TL;DR: The history of Western Nations includes a variety of extremely heinous crimes. These crimes includes mass slavery, conquest, legal racism, reigns of terror, and actions that violated the stated beliefs of the United States and many Western European countries. The West consistently abused its power over conquered peoples, and the complete death toll is staggering. Even today the legacy the West left behind is responsible for much that is wrong with our world.
The sins of the west can be extremely difficult to grapple with, especially for people who actually live in these countries. While some try to ignore the negative actions of Western Nations, some go so far as to use these events to attack any sense of nationalism in countries like the United States, Germany, or the United Kingdom. These atrocities cannot be forgotten if we are trying to make any sort of coherent sense of the history of a country. We cannot just whitewash the sins of the past and pretend that they didn’t happen, we have to understand and deal with horrors. It shall be the purpose of the next two articles to challenge a complete abandonment of nationalism.
As I explained in the previous article, Western countries found themselves in a position of increasing power of the world. This began with the Portuguese and Spanish finding themselves capable of subjugating the comparatively primitive peoples of South America. They were also able to create and dominate shipping over ocean routes from around the world. As time went on, the West flourished and grew far more powerful. By the year 1900, a half dozen countries in the West had crushing industrial and military might over the rest of the world. Indeed, Western Empires controlled the majority of land area on the planet, and to this day there are few nations in the world that were not at one point controlled by European countries. This overwhelming superiority gave Western Powers an awful capacity to abuse their power.
The best starting point for Western wrongdoing may well be the United States, the “land of the free and the home of the brave”. All land in the mainland United States once belonged to Native American populations. While significant portions of the country were gained through trade and negotiations with the native populations, much of it was ultimately gained by forcing out these peoples. In expanding westward the United States broke treaties, killed many innocent natives, and treated those who submitted as second class citizens. Similarly, slavery was an important part of the country’s economy for over two centuries, if one considers Colonial America. The conditions that many slaves faced on plantations were brutal. The consequences for failed escape attempts were severe. Even after slavery ended extreme racism and oppression of former slaves was rampant, especially in American South where tensions still persist. This nation founded in justice and equality was founded in war and has a long history of slavery and second class citizenship.
The “Old West” of Europe is only sometimes better. The fact is that Western European nations were at their strongest when they controlled huge swaths of area abroad. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were marked by an imperial “scramble” between European powers to seize territory in Africa and Asia. One motivation for expansion was the economic opportunity that it presented. In a number of cases, however, Western Powers simply wanted to expand for a sense of glory or the international equivalent of bragging rights. Conquered territory became a status symbol in Europe.
The territories that were conquered were often treated with abuse, or at least contempt, by European governments. The worst example of this is likely the Belgian Congo. After obtaining the territory through cunning politics and the disgustingly ironic front of a humanitarian mission, King Leopold II of Belgium founded a horrific state. The area was brutally exploited in conditions that were effectively ones of mass slavery. Premature death from overwork and punishment was common among the local populous. It is estimated that well over ten million Congolese were killed by the Belgians in the half century between 1900 and 1950. This was not unlike the French colony of Haiti, a slave plantation colony where the appalling living conditions of slaves was only ever viable because of the ferocity with which the authorities came down on the slave populations, killing dissidents in brutal public executions. Public burnings and a perpetual state of terror were all that held this society together.
The atrocities we can apply to Europe over the period in question are apparently endless. British actions and interference in India at various points lead to the starvation of millions. Groups in parts Africa were directly targeted for indiscriminate extermination. Apartheid racially divided South Africa into directly privileged and subordinated peoples, and increasing tensions between various ethnic and racial groups were common in many parts of the English Empire. Pseudo-Scientific racism often underpinned these actions, providing the justification for these atrocities and allowing Europeans to see past the basic humanity of many of those that they conquered. Indeed, the aberration of scientific racism that made its appearance over the last two centuries is entirely the invention of the European mind.
Yet perhaps the worst aspect of the West’s atrocities was precisely that they occurred whilst the West pretended to be better than the areas it gained control over. The Mongols never claimed to be more humanistic, more liberal, or more just than the people that they conquered. The Europeans did. In the movement towards Indian independence from the United Kingdom, Indians visiting the British Isles talked about the “Two Englands”. One England was what they saw while visiting the country itself; the England of liberal ideals and humanist principles. The other England was the heavy handed imperial power that dominated the Indian subcontinent. The two were fundamentally at odds.
The United States was probably the greatest area that showcased the contradiction of the West. The same country that promised “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” had slavery written into the foundations of its legal structure, as we have already discussed. These very individuals they denied as being part of “ the people” were nevertheless partially used to determine official population representation within the state. Yet this hypocrisy might be even better displayed in the treatment of many Native Americans by
the United States in the 1830’s. In response to an American law that sought to force the
mass deportation of their tribe, the Cherokee attempted to challenge the act in court,
something that they succeeded in doing all the way up to the supreme court of the United States. Despite the fact that even the Supreme Court, the ultimate authority on American
law, sided with the Cherokee tribe, the arrogance of executive power and popular opinion proceeded to force the Native Americans from their land on a deadly march westward in what became known as the Trail of Tears. A group that was legally acknowledged by the United States as being in the right under its own laws was nevertheless forced into a deadly exile.
Things were little better when the West’s age of empire finally drew to a close. Decolonization was often done haphazardly and suddenly. Nowhere was this clearer than in India, where the sudden partitioning between India and Pakistan lead to one of the largest mass migrations in history, and the deaths of well over a million people. This was central in beginning the hostilities that still exist today between these countries, both of which are now armed with nuclear weapons. Many of the struggles that Africa faced in the last half of the 20th century can be attributed to the poor drawing of borders by departing Western powers who lumped many different peoples into a single country. The bloody and turbulent nature of many independence movements against Europeans also promoted the rise of dictators and unstable governments.
Even in our modern age where imperialism is looked down upon and no longer widely practiced, the actions of the West have often been brutal and deadly. The United States in particular has caused huge problems for many non-western nations. America has been all too ready to back unpopular regimes from South America to Asia: funding dictatorships and groups it would one day come to fight, such as Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. In its military interventions the United States has killed millions. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died in the aftermath of the Iraq war, and millions of lives were lost in the Vietnam war. Further, while its troops were in Vietnam, American bombings in Cambodia helped to destabilize the region aiding in the rise of Pol Pot, a dictator whose policies killed millions.
The sins of the West are many, and they are horrible. The sad state much of the world is in large part attributable to the way that Western European countries and the countries that split off from them behaved. Short sighted, heavy handed, and arrogant, the West triumphed over all the world and horrendously abused its power. Any who do not understand this are ignorant of history.
Author’s Note: This has just been an overview of atrocities by the West. When looking at the many different historical events that showcase Western arrogance, I found myself looking at half a millennium’s worth of slaughter, conquest, hypocrisy, and atrocities of all kinds. Therefore, the events that I have included here merely constitute what I see as being the most important events, and the ones most immediately demonstrative of the sins of the West. One could name many more, and go into far more detail than I have gone into here, but to do the subject justice would require a whole book, and I believe it would add little to this fairly simple hypothesis.