Democracy Is Dying, Again

Democracy Dying Across the Globe

That headline isn’t getting the coverage it deserves, and it’s true around the world. Freedom House, a non-partisan organization based in the US, measures and rates democracies around the entire world. Their data has shown net falls in global freedom every year for the last decade. 2020 has been freedom’s lowest point since the organization was founded in the 90s. I’ll spare you the technical jargon, but their methodology is derived from the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it specifically measures liberties enjoyed by individuals. It rates the implementation of freedoms rather than the written law of them. For example, a fraudulent election would rate poorly because even though by law a country had an election, the individuals did not enjoy the liberty of electing their government. Russia is a good example of a democracy on paper whose people don’t enjoy many liberties. The dirty details are here if you’re curious.

In Poland, the ruling PiS party has turned their former independent judiciary into a political tool by persecuting judges who made unfavorable rulings or criticizes changes to their judiciary.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has consolidated control not only over its government, but over its media and many areas of public life. Freedom House reports that it was one of the most democratic nations in the world in 2005, and this year, it was demoted to a “hybrid regime,” a category for countries it ultimately considers not democracies.

Similarly, several countries in the Balkans saw losses, even as those countries, such as Northern Macedonia and Serbia, join the EU. As the make up of EU countries becomes less democratic, Europe as a whole may follow. Spain, for example, imprisoned several leaders for hosting an illegal referendum on Catalonian Independence. While it may seem reasonable to detain those responsible for trying to rip apart a country, the violence exhibited towards those voters is not. While of course that news isn’t new, it does begin to establish a worrying trend for the most democratic continent.

More recently, France has cracked down on ‘the enemy within,’ referring to radicalized Muslims after a teacher was beheaded for depicting a caricature of Muhammad. The perpetrator had already been killed by the police, so raids are now expatriating Muslims guilty of nothing other than being ‘suspicious.’ In less diplomatic terms, they’re being expelled for thought crimes. As police raid homes, bills are being passed to keep the police from being held accountable by outlawing posting any video of police. Make no mistake, terror attacks from all creeds are deplorable and reprehensible, but when raids and arrests are made on little basis other than what people believe, the government unabashedly encroaches on the liberty it’s sworn to protect and sets a precedent for raids against others with unpopular ideals. I don’t envy Macron as he faces pressure to do more and Muslim countries around the world rally against France for stoking tensions with the Muslim world further. Malaysia’s former Prime Minister accused the western world in being hypocritical and selective when upholding freedom of expression, and he does so with a somewhat compelling argument.

Democracy’s faltering isn’t unique to Europe either. Many countries that are marginally democratic have seen slides into further corruption or authoritarianism.

The election-quagmire in Venezuela has gone so far that the former mayor of its capital, Caracas, says that they’re quickly dissolving as a country and becoming a failed state.

I’ve written about Hong Kong extensively, but the situation still continues as liberties continue to be chipped away. China has reduced the city’s autonomous legislature and now limits those who can run to ‘patriots.

Belarus, which hasn’t had a free or fair election since the 90s, nevertheless has seen unprecedented protests and police brutality over a rigged election. They’ve closed their borders and have been accused of torturing protesters.

In Thailand, the king has steadily taken more power, gained controlling shares of corporate giants, dissolved the prominent opposition party, and bizarrely, rules from Germany. Protests finally erupted in February and quickly escalated, resulting in several arrests and accusations of police brutality. Thailand had already faced a military coup in 2006, and a military crackdown in 2011, which resulted in changes to their constitution, allowing

Kyrgyzstan, one of the only former soviet states that’s a democracy, faced civil strife and contested elections forcing its president to step down – for the third time in 15 years.

In Sri Lanka, their president, Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has gone as far as amending their constitution to give him the power to dissolve parliament and fire the Prime Minister.

Both Myanmar and Mali had a literal military coup. The former after a democratic leader won an election without the military backing, and the latter to resolve increasingly violent protests against government corruption, promising for elections within a ‘reasonable time frame.’ To their credit, this election did occur with a new president being named in September. Myanmar situation is more grim. Their army has killed over 500 protestors, including children, at the time of this writing.

The world’s largest democracy, India, is similarly becoming more authoritarian. I’ve written before on the brutal takeover of Kashmir, but among other concerning practices involve including religion as a criteria for citizenship, a clampdown on dissenting media (often in the form of lawsuits), and allowing unlimited and anonymous donations to political parties, as well as well as an increase in police brutality – another worldwide trend that’s closely intertwined with waning liberties.

And of course at home in the United States’ most recent election, we saw attempts to restrict access to voting, to encourage voter fraud, eager attempts to politicize the courts, and campaigning to remove entire parties from ballots. The president of the United States equivocated on whether he’d endorse a peaceful transfer of power, and subsequently incited an insurrection (despite the politicization of events, his language is clear).

A US Supreme Court Justice refused to endorse a peaceful transfer of power – something explicitly called out in the US Constitution justices are committed to upholding. The only alternative to a peaceful transfer of power is a violent one. Even an election decided by courts would be peaceful as it was in 2000’s contested Gore v Bush, so it’s hard to imagine that those words have any less gravity than an implicit endorsement of civil war or military coup. Even if one wanted to chalk that up to ‘taking words out of context,’ ‘just joking around,’ or otherwise not being serious, others took it as a call to violence. In Texas, a group of pickup trucks hoisting MAGA flags attempted to run a Biden Harris campaign bus off the road.

