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British Empire

Empire to Commonwealth

Hindustan Times front page on Indian Independence dayHindustan Times front page on Indian Independence dayThe military campaigns Britain waged in Europe, Asia and Africa during World War II (1939–45) virtually bankrupted the country. Major defeats, such as Singapore in 1942, showed how overstretched the Empire had become; it was no longer powerful enough to defend itself without allies from aggressors such as Germany and Japan. Britain's colonies had made a significant contribution to the British war effort, providing troops and resources. Millions of people living under British rule in Africa and Asia now believed that, in return, they deserved the chance to rule themselves. In the years after the end of the war, growing unrest led to many Britain’s territorial possessions gaining their independence—some by peaceful transition, others violently. Between 1945 and 1965, the number of people under British rule (outside Britain itself) fell from 700 million to five million.

World War II poster: soldiers from the EmpireWorld War II poster: soldiers from the Empire

World War II

As in World War I, Britain once again relied on its Empire (and many of the newly independent Dominions) during World War II. After the fall of France in June 1940, Britain and Empire stood alone against Germany, until the Soviet Union was invaded by the Nazis in June 1941. Before entering the war, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to send Britain military aid. The Atlantic Charter, signed by Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in August 1941, included the statement that "the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they live" should be respected. To many, it was clear that Britain would only receive assistance from the US in future on condition that it agreed to dismantle its Empire. (Churchill himself stated that the Charter was only meant to apply to states under German occupation, and not to the countries ruled by the British Empire.)

According to a 2014 YouGov survey, 59% of Britons feel the empire was “something to be proud of”, rather than ashamed of. Commenting on Britain’s legacy in Africa in a newspaper article in 2002, Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote: “The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.”

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