Sunday 20 February 2022

Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of empires

I saw surprised looks on the faces of Andrew Lownie and David Anderson (now, unlike me, highly successful men in London) when I told them at a dinner at university in 1984 that you can't understand Northern Ireland without understanding the history of Eastern Europe.

Ethnic and religious conflicts are the only game in town.

Empires succeed in containing these conflicts, or else they don't. 

The influence of Marxism hid this obvious truth to some extent. The power of ethnicity and religion are the strongest of all the innumerable arguments against Marxism

Anatol Lieven in Prospect compares the trauma of the end of the Russian (Soviet) empire with the end of the British, French, Hapsburg, German and Turkish empires.

'The Middle East is in many ways still working through the consequences of the collapse of three empires: the Ottoman Empire 104 years ago, and the French and British after the Second World War. These empires left behind a range of largely artificial, deeply internally divided successor states and bitter regional rivalries. American hegemony has sometimes suppressed and sometimes aggravated these conflicts. The Balkans too are still living with the results of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires and their collapse.

'South Asia is still living with the consequences of the end of the British Indian Empire, including most notably the partition of India and Pakistan, and the resulting conflict over Kashmir. As South Asia also indicates, conflicts spawned or exacerbated by empires and their fall can simmer for decades before breaking out: as with the revolt of the East Bengalis against Pakistan in 1971 (leading to Indian intervention and the creation of Bangladesh), and the civil war between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, which erupted in 1983, 36 years after Sri Lanka became independent. In Africa, innumerable local conflicts can be traced back at least in part to empire and how empire was dismantled, including most terribly the Rwandan genocide, which also occurred more than 30 years after the Belgian empire fell.'

Another example would be Burma. Numerous civil wars began in 1948 when the British left and continue to this day.  


  1. Vietnam takes a relaxed attitude toward the French and the US attempts at conquest. Better to do that then to hold a grudge about a conflict that took place 80, 150, or 1000 years ago.

    1. The loss of the 14 non Russian USSR republics was only 30 years ago - though they were by then not (mere) Russian colonies - Moscow had engaged in nation building.