It would be a mistake to think that these problems will dissipate with the inauguration and presidency of Mr. Biden, and not only because Trump is reportedly considering a 2024 run. The fact is these problems are far more systemic as evidenced by increased rhetoric and protests from Democrats and Republicans with regards to accepting both the results of the 2016 and 2020 election results. In 2016, refusal to accept results was largely limited to citizens, but in 2020, it spread to representatives across all levels of the government. Over 50 lawsuits were filed, some with aims as wild as completely disregarding the vote and assigning Pennsylvania’s electors in favor of Trump. Another lawsuit saw the state of Texas suing 4 states to overturn their election results, and 17 other states signed on their support. The list is extensive and seemingly endless. Lastly, 139 members of congress, just shy of 1 in 3 congressmen, actively attempted to overthrow the election.

It’s difficult to not sound alarmist, but if you live in a democracy, your ability to criticize the government or vote for someone not in power is waning. Perhaps that’s not a concern though. In fact, support for Democracy itself is at an all time low. Polls such as the one linked naturally beg the question, what was the wording? After all, there’s a large difference between being dissatisfied with your particular government and being dissatisfied with the idea of democracy. Both cases, however, bode poorly for stability, and history has shown that democracies die in times of civil strife. That’s what I want to talk about today, why and how democracies of the past have died.

Historical Precedent

Tearing the Republic’s Bonaparte

The French Revolution is largely recognized as one of the most important events in human history, where most of what we recognize as unalienable rights originates. While it’s true that the American Revolution predates the French, the ideas in the American revolution weren’t taken quite as seriously as those in the French. After all, colonies revolted all the time, but the French had been a world power for hundreds of years. What’s particularly interesting and less spoken about, is that mere months after the monarchy was overthrown and the First French Republic instituted, Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew it all and became emperor with the people’s supposed approval.

Napoleon Bonaparte in imperial regalia
Napoleon Bonaparte dressed in homage to a Roman emperor

I was a bit hesitant to include a portion on the French Revolution since revolutions inherently lead to instability and frequent changes of government, but I thought it was particularly interesting as it’s the only other revolution American high schoolers are taught about as it relates dealt with liberty and freedom, yet it descended into a military dictatorship within months. Let’s set the scene:

September 1792, a very bankrupt France found itself at war with Prussia and Austria. In addition to the war abroad, civil unrest abounded. An event formally dubbed the “September Massacre” occurred (though I think riot or even insurrection may be more accurate) where government officials, peasants, and the military broke into a prison and murdered over a thousand inmates. The Legislative Assembly of France (an entity in itself that had only existed for about a year) came together and decided to oversee an election, and determine how to deal with the rampant, uncontrolled and continually escalating violence in the streets. They formed the committee of Public Safety, which infamously began The Reign of Terror. Anyone who was viewed as not fully supportive of the revolution (or maybe someone who looked at the wrong person the wrong way), was arrested and swiftly guillotined.

The Committee of Public Safety was seen as a temporary drastic measure to reel in the chaos surrounding the country from invasions to counter revolutionaries. The granting of temporary powers is by no means extraordinary nor unique to France, but eventually those temporary powers become permanent in the name of safety or security. Extraordinary temporary powers are rarely truly temporary.

In 1794, Maximilien Robespierre was arrested and executed for his role in the Reign of Terror, and a new government was formed, the Directorate. The Directorate was also a short lived government that was overthrown by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte and a few members of the Directorate in the Coup of 18 Brumaire.

Members of the Directorate and Napoleon formed France’s next government, the French Consulate with Napoleon as head of government as First Consul, a term from Roman government. From there it was only 5 years in 1804 when Napoleon would be coronated as emperor.

Napoleon’s ascent to fame as emperor what I really want to hone in on. Napoleon was incredibly popular, and his victories in wars all around Europe brought stability to France. However, some feared that when Napoleon died, a lack of successor would plunge France into chaos…again. Remember that the French Revolution had started in 1789, and was preceded by a period of rampant wealth inequality. By 1804, the revolution was well in living memory, and the Reign of Terror even more so. The fear of chaos was real, and despite having participated in a literal coup, Napoleon and the Senate put the question to the people of France. The turnout was reportedly about 47%, with over 99% voting to make Napoleon emperor. I had some trouble determining whether that was a real result or just a propaganda piece. From what little bits of information I could scrounge up, the result was likely fudged, but not significantly. Note that 47% is similar to turnout in US elections, and oftentimes those who fudge electoral results tend to fudge both turnout AND votes.

Napoleon was thusly crowned emperor by the pope that December, and ruled in his own right until his continued wars with all of Europe finally collapsed, and he was banished to a small island. Per the people’s wish, his son Napoleon II was supposed to ascend to the throne, but the allies against France forbade any of Napoleon’s relatives from holding power in the Treaty of Fontainebleau. On an unrelated note, the original treaty was reportedly stolen in the late 1970s by 2 American professors. It was returned to France shortly after the theft was revealed in the early 2000s.

The most interesting part of my readings on Napoleon was that Napoleon was elected Emperor. The senate, quite literally, wrote in their new constitution, “The government of the Republic is handed over to an Emperor.” Make no mistake that people would willingly trade democracy for stability. They did so in France, and as we’ll see below, they’ll also support whomever promises to improve their lot, regardless of the means pursued to do so.

The Winds Blow Augustus

Perhaps the most famous failure of democracy is that of the Roman’s. Of course, Roman democracy looked a lot different than ones we’re familiar with today. Though if you rewind the clock a couple hundred years, before striking wealth, sex, and race requirements, you may begin to see more similarities. However, as Rome became a superpower, its traditional ideals faltered before being struck entirely when the senate bestowed upon Gaius Octavius the name, “Augustus” (literally, “venerated”), and the democracy that had struggled to survive the civil wars of the Roman Republic was dealt its killing blow.

