Zonnebeke, by William Orpen

Zonnebeke, by William Orpen

Two World Wars

Europe faced two dreadful wars in the 20th century. From 1914 to 1918 the First World War ravaged the continent. Or, as it was known back then, the Great War. After the war, borders are changed and we see a new Europe.   In 1939 the Second World War starts. It continues up to 1945. Most countries continue to celebrate the day of their country’s liberation.

In both cases, those in power found a solution. The victors draw new borders on the map. Borders that have something different about them. The borders follow cultural groups. The peoples of Europe are given their own countries. Why did this happen?  Clearly, the idea was that this would help maintain the peace. And it was a great idea, but unfortunately some details had been forgotten.

Before 1914

WW1 took place between empires. The German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, British, French, Russian, and Ottoman empires. At the start of the war, Europe looked like what you see below.

Via the Economist (http://www.economist.com/news/international/21610243-redrawing-map)

After 1914, there were no countries left who had their empire on the European continent. The British and the French maintained their overseas empires. Nation-states were created to allow the people of Europe sovereignty; the ability to rule themselves. The war had started with an act of terrorism by Slavic separatists, something that could be prevented by allowing them independence in the first place.

The Arrival Of National Borders

Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia – all new nation-states. Turkey, Russia, and Germany no longer held the title of empire. The League of Nations was created to offer the nations a platform for discussion. Sadly, the League lacked actual influence.

Regardless, it showed what was considered the answer to war: create nation-states and allow them a place to talk about their problems. War would be made redundant, inefficient, and pointless.

The Prussians

Despite the arrival of nation-states and the League of Nations, war broke out again within decades. The Germans had not given up on their imperial aspirations. The Prussians, who united Germany under their rule in 1871, longed to re-connect with East-Prussia. Problematically, Poland was now in between.

Prussia is the result of the Teutonic Order conquering a swath of land from the Slavs during the Crusader campaigns against the supposedly pagan Slavic tribes. It was founded by an army without a state, and it turned into an army with a state. The Prussian elites were landowners with prestigious titles within the military. Their struggle was, and had always been, with the Slavs to the east. As far as Prussian culture went, it was a culture based on warfare.

In the mind of the Prussians, the setbacks after WW1 should only be temporary. They dreamed of re-creating the German empire and had no respect for the desires of Slavic independence. In fact, they were used to being the ruling elite to a Slavic lower class that worked on their farms. Not surprisingly, considering they had originally conquered the territory they ruled from the Slavs. Hitler would cooperate with the Prussians, and most of his support came from the Protestant Prussian territories.

Non-Prussian western Germany would never have elected Hitler. Hitler was never a manifestation of German desires and ambition, Hitler had been the personification of the war-admiring Prussian legacy.

The Russians

The Russian empire had collapsed and was replaced by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union however, was not at any point a nation-state. Although the Baltic states had been liberated from Russian dominance, the Central-Asian ‘stans’ were still part of the Union. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan – all were peoples ruled by the Soviets. Furthermore, although the Soviets were quick to offer peace to end WW1 on the eastern front, they soon returned to war to protect their territories.

The Polish-Ukrainian war was the prelude to the Polish-Russian war from 1919 to 1921. The nascent Polish state attempted to re-establish its pre-partitioning territory in the east, in modern day Ukraine. The Soviets launched a counter-assault and might have conquered all of Poland. Fortunately for Poland, it was able to repel the attacks and maintain its independence. At least for now.

Ukraine became a part of the new Soviet Empire. The Russians, so it appears, had not lost their desire for empire. The socialist ideology did little to tame its desire for expansion. In fact, it brought an additional desire to spread the glorious idea of socialism to other areas of the world. Socialism, so it was believed, would work best as a global, internationally adhered to, ideology.

Practice VS Theory

In theory all the countries of Europe were reformed as nation-states. In practice there were two, the Prussians and Russians, who had kept their dreams of empire. For both, empire had always been a part of its culture. Ever since the Prussian army creating a state, and ever since the Russians conquering the lands of Asia beyond the Ural mountains.

Not surprisingly, it were these two that launched a combined attack on Poland in September 1939.

The attack had little to do with nationalism in general, and even less with nation-states. It had everything to do with a state of mind, an imperial state of mind. Although the idea of building a new Europe of nation-states to ensure peace was profound, the Prussians and Russians simply were not ready for it. Borders had been redrawn before cultures had time to adapt to the new normal.