The End of Empire: How Nov. 11, 1918 Changed the World

How does you build an empire? The old way, that had existed for millennia, was for a state to expand by conquering its neighbors, subjecting them to whichever city or kingdom or other political unit held military supremacy, and to repeat this process, building a contiguous unit of lands united under one central power.  The newer model to emerge after Columbus’ infamous 1492 voyage was colonization: conquering far away people, ruling them with a few of your own citizens (or merely coopting their preexisting institutions) and growing wealthy off of the “trade” (plunder is the more accurate word) with your new colonies.  Granted, this was not an entirely new idea: the ancient Athenians, precocious in areas like philosophy and democracy, had also amassed a sea-based trading empire, but that one was mainly made of fellow Greek-speakers and existed on a pretty geographically centralized scale. More recent European colonial empire-building, spurred on by the discovery of the “new” world across the Atlantic, was much more expanse in its geographical, demographic and ethnic scope.

These two models, as much as any cultural or political differences, divided Eastern and Western Europe on the eve of WWI.  Germany, the over-achiever, had attempted to do both: its land-based empire, relatively young (the German state had not been created until 1871 through a series of wars orchestrated by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck on behalf of his king, who became German Emperor Wilhelm II) had also been a late-comer to the colonial game, but it tried to catch up; it was Bismarck who organized the infamous Berlin Conference in which the European powers basically carved up Africa between them.  Germany for its efforts manage to get a few overseas colonies in what are the present-day countries of Cameroon, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi, among others.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire had also come out of Bismarck’s wars (Austria was also a German-speaking state, but Bismarck excluded it from Germany so as not to have an alternative center of power in Vienna) and ended up a sort of junior partner to Germany.  Meanwhile, two old empires were, even before the war, demonstrably struggling.  The Russian Empire, continuing its struggles to modernize, was ruled by Tsar Nicholas II, an ineffectual ruler who, in addition to looking exactly like his cousin, the King of the United Kingdom (and both of whom bore a striking resemblance to That 70’s Show star Topher Grace) struggled to reform his absolute monarchy at home (those were going out of style) and led the country into an embarrassing military defeat against Japan, supposedly an inferior society (did I mention that Russia was fairly racist at the time? Well, it was. So was most of Europe though, so it wasn’t out of place).

And the Ottoman Empire, a Muslim caliphate that dominated the Middle East and encroached into Europe (particularly modern-day Turkey), had also seen better days, facing its own struggles between religious and political tradition on the one hand and modernization, championed by the Young Turks (the original ones) on the other.  Three of these empires aligned as the Central Powers in WWI; Russia complicatedly ended up siding with the Western European Allies instead.

In the end, the Central Powers lost, but more so, the land-based empires collapsed.  On November 11, 1918, as the former German Emperor Wilhelm II settled into his first full day in exile after having abdicated the throne and thus given up the empire, the remaining German leadership officially signed an armistice to end fighting and bring the War to an end.   That same day, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor followed his German counterpart’s example and abdicated his own throne; Austria and Hungary were again split apart.  The Russia Empire had already fallen apart and Nicholas and his family were dead at the hands of the Bolsheviks, who were in the midst of fighting a civil war across the former empire, which would later be reconstituted as the Soviet Union.  The Ottoman Empire, which had experienced its own revolutions and resorted to various genocides against Armenians and other minorities during the course of the war in desperate attempts to remain intact, was soon to be dissolved and carved up between the victors.

Meanwhile, the colonial holdings of Britain, France and the other Western European powers appeared safe, and they even added territory from the vanquished Germans and Ottomans to their already world-spanning empires.  Yet, the seeds of destruction had been sown for these empires as well, as the principle of nationalism gave way to the concept of self-determination – championed by US President Woodrow Wilson.  Initially applied only to the various European peoples looking to form their own states, this idea would nonetheless spread throughout the world (for example, a young Vietnamese nationalist, who was refused an audience with Wilson during the negotiations of the post WWI peace, converted to communism, returned to his native country, changed his name to Ho Chi Minh, and launched what became a very bloody but ultimately successful liberation war against the French and then the Americans). It would take the aftermath of a Second World War to weaken the remaining European imperial powers enough to ultimately bring about a wave of decolonization, but it was Armistice Day that signaled the beginning of the end of empire around the world.

Leave a Reply