But democracies don’t just die. Their institutions are weakened by minor assaults that gradually increase in frequency and severity. Octavian/Augustus didn’t just wake up one day and decide he could be emperor. Previously, the Senate had bestowed upon him and two other men (Marc Antony and Lepidus) special powers in the form of the second triumvirate. The first triumvirate (consisting of Julius Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey the Great), however, was unofficial, and merely ‘acknowledged’ rather than enshrined into law. Prior to Julius Caesar, a general by the name of Sulla had been granted an extension of powers by the Senate so he could quell rebellions and turn back the status quo from the chaotic tribunates of Gaius and Tiberius Graccus. (In overly simplistic terms, you could think of each of the two tribunates as a sort of “super-representative” with veto power in a modern senate). What I really want to focus on is how over the course of decades, boundaries get pushed, the audacious becomes expected, and that enables the power hungry to push the envelope just a little further. That story begins with the Gracchi.

The Gracchi brothers often are credited with being the ‘beginning of the end’ of the Roman Republic. Let’s look at the background that lead to their ascension. The latter days of the Roman republic were marred by increasing wealth inequality. The source of the inequality is an interesting problem. Rome’s soldiers were by law required to own land, and the vast majority of them owned small farms. They were what we might think of as middle class. When Rome was small, its soldiers would fight in their campaign, and be back in time to harvest the crops, and have fame and loot to boot. As Rome grew though, its wars took them further away and against larger opponents whose subjugation might take months rather than weeks. By the time the soldiers returned home, their farms were overrun and ruined. Compounding this problem was the importation of slaves.

Before we go too far, I want to do a quick sidebar on slavery in ancient Rome. Slavery in Rome differed in several respects from the trans-Atlantic slave trade we’re accustomed to. Perhaps most importantly, most slaves were taken as prisoners of wars and whether or not you could be enslaved was a concept completely distinct from race. Additionally, slavery could also be used to pay off a debt or as punishment. Lastly, while slaves were explicitly seen as property, it’s worth noting that Romans viewed slavery as “contrary to the natural state.” Thus, it should be of no surprise that a slave could earn their freedom, especially those entrusted with management of an estate or business or those working as an artisan or mechanic. As the fledgling empire grew, several emperors passed laws to protect slaves from the harshest of masters outlawing both murder and separating families of slaves. Lastly, freed slaves were immediately granted all rights of fully fledged citizens, minus the ability to run for office. A freedmen’s child, however, was free to run for office.

Because the primary source of slaves were wars, which Republican Rome was winning left and right, wealthy estate owners could buy more and more slaves to work increasingly large estates. Estates that grew when soldiers returned to ruined farms and were thus forced to sell their homely farm at extremely low rates. Each war fought meant large landowners bought more land from soldiers whose farms were ruined.

There was a land cap on the amount of land an individual Roman could own. It just wasn’t enforced. At first, the rich would acquire multiple estates under fake names, but soon they dropped the pretense entirely. It is into this landscape that the Gracchi brothers are born. The Gracchi brothers, Gaius and Tiberius (you may have realized that those two names are the Roman equivalent of John and Bob), were separated by about ten years and born into a well connected, wealthy family, though technically were plebians. Their father had become famous for his military service and maintained enough relevance and prestige to give his sons a platform.

The Gracchi Brothers

The elder brother, Tiberius, worked his way up through the various ranks of civil service proving himself a talented and capable administrator. Tiberius first began working on his key signature proposal, the Lex Agraria (translated, the Agrarian Law) while serving as a quaestor in Spain. According to Plutarch, “a law dealing with injustice and rapacity so great was never drawn up in milder and gentler terms.” Effectively, he proposed that those who own more than the legal limit of land should have their land purchased from them at value and then given to those who were struggling. No punishment would be ennacted on those who’d broken the law. The rich elites were completely against it and decried Tiberius as seeking to stir revolution and upset the political balance. It wouldn’t be good for Rome! Tiberius retorted,

“The wild beasts that roam over Italy have every one of them a cave or lair to lurk in; but the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else; houseless and homeless they wander about with their wives and children. And it is with lying lips that their imperators exhort the soldiers in their battles to defend sepulchres and shrines from the enemy; for not a man of them has an hereditary altar, not one of all these many Romans an ancestral tomb, but they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and though they are styled masters of the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is their own.”

We might recognize this proposal today as wealth redistribution, and as it is today, then it was also vehemently opposed by the wealthy. It is at this impasse that the Republic began to crack. You see, Tiberius was a plebian, and he had recently been elected as Tribune of the Plebians. If you read my post on protests, you might recognize the position as the one that has ultimate veto power over any law that was proposed. Unlike modern vetos, the veto was absolute. It stopped any law dead in its tracks, and thus was used exceedingly sparingly. When a man named Marcus Octavius refused to allow a vote on Tiberius’ law, Tiberius in turn refused to let any bills be introduced and prohibited the quaestors (kind of like a treasurer) from allowing any money to be spent. He single handedly brought the entire government to a halt. To gain public support, he rewrote his bill striking the provision to pay the wealthy landowners the value of the land thus just taking it and giving it to the poor. Still, Marcus refused to allow a vote.

Thus, a plot formed to kill Tiberius. And he knew it. Tiberius armed himself, and his sword never left his side.

Like all governments, there is a level of trust that’s inherent to the system. That unspoken trust dictates that people in power don’t abuse it and abide by the tradition and framing of the founders. Whether that’s certifying a vote, or only issuing a veto when the situation was dire, the trust always exists and is inherent to all constitutions.

Seeing they were at an impasse, Tiberius tried another tactic. On the next voting day, he pleaded with Marcus Octavian to let the people have the small bit of land in exchange for their toils, and Marcus refused. Seeing no other option, Tiberius then introduced legislation that would overturn their own election. At the next assembly he said, I have the votes to remove you from office. Step down, or we will cast the votes. Again, Marcus refused. The votes were tallied, and Marcus Octavian was removed from office. This was a first for Rome, and it had an important implication.

