7.5E: Unresolved tensions After WWI

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Learning Objective 7E

Explain the continuities and changes in territorial holdings from 1900 to the present.

Historical Development 1

Between the two world wars, Western and Japanese imperial states predominantly maintained control over colonial holdings; in some cases, they gained additional territories through conquest or treaty settlement and in other cases faced anti-imperial resistance.


Unfinished Business After WWI

The end of WWI and the signing of the Versailles Treaty brought significant changes to Europe and across colonized states. Instead of developing a stable world order and power balance, England and France used the Versailles conference as a forum to severely punish the losing nations while taking the spoils of war for England and France. The peace created in Versailles after WWI set the stage for WWII.  

Territorial Changes After WWI

One of the biggest failures of the peace process after WWI was the division of land and territory. England and France largely dictated post-war territorial changes. Changes served to benefit the French and British states, not create a more stable and equitable world order that prevented future wars.  

Types of territorial changes after WWI

Defeated states were destroyed and replaced by new countries.

Defeated nations transferred their colonies to victorious states, primarily France and England.

Territorial Changes After WWI  


East and West Asia 


Territorial shifts in Europe

Following WWI, European borders underwent drastic changes.

Germany: Following WWI, the English and the French used the Treaty of Versaille to annex significant German territory. In the east, Germany lost territory to the new nation of Poland. While in the west, the area of Alsace and Lorraine went to France.

Russia lost territory: When Russia agreed to leave WWI early, they signed away portions of territory in Russia’s west in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Following the German defeat, the region did not return to Russian control. Instead, the treaty created the countries of Estonia, Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania. The Treaty of Versailles later reinforced these new nations and borders.  

Austria-Hungary is gone: Austria-Hungary dissolved into the new countries of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. Italy and Romania took small potions of territory.

Poland is back: The country of Poland, which had previously existed before being conquered, reemerged out of territory taken from Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary.

Territorial shifts in East Asia

German colonies in Asia did not receive independence but redistributed Australia and Japan.

New Guinea: The Allied powers divided German New Guinea and its nearby islands in the Asia Pacific. Australia received the largest piece of territory on the island of New Guinea, while Japan took control of a large number of small Pacific islands. Acquiring so little land angered Japan, who felt they should have received more than small islands. This area taken over by Japan was known as the Japanese Mandate.

The Japanese Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere

In the 1930s and 1940s, Japan developed the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The stated goal of the Co-Prosperity Sphere was to liberate Asia from the rule of European colonial powers. However, in reality, the Co-Prosperity Sphere only created prosperity for the Japanese.

  • The Japanese placed conquered territories under direct colonial control or Japanese-controlled puppet governments.
  • Japanese colonies were simply a place to extract wealth and resources.
  • Those living within the Co-Prosperity Sphere lived under harsh Japanese military rule that brutalized local populations physically and sexually in forced labor and sexual slavery systems.

Key events in Japanese imperial expansion  

  • 1910: Japan invaded Korea
  • Post-WWI: Japan gained several small Pacific from a defeated Germany
  • 1933: Japan annexed Manchuria in Northeastern China and placed it under a Japanese military dictatorship
  • The mid to late 1930s: Japan began expanding into the additional European controlled Asian territories of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam

Territorial shifts in the Middle East

Unfortunately for the Ottoman Empire, they found themselves on the losing side of WWI. As a result, on August 10, 1920, the Treaty of Sèvres partitioned (broke apart) the Ottoman Empire into several new nations. Areas dominated by Turkic ethnic groups became the modern country of Turkey.

The Mandate System: The remaining portions of the former empire became the nations of Armenia, Lebanon, Palestine, Mesopotamia (Iraq), and Syria. While these nations were technically independent and under their own leadership, aside from Armenia, the British and French took indirect control through “the Mandate System.” The stated goal of the mandates was for the British and French to help “prepare” these nations to one day be prepared to take complete control of their countries. The actual goal was to secure these territories as colonies and control their oil resources.

New nations carved from the Ottoman Empire 

  • Lebanon (France)
  • Syria (France)
  • Mesopotamia/Iraq (British)
  • Palestine (British)
  • Armenia (independent)

Important: The Mandate system allowed the British and French to expand their influence into a new region through their indirect control over the new states carved out of the former Ottoman Empire. This will be the final expansion of European maritime empires. 

Territorial shifts in the Africa

German territories in Africa went to the British and French under the Mandate System. Unlike mandates in the former Ottoman territory, Mandate territories in Africa were deemed less developed and expected to remain under European control for longer.

