The unwelcome consequences of the collapse of empires

The demise of the German Hohenzollerns led to Hitler, while the collapse of the Austrian Habsburgs gave rise to malignant nationalism

Pat MurphyNovember marks the political demise of two imperial dynasties, the German Hohenzollerns and the Austrian Habsburgs.

Like the Russian Romanovs and the Turkish Ottomans, they were casualties of the First World War.

The Romanovs were the first to go, upended by the war-induced 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Of course, the case can be made that what occurred was merely a temporary suspension of empire and a transfer of power. Soon, it was reincarnated in the form of the Soviet Union.

Unlike the Romanovs, the German imperial manifestation was relatively recent. Historians date it from 1871, which implies a lifespan of less than five decades. As empires go, that’s not very long.

There were two catalyzing events in its creation. One was the unification of Germany under the Prussian House of Hohenzollern and the other was the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War.

At its zenith, the empire included Germany and bits of several other European countries, most prominently France’s Alsace-Lorraine. And there were also colonies picked up in the late 19th century Scramble for Africa.

The Habsburgs, in contrast, had a much older pedigree.

Centered in Austria, the dynasty’s run stretched over 600 years and ultimately came to incorporate much of Central Europe. It was the epitome of diversity, embracing ethnic Germans, Magyars, Poles, Ukrainians, Serbs, Croats, Romanians, Italians, Slovenes, Czechs and Slovaks. But with the rise of ethnically-based nationalism, this diversity became a fatal weakness rather than a strength.

The Ottomans matched the Habsburgs in terms of longevity and scope. If anything, their empire was even more diverse.

Ruling from Constantinople (now Istanbul), at its peak the Ottoman sway covered the Middle East, coastal North Africa and the Balkans, even extending to Romania and Hungary through vassal arrangements. For centuries, it was the critical bridge between East and West.

Although empires have been pervasive for thousands of years, we’re conditioned to think of them as bad. That’s certainly my default position and I imagine it’s also yours.

Sometimes, though, there are unwelcome consequences from imperial demise.

Few of us would fancy living under the Romanovs, but their successors weren’t an improvement. Indeed, I suspect that – forced to make an unpalatable choice – most of us would opt for Tsar Nicholas over Josef Stalin and his buddies.

The German collapse produced results of equal, or greater, malignance. After a 15-year democratic intermission, the imperial Hohenzollerns were replaced by Adolf Hitler’s Nazis. And as everyone knows, the consequences were ruinous.

It’s common to ascribe this unfortunate development to an overly punitive post-war Treaty of Versailles. Germany, so the argument goes, was dealt with too harshly and was bound to respond in kind when the opportunity presented itself. A bad post-war settlement was the problem, not imperial collapse.

There is, however, an alternative, or at least complementary, explanation.

Militarily, Germany’s defeat wasn’t decisive enough. So stab-in-the-back theories abounded, feeding a national appetite to regroup and go another round.

The related moral, then, is this: If you’re going to dismantle an empire militarily, you’d better ensure that there’s no ambiguity about the scope of its battlefield defeat.

In contrast, the fallout emanating from the Habsburg and Ottoman demises was of a different nature. There, the problem was an excess of diversity compounded by geographic intermingling and a yen for ethnically or tribally based states. Everyone couldn’t be satisfied.

Whereas Vienna and Constantinople had kept the lid on and provided a focal point for burgeoning nationalist resentment, now the competing constituent groups could turn against each other. The proverbial cat was out of the bag.

In the erstwhile Habsburg dominions, artificial concoctions like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were born, only to collapse under their own weight less than a century later. And the predominantly German Sudetenland was given to the Czechs, thereby providing Hitler with a ready-made issue for the 1930s.

As for the Ottomans, their map of the Middle East was very different from that of today. The modern states of Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia didn’t exist as autonomous political entities.

And some of them – Iraq, Syria and Lebanon come to mind are still distinctly unstable. The passage of almost a century hasn’t conveyed internal legitimacy on unnatural constructions.

Maybe there’s a lesson here. While rooting for the principle of terminating empires, perhaps we should be careful of what we wish for.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.


imperial collapse

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