Roman officials were sacrosanct. In other words, harming someone who was sacrosanct in any way was punishable by death. However, now that Marcus was no longer an official, he was no longer sacrosanct. Tiberius had his men physically drag Marcus out and deposit him into the crowd where he now belonged, but the crowd swarmed him. Tiberius tried to calm them to no avail, and the wealthy rushed to protect Marcus. Marcus barely managed to escape, but one of his servants had his eyes ripped out in the chaos. With the co-tribune gone, and with everyone afraid of the chaos that had just ensued, Tiberius passed his Agrarian law, but he wasn’t out of the woods. The wealthy hated him. One senator in particular, Publius Nasica, resolved to make Tiberius’ life a living hell, refusing to even grant him a tent to work in.

Then however, a miracle occurred.

The king of neighboring Pergamon died, and in his will, he left his kingdom and its wealth to Rome. He believed that Rome was on the verge of invasion (which was probably true), and in doing so, he could avoid the bloodshed of a war and a succession crisis. Tiberius wasted no time drafting a bill that resolved to divvy up the riches of the kingdom straight to the people of Rome, and let the Roman people vote on it, bypassing the senate entirely. Immediately, the senators whipped up theories saying the king had gifted Tiberius a purple robe. That accusation doesn’t make a lot of sense to the modern ear, but he was basically saying that Tiberius was trying to whip up the people to proclaim him king. Kings, and only kings, wore purple robes. The taboo against kingship was so intrenched in Roman society that when Rome descended into autocracy, instead of calling the ruler a king, they called them imperator or princeps just to avoid using the word king, even though emperors would wear purple robes. In a more modern vernacular, the senators were calling Tiberius a dirty communist and a corrupt fascist.

Tiberius’ Murder

Tiberius’ term neared its end, and knowing how many feathers he’d ruffled and how many powerful men wanted him dead, Tiberius decided to break yet another sacred tradition, and ran for a second term in office. This was explicitly illegal, but the voting commenced regardless. Plutarch then writes that on voting day, a senator told Tiberius that the other senators had planned to kill him. Tiberius, alarmed at this, tried to tell the crowd assembled for voting that he was in danger by gesturing to his head. Someone in the back couldn’t hear him, and rushed to the senate building and told them that Tiberius was asking for a crown. This incensed the senate yet again, and this time, they marched down to where the voting was taking place. On the way they destroyed public benches for makeshift clubs. Once there, they publicly beat Tiberius to death, which quickly resulted in a riot of retaliation when his followers saw what was occurring. Tiberius was only 30 years old, and the resulting chaos claimed over 300 souls. Plutarch called the act sedition.

Many more of Tiberius’ followers were tried and put to death or exiled, but Tiberius’ rockstar status lived on. In one trial, one of his followers was asked what he’d do if Tiberius had asked him to set the capitol on fire. He replied,  “If such a man as Tiberius had ordered such a thing, it would also have been right for me to do it; for Tiberius would not have given such an order if it had not been for the interest of the people.”

For what little it’s worth, the senate did then carry out Tiberius’ agrarian reform.

The Republic’s for us, not Forum

Before I get into his brother, I want to note that this act was a complete shock to the Romans. Political violence was a foreign concept to the Romans at this point. Plutarch claims, though he’s likely exaggerating, that the Romans hadn’t seen such violence since they overthrew the Roman Kingdom establishing the Republic almost 400 years prior. Imagine how much more shocking the storming of the US capitol might have been had there never been a civil war, and the last act of political violence was the American Revolution. Political violence may have been more foreign to the Romans than it is to us. Indeed, with Tiberius deposed, Rome would see peace for about 3 years until his brother, Gaius, decided to take up the Gracchi mantel.

Gaius (or Caius) Gracchus was about 9 years younger than Tiberius, and he was a man who held a grudge. Indeed, the senate refused to give Gaius his brother’s body, and instead dumped it in a river. Mike Duncan (author of the Storm Before the Storm) has compared Gaius’ career to a movie sequel. Everything Tiberius did, Gaius did bigger, badder, and wilder. While Tiberius had spoken calmly and with a tempered measure, Gaius often flew off the handle. So much so, that one of his slaves carried a lyre, and plucked a string whenever Gaius needed to tone his speech down.

After Tiberius’ death, Gaius supposedly retreated to private life wanting to escape the chaos of public life until his brother Tiberius appeared in a dream saying, “Why, pray, do you hesitate, Caius? There is no escape; one life is fated for us both, and one death as champions of the people.” Taking this as a sign, Gaius immediately went to work, and he too worked his way up the Cursus Honorum (basically, the defined career path for Roman politicians). The senate began to fear the return of a Gracchi brother. Gaius was serving as a quaestor in Sardinia, and as quaestor, he served the governor. The senate came up with a plan to prevent Gaius from ever running for tribune by extending the governor’s term. By tradition, even if the quaestor’s term was up, he was obliged to continue to serve the governor. Thus, he was kept by tradition to stay out of Rome. Ultimately though, Gaius said to hell with tradition, and sailed back to Rome. In doing so, he confirmed to the senate that he would also look to upend the social order.

Gaius, despite the senate accusing him of stirring up rebellion, managed to clear himself of all charges. He then immediately ran for Tribune, and as a result of his namesake’s popularity combined with the elite’s utter disdain for him and his brother, his run prompted record turn out unlike anything seen in Rome before. Purportedly, so many came to vote for Gaius that there wasn’t enough room in the courtyard to house them all, and so they climbed to the rooftops to watch the proceedings.

