take Italy to war as a part of the Tripartite Axis had disastrous consequences for Italy. However, Fascism still lives on in many parts of the world.
The most disastrous of ideologies that came to root in the inter-war period was Nazism. Founded in 1919 as the German Workers’ Party, the Nazi’s fostered German pride and anti-Semitism. They articulated the angst of the German people against the harsh terms imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. The treaty mandated Germany to make humungous reparations. Adolf Hitler joined the party at its very inception and became its führer in 1921. By 1933 he became Chancellor of Germany and arrogated to himself dictatorial powers. He was responsible for the most devastating war of the 20th century that left millions dead across the globe. He presided over the ghastly extermination of six million European Jews during his reign. However, Nazism despite its barbarity still has admirers and adherents around the world.
Moving East interwar years also saw the demise of the 700-year-old Ottoman Empire and the birth of a new nation state called Turkey. Under the charismatic leadership of Kemal Atatürk — Kemalism as his ideology was known as — had a progressive and modernising effect on Turkey. Atatürk initiated a political, economic and cultural transformation with the explicit objective of constructing a secular nation-state. Primary education was made free and compulsory. He initiated the Latin-based Turkish alphabet replacing the old Ottoman Turkish alphabet. Women received equal civil and political rights during Atatürk years much before numerous Western nations. Universal adult suffrage was introduced. Atatürk and the Turkish model became the inspiration for many nation-builders especially in the Islamic world.
However, the interwar decades also saw the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928 by an Islamic scholar Hassan al-Banna. A religious and political group premised on the creed that Islam is not just a religion, but also a way of life. Based upon two key constructs namely, the introduction of the Islamic Sharia (way of life or principles) as the basis controlling the affairs of state and accomplish integration of the Islamic countries and states primarily the Arab states. Though the movement officially rejects the use of violent means to secure its goals, a number of scholars consider it the forerunner of modern militant Islamism.
Those tumultuous decades also saw the rise of a third ideology in the Arab world Baathism. It was consecrated in the form of a political movement by Michel Aflaq, the Baath Party in the early 1940s. It was based upon the principles of pan-Arab nationalism, unity among the Arab people and socialism. It was a secular movement that saw its high point with the short-lived Union of Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic (UAR). Its worst manifestation was the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Those years also saw the worst form of anti-Semitism play themselves out against the Jews in Europe. It culminated in the holocaust as a consequence of the final solution perpetrated by the Nazi regime. It saw the Zionist movement coming to fruition after those despicable horrors in the creation of Israel in 1948.
In Asia that epoch saw the rise of Communism in China culminating in the establishment of a Communist regime under Mao Zedong in October 1949 and for India those were the years of the most unique pacifist non-violent struggle for independence that overthrew the mighty British empire in August 1947. It also was the birth of the majoritarian Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in 1925.
What a momentous time it must have been for Winston Churchill —politician, scholar and later Prime Minister of Great Britain as he would have surveyed the world from his Cabinet War Rooms — for Great Britain then was the pre-eminent imperial power and it was said: The sun does not set in the British empire.