Former German colonies transferred to new colonial rulers 

  • Southwest Africa (to South Africa)
  • Togoland (to the British and French)
  • Cameroon (to the British and French)
  • Rwanda (to Belgium)
  • Tanzania (to the British)

Anti-imperial resistance

Anti-colonial resistance movements confronted colonial control in Asia and Africa between the world wars. While most were unsuccessful, they set the stage for successful anti-colonial resistance after WWII. There were two primary motivating factors for anti-colonial movements in the 1920s and 1930s.

  1. Colonial governments promised reform for increased assistance from colonial populations during the war. After the war, native colonial elites demanded that Europe fulfill its promises. European powers resisted. Instead, they made less significant changes, such as granting native populations a larger voice in colonial governments.  
  2. Anti-imperial leaders sensed that WWI had weakened colonial powers, and increased resistance could result in independence.

India and the Indian National Congress

The Indian National Congress (INC) first assembled in 1885 and was British India’s earliest significant nationalist movement. Many of the movement’s early and most famous leaders were the British-educated Indian elite. Mahatma Gandhi and independent India’s first prime minister, lived and went to school in Britain. Before WWI, the INC primarily advocated for increasing rights of native Indians within the British colonial system. 

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Congress Party, led by Mahatma Gandhi, began advocating nonviolent noncooperation. This large-scale civil disobedience meant refusing to British colonial game. The movement was to be nonviolent and encouraged Indians to do the following: 

  • resign British and government titles and jobs
  • boycott government educational institutions
  • boycott courts
  • refuse to buy British goods
  • refuse to participate in colonial elections
  • not paying taxes

Factions within the Congress: In the interwar years, various factions arose within the Congress that rejected the Gandhian nonviolent boycott strategy for ending British rule. Although he stayed a member and leader of the INC, Jawaharlal Nehru created the Swaraj (Home Rule) Party successfully contested elections several times to the British Legislative Assembly in India. He believed that by being elected within the British-controlled political system, Indians could disrupt British rule from the inside. Other Congressmen left the INC and joined groups like the Hindu Mahasabha that rejected the secular ideas of the INC and advocated for armed struggle against British colonial authorities.

West African resistance (strikes/congresses) to French rule

Across French West Africa, starting in the 1920s, various nationalist movements began to resist French power.

  • The Federation of Elected Natives fought for full French citizenship without surrendering their status as Muslims and the eventual integration of Algeria as a province of France. Other objectives included equal pay for equal work for Algerian and French government employees and abolishing travel restrictions to and from France for native Algerians.
  • The first group to call for Algerian independence was the Star of North Africa. The group was formed in 1926 in Paris to coordinate political activity among North African workers in France and defend “the material, moral, and social interests of North African Muslims.” In addition to independence from France, the Star called for press freedom, a parliament chosen through universal suffrage, confiscation of large land estates, and Arabic schools for students to learn in their native language. French authorities banned the Star in 1929.

The role of unions and strikes: Trade union activism was instrumental in the eventual decolonization of Africa. By resorting to demonstrations, boycotts, and strikes, trade unions were able to bring the injustices associated with the colonial system to the attention of a larger anti-colonial audience. Railway workers’ strikes occurred in French West Africa in 1946 and 1947. In Tunisia, the colonial police killed thirty-two and wounded about two hundred Tunisian trade unionists agitating for labor reforms.

Impacts of Territorial Changes after WWI

Territorial changes after WWI failed to address the causes that had WWI. In failing to address these causes, tensions that existed before the war were unresolved, and in some situations, the tensions worsened. 

Political impacts 

  1. England and France’s political influence increased into former German colonies and Ottoman territories resulting in a further expansion of their imperial empires.
  2. The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires ceased to exist. A variety of smaller states replaced these once great empires. Many smaller and weaker countries in Central and Eastern Europe made it easier for Hitler to invade states on his Eastern border leading up to WWII.  
  3. Between the two world wars, Japan accelerated its empire-building. As Japanese imperial ambition increased, it directly conflicted with European and American colonial forces already in Asia.
  4. Certain European colonies felt they deserved independence for their contributions to the British and French war efforts, which led to increasing anti-imperial resistance. Anti-colonial resistance required Europeans to devote more resources to maintain their hold. After WWII, it became increasingly difficult for Europe to keep hold of its colonies.

Major change: European colonies in Asia and Africa had been fighting for freedom for several for nearly as long as they had been colonies. These anti-colonial movements were the beginning of the end of European colonial control in Africa and Asia. Following WWII, the era of decolonization will begin.