Gaius handily won tribune, and continued in his brother’s footsteps by continuing to court the public (or “Assembly”) rather than the Senate to get laws passed. Over the course of Gaius’ tribunate, he touched almost every aspect of public life, and rubbed against the elite every time. The reforms that parallel those today weren’t limited to wealth inequality. Another hard question was that of Italian citizenship. Gaius wanted to grant anyone living within Italy “Roman Rights” as opposed to their current “Latin Rights.” At the time, only those who resided in the city of Rome could vote, so Gaius was not only advocating for further citizenship, but expanding voting rights to those who’d been previously subjected and/or conquered by Rome. Gaius’ reforms didn’t stop there. He added mile markers to Roman roads. He also reformed the military from ways that would seem foreign and bizarre to the modern ear. Previously, if a person wanted to join the military, they’d have to furnish their own equipment, and if they could not, its cost would be deducted from their pay. Gaius’ reforms had the public tax furnish its soldiers’ equipment. This change ultimately would lead to Rome having its first professional army, an uncommon concept in the Classical era. He also fixed the price of grain, and prevented senators from being the only judges in criminal cases. Perhaps a similar change would benefit impeachment trials in the United States.

Gaius Gracchus’ tribunate would come to an end, and like his brother, he knew he was likely in danger. Gaius however, didn’t run for tribune again. However, through a quirk of Roman politics (that may or may not have been intentionally exploited), Gaius ended up being appointed to a second tribunate even though he didn’t technically run. Those that did win a position were able to appoint whomever they liked into empty positions. In Roman elections, a candidate had to secure 51% of the vote – regardless of how many people were running. If the vote was split, the seat was empty. It might be like if more people wrote in a candidate than voted for who was actually on the ballot, and then political parties decided to honor the wishes of the crowd. Through this, Gaius was appointed and served his second tribunate.

Gaius Gracchus in the Forum
Gaius Gracchus in the Forum

Gaius’ second tribunate was every bit as contentious as his first, and of course the senate loathed that this man, intentionally or not, managed to knab a second tribunate, something they’d literally murdered a man for years prior. Gaius went to Africa to oversee the founding of another of colony as part of the agrarian reforms that were still being carried out. When he returned, he’d found that the senators and consuls had made Gaius irrelevant by passing several of the measures he had campaigned on, but never passed, and when he returned to Rome, he found himself irrelevant. Either to maintain power, or to protect himself from the same violence as his brother, he announced his candidacy for an unprecedented third term as tribune.

Gaius barely lost the election, and claimed the election had been stolen from him. Perhaps it was, that much is lost to history. The senate overjoyed with his loss, immediately set out to repeal all the laws that Gaius had passed, including that of Latin citizenship. Latins had come from all over Italy to watch the proceedings under Gaius’ promise of protection, but the consul then forbade any Latin from entering the city. Gaius, incensed, got a mob together to protest the repeal of any of his laws. During the opening ceremony, the person performing the sacrifice was aligned with the senatorial rank, and as he carried the remains away, he proclaimed “Make way for honest citizens, you rascals!” The mob immediately stabbed him.

As a result, the consul declared martial law with the senate’s blessing. Gaius hid for his life, but knew he was done for. The senators demanded he surrender before any talk of mercy began. Gaius rejected the offer and fled into the forest, where Gaius was either caught and killed, or had his slave execute him.

The consul who declared martial law, having received Gaius’ severed head, built a temple to Concordia (the goddess of harmony) on the site where the secession of the plebs had happened years ago. Upon completion, it was soon vandalized with the words, “A work of mad discord produced this temple of Concord.”

If you read this story, and immediately seeing parallels to today’s contentious issues and bombastic politicians, you know why I told it. Things aren’t ever exactly the same, but there’s enough parallels between the DACA Dreamers and Latin Rights or the Gracchi claims of fraud and Trump’s claims of fraud to make one shift uncomfortably in their seat as one recalls the civil wars that soon followed in Rome’s history. I’m not claiming a civil war is imminent, but I do want to point out the flaw in dismissing the past as somehow fundamentally different, or that people are more sensible today. The constant attempts to appeal Agrarian Reform harkens memories of attempts to do the same to the Affordable Care Act. Recent attempts across the globe to claim an election was stolen or fraudulent feel like they were pulled right out of Gaius’ political playbook. I could go on, but the point is clear. Democracy is in danger. If history truly does repeat itself, then we must prepare for what comes next.

Further Reading:

“The Storm Before the Storm” by Mike Duncan

On slavery in ancient Rome

On the Viking’s and the world’s oldest parliament

“Lives” by Plutarch

“Democracy in Retreat” – Freedom House

On Napoleon’s Coup of 18 Brumaire

Have the Politics of Territorial Influence Relegated Iraq and Kurdistan to Buffer States?

A Recap

This is the second part of my series on territorial disputes. Last time we looked at some of the territorial disputes across the world and focused specifically on territorial disputes that arose from national identity. Specifically, when members living within one entity identify with another.

Today’s post will continue looking at territory disputes, but these will be more preemptive and abstract in nature. They’ll involve more powerful nations directly  playing a heavy hand in the government of a less powerful state (or entity) in the name of protecting themselves before a threat is realized. We’ll investigate how Russia, Austria, and Prussia’s instincts to partition Poland as well as Rome and the Sassanids playing catch with Armenia closely mirror diplomacy today. Let’s see which disputes qualify:


Who Betrayed the Kurds and the Kurdish State?

A Kurdling Trust in Abbreviations

You’ve likely heard that America recently withdrew its troops from Syria, which Turkey, either honestly or deviously, took as permission to invade Kurdish controlled territory in northern Syria. As with all political events, there’s more nuance than “Turkish bad guys unapologetically  slaughter Kurdish good guys.”

The Kurds have sought to have their own state, Kurdistan, since the close of the First World War. In fact, it had even been promised to them as the Ottoman Empire was dissolved, but scrapped in the 1920 Treaty of Lausanne which defined modern Turkey’s borders. This left the Kurds stranded between five other nations, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and the southern tip of Armenia, relegating them to a minority status in all of them. The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (often referred to as the PKK) formed in the 80s with the goal of setting up a state for the Kurds. In doing so, they carried out attacks on Turkey as well as other nations. The US, the EU, and Turkey all classify the PKK as a terrorist organization.

The PKK however, is not to be confused with the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. The SDF primarily (but not entirely) comprises Kurds from the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. (Both the YPG and PKK take their abbreviations from the Kurdish names.) The YPG is the armed wing of another Kurdish party (the PYD). Turkey would have you believe that the PYD is just the Syrian branch of the PKK, but that’s an exaggeration at best. There are almost certainly links between the two, but how deep those links go is unknown. What is known is that the YPG seized territory for themselves in Northern Syria when the civil war broke out. The SDF (and the YPG by proxy) is who the United States was allied with during its fight against ISIS.

To clear that up a bit, the big takeaway is that the PKK is widely regarded as a terrorist organization that dates back decades. The SDF allied with the US to root out ISIS, and the Syrian Democratic Forces largely comprise Kurds from a group known as the YPG. Because the YPG has sought territory for themselves, Turkey would have you believe that the YPG and PKK are indistinguishable, and while they likely have some ties, it’s a stretch that they’re one in the same. Notably, the US does not support the YPG’s plans for autonomy.

Turkey invaded Syria’s Kurdish controlled territory with the intention of setting up a buffer zone between its own state and what it views as a terrorist state. It also plans to relocate 2 million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees into this buffer zone in a move that some claim mirrors the demographic engineering also occurring within Syria. This buffer zone, Erdogan argues, will help keep Turks safe from terrorist attacks.

When Did Iraq Become a Satellite State?

A Sunniset for Iraq

Both Iran and Iraq have been a defining topic in international news since the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 and even more so since the United States assassinated Iran’s Major General, Qassim Suleimani (I’m going with this spelling as it’s preferred by the Economist, New York Times, Guardian and Foreign Policy, but note that Google and Wikipedia both have it as Soleimani). Each country’s history goes back further, and is also tied with the as of yet non-existent Kurdistan. In fact, all of Iraq and some of Iran are where we find some of humanity’s earliest records and is sometimes referred to as the “cradle of civilization.” The Parthians, Achaemenids, Sassanids, Safavids, and Babylonians all ruled kingdoms or empires that comprised some, if not all, of the territory of both modern day states. While I won’t try to summarize some 6,000 years of history, note that both countries have a shared history and culture, perhaps not too unlike the United States has with the United Kingdom.

Iran’s modern government has been in place since its Islamic revolution in the late 70s, and Iraq’s established their republic in 1958 after overthrowing the Kingdom that the occupying British setup after dismantling the Ottoman Empire.

An Iranian Soldier Wears a Gasmask
An Iranian Soldier Protecting Himself from Chemical Weapons During the Iran-Iraq War

In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran sparking a devastating war that lasted 8 years. This is the war that Suleimani, and many of his contemporaries grew up in. Iraq invaded Iran citing a territorial dispute, but more likely capitalizing on a recently destabilized government and fearing a stronger Iran on the other side. The fear was well founded. Iraq beat the morale out of their own soldiers (literally) while significantly underestimating the resolve of the Iranians, who would purportedly throw their bodies onto barbed wire, so their compatriots could climb across it. As a result, despite the international weapons embargo levied on Iran for taking American diplomats hostage during their revolution (what the movie Argo is based on), Iran held its ground. A ceasefire was negotiated in 1988 by the United Nations after a million people had lost their lives and both countries were weakened and destabalized.

After the death of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent rise of Islamic State, Iran and Iraq’s relationship warmed. They had a mutual interest in keeping IS at bay, and as Iran’s various exports to Iran increased, neither wanted Iraq to destabilize again. However, following the US invasion in 2003, Iran also developed an interest in keeping Iraq weak, so that it could not threaten Iran again. The US and Iran are still competing for influence in Iraq, but the US has all but lost.

Iran’s increasing influence calls into question how independent Iraq truly is. On its face, Iraq is completely independent. It has diplomatic relations with several countries, has its own government, and of course, a sense of national identity. When you look a bit deeper though, the picture is a bit more complex. For example, Iran backed militias are now a permanent feature of Iraq’s military. That of course isn’t a situation unique to Iraq. The United States has provided scores of military personnel, equipment and funding for Europe, but that comes with influence, and just as NATO has helped spread liberal democracies across Europe, prevented further conflict in Europe and with the US, and established the dollar as a global reserve currency, so too has Iran’s military protection afforded safety and economic influence in Iraq.

Iran’s influence goes yet further. The local news projects Iran as the protector of Iraq; Iranian companies pick up the trash in Iraq; Iranian sympathizers get funding for political campaigns, and Iraqi banks are encouraged to hold their funds in Iran. Where the money goes, the power goes. It goes so far that when a member of the Qatar royalty was kidnapped in Iraq, Qatar called Iran to help, completely ignoring the Iraqi government. Iran’s influence is the cause of several protests rocking the country.

There’s a religious aspect too. Iranian’s Shiite Theocracy may come into conflict with Iraq’s significant Sunni minority, which could have many parallels to some of the Protestant-Catholicism conflicts we looked at before, particularly for the Sunni Kurds who operate out of an semi-autonomous region of Iraq, the closest thing the Kurds have gotten to their own state.

This religious aspect is significant as it’s another reason for why Iran is attempting to exert so much influence on Iraq. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been jockeying for the position of regional dominance since Iran’s Revolution, and much like the French Revolution, Iran would like to expand its ideas beyond its borders. This brings it into a conflict with Saudi Arabia, who is the traditional regional power, and is ruled by a Sunni majority. Both nations have engaged in several proxy wars, most notably the Syrian Civil war (along with Turkey and Russia, one of the reasons the quagmire has gone on so long). Influence in Iraq makes Iraq a buffer state between Iran and the Saudis should their proxy-rivalry turn to direct blows.

With Turkey and Iran trying to setup buffer zones and claiming territory, either directly or through severe influence, I wanted to look at some similar instances throughout history and learn how they turned out.

The History

Ancient Arguments around Armenia

That’ll Cost you an Arm-en-a Leg 

Armenia is one of the world’s oldest countries, and has been ruled by more countries than most. It was conquered by the Greek’s Alexander the Great, the Persian’s Cyrus the Great, Rome’s Trajan, the Mongols, the Parthians, the Ottoman Empire, the Russians, the Soviets and was its own kingdom and country. The Armenians most recently got their independence in the collapse of the Soviet Union in what was their second republic, and who knows how many times they’d been independent at that point.

Today I want to focus on the ancient Armenian Kingdom and its relationship with the surrounding powers. Armenia switched its allegiance six times in 46 years. It was nominally independent, but defining independence is a little dicey considering that Armenia had its leader installed by either Rome, Pontus, or Persia for several decades.

Our story here will start with Tigranes the Great. Tigranes came on the scene around the time the Roman Republic was transitioning into the Roman Empire. In fact, he began his reign within a few years of Julius Caesar being born.

A painting of Armenian King, Tigranes the Great - King of Kings
Tigranes the Great of Armenia, King of Kings

Tigranes had actually been taken hostage by the Parthians as a child in 120BCE to put space between the Parthian Empire and subject Armenia as a buffer state between the two. This would be their “Rome strategy” until the end of their dynasty. Tigranes was eventually released and appointed King of Armenia in 96BCE, effectively making him a vassal. Even so, Tigranes greatly expanded his empire and even began calling himself King of Kings, which leads several historians to believe he let conquered monarchs continue to rule their land as vassals making himself literally a king of kings. He also allied with the Kingdom of Pontus by marrying the king’s daughter, Cleopatra. No, not that Cleopatra.

To give you an idea of where exactly in the world we’re talking about, the Kingdom of Pontus was mostly part of modern day Turkey, the Crimean Peninsula and Russia. The Parthian Empire was modern Iran (somewhat literally), but with territory extending into modern Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Armenia was, well, Armenia. Its borders extended significantly farther than present day, and it sat north of the Parthians and east of Pontus bordering the Caspian sea. I made a rough (really rough) sketch of the borders at the time to help illustrate where we are and why Tigranes might seek an alliance with Pontus. It should also help show how important Armenia would be for both Rome and Parthia once Pontus and Egypt became part of Rome:

Middle East Roughly 70BC

In 87BCE Rome began a war with the Kingdom of Pontus who continued to aggravate the Romans by annexing its territory in Asia Minor. These are known as the Mithridatic Wars named for the ruler of Pontus, Mithridates VI. Mithridates had secured an alliance with Tigranes by marrying his daughter to him. In 62BCE, Pompey the Great of Rome invaded Armenia assisted by Tigranes’ own son. Tigranes quickly surrendered and offered huge amounts of wealth in exchange for letting Tigranes continue to rule Armenia, but this time as a client state of Rome. Tigranes would rule until his death in 55BCE having ruled Armenia for 40 years and lived for 85.

Succeeding Tigranes the Great was his son, Artavasdes II. Artavasdes would flip flop between supporting Rome and Parthia several times in his 18 year reign – mostly out of necessity. When Crassus invaded Parthia and was completely defeated, Artavasdes was up against an invading Parthian force. After all, Armenia had allied Rome. This forced Artavasdes to secure a peace, and thus alliance, with Parthian King Orodes. Eventually, Mark Antony would invade Armenia in an act of revenge at Artavasdes’ betrayal, capturing him and his three sons. Antony then marched Artavasdes back in golden chains. Cleopatra (Yes, the famous Cleopatra) executed Artavasdes in 31BCE.

One of Artavasdes II’s son, Artaxias II, managed to escape and fled to Parthia. Parthia’s king then installed Artaxias II on the throne, thus gaining Armenia’s allegiance. Artaxias would rule for 13 years before his death. Artaxias, however, proved to be an unpopular leader, and before long, supposedly, the people of Armenia petitioned Augustus to install another leader into Armenia, and so Augustus installed Tigranes the III, still being held prisoner from Antony’s expedition, after Artaxias’ death. This of course flipped Armenia’s allegiance back to Rome.

Rome would continue to appoint leaders until the death of Augustus in 14CE. In fact, appointing leaders was the duty of future emperor Tiberius. Even so, several of these leaders would be dethroned as the result of native rebellions funded by Parthia. At this point it seems like the record dries up a bit with limited information other than name. The record picks up again with the war of Armenian succession in 58 where one of the weirder agreements over Armenia takes place. Going forward, the king of Armenia would be a prince of Parthia, but the ruler had to be approved by the Romans. This agreement is one of the reasons emperor Nero was so reviled by contemporary Romans. Well, that and the whole burning Rome to the ground thing. Tiridates would be the ruler of choice from 62CE (as a result of the war) to 88CE.

This would be the status quo until Roman Emperor Trajan invaded Armenia because the Parthians installed a king whom the Romans did not approve of. Trajan annexed Armenia in 113, only to have it be relinquished by his successor, Hadrian, just a few years later.

Around this point the Parthian Empire began weakening and the crisis of the third century was just around the corner for Rome. Even so, Armenia would be a point of contention for the successor states of the Byzantine and Sasanid Empire. Armenia underscores how vital a buffer state can be, and how two powers can jockey over position just to fend off the fear of an invasion. Jockeying for influence in Armenia draws parallels to Iran and the United States. It’s a form of politics as old as politics itself.

The Partitions of Poland

We Came, Warsaw, We Conquered

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was once a world power and geographic juggernaut comprising the modern states of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, and parts of Moldova and Estonia.

Their famous Winged Hussars once beat a Russian army that out-manned the Polish 5 to 1 in the Battle of Klushino in 1610, but in just over 100 years, the state would literally be erased off the map and wouldn’t reappear for almost two hundred years.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a dual state. The king of Poland also served as the Grand Duke of Lithuania and had done so for a hundreds of years starting with the marriage of Polish Queen Jadwiga to Lithuanian duke Jogaila in 1386. As time marched forward, this multi-ethnic behemoth of a country began to see its power wane as the power of Russia, Austria, and Prussia began to grow, and by the early 1700s, something had to give.

Polish-Lithuanian at its height
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s borders transposed onto current borders.

Polish-Lithuania’s government at the time could be described as both forward thinking and laughably naive. Their easily corruptible government utilized something called a Liberum-Veto. The idea is that all laws must be passed by the Sejm (effectively their parliament) unanimously. Any single member could strike down an entire piece of legislation. As you can imagine, their Sejm was made up of nobles with a wide variety of sometimes conflicting interests. As time passed, the strength of a veto got even stronger. It would no longer just apply to a law, but it could suspend an entire session, and any legislation that had already passed would become null and void. Foreign powers, particularly Russia, would often bribe members to vote no on any resolution they didn’t particularly care for. Before long, Poland’s central government had lost all its power, and its nobles were bought out by foreign interests. Any attempts to reform and strengthen the country would be vetoed. This lead to an inability to defend themselves, and ultimately the total partition of the state.

The once mighty military of Polish-Lithuania was destroyed in a string of wars with Sweden known as The Deluge in the late 1650s. These wars devastated Poland, literally killing up to a third of the country’s population. While Poland struggled to recover, its neighbors, Austria, Prussia, and especially Russia, strengthened. Peter the Great had modernized Russia and its rise was tipping the balance in Europe.

A series of Cossack rebellions in modern day Ukraine further hindered Poland’s economy and stability, and the subsequent treaties lead to territorial loss, and increased Russian influence when the Cossacks pledged allegiance to the Russian Czar in 1654.

A Winged Hussar flies into battle
The feared Winged Hussars

In 1733 the first war of Polish succession broke out when Augustus the II died. Russia and Austria initially opposed Augustus the III’s ascension, but Augustus the III secured their support by promising Russia and Austria further influence. Specifically, he agreed to install a Russian as a fief and recognize an Austrian treaty that recognized Livonia as Austria’s and confirmed Maria Theresa’s right to rule. Augustus the III fulfilled his promises, and when he died in 1763, Austria and Russia formed an alliance not only to secure the next ruler of Poland, but to limit who could rule and change the laws in Poland. A guy named Stanislaw (whose last name was also Augustus despite bearing no relation to his predecessors) came to the throne who would seek support from France to try to rekindle his country. Stanislaw had been one of Catherine the Great’s many lovers. She’d installed Stanislaw onto the throne because she thought he could easily be manipulated into doing Russia’s building. Ironically, Stanislaw attempted several reforms to strengthen the Polish government, but this resulted in a civil war known as the War of the Bar Confederation and further weakened the state.

France had historical interests in keeping Poland safe from aggressors. In fact, three Polish kings married a French princess, and Henry the III actually ruled Poland for the year of 1573. However, France was careening towards its infamous revolution following their losses in several wars combined with an impending financial collapse. Thus, their interest and ability to protect Poland eroded.

In 1773, Prussia’s Frederick the Great was wary (and by wary I mean paranoid) of the shifting balance of power in Europe against him. Specifically, he feared what an Austrian-Russian war could mean for Prussia. He, somewhat brilliantly, directed their aggression towards Poland. Frederick exhibited extreme distaste for Poles referring to them as “slovenly Polish trash.” In other words, he was super racist. Frederick engineered an agreement for all three countries to simultaneously invade and annex parts of Poland in what’s known as the first partition of Poland (though it’s not clear whether it was initially Frederick’s idea; his brother, Prince Henry’s idea; or Count Lymar’s idea).

Once they invaded, Poland could do little to stop them. Threatened with the utter desolation of their state, the Sejm agreed to the territorial concessions in 1775 causing about 2 million Poles (or about 1/4 of the country’s population) to become Russian, Prussian, or Austrian. This put Stanislaw under greater pressure and further divided opinion of him when he attempted reforms again. Poland managed to sneak in a Sejm when all of Poland’s neighbors were at war. They adopted a new constitution that strengthened and hoped to revive the Polish-Lithuanian State. However, Prussia and Russia feared exactly that, and this caused another invasion in 1793 that lead to the 2nd partition. A rebellion in 1794 against the occupiers lead to the third and final partition. Poland would cease to exist as a sovereign state for 123 years.

After the Napoleonic wars following the French Revolution, Napoleon briefly resurrected the “Duchy of Warsaw,” which was a client state of France in 1807, but after his defeat, the duchy was partitioned again in 1815. Poland would not reemerge until 1918 in the aftermath of World War 1 where Woodrow Wilson advocated for the establishment of a Polish state in his Fourteen Points – a document that would be the basis for the Treaty of Versailles. It was reestablished out of humanitarian concerns, but unfortunately with little concern to strategic geography, which made it easy pickings for the German and Russian invasion of Poland in the second World War. An event that some have called the 4th Partition.

From Poland we see that not only can territorial disputes last centuries, but also that they often can be the result of Imperialism. We also diplomacy as a way to check another nation’s power. Due to the sense of the Polish national identity, we also see that a nation’s borders are sometimes defined by the nationalities residing there than the sovereign state that rules over it, which has ramifications for how we view the Kurds and their quest for Kurdistan.

This is a lot of history for stuff that may only seem tangentially related, but these long-winded stories remind us that territorial disputes almost always have long and complex histories. An aggressor’s intentions might be more nuanced than evil for evil’s sake. Some may be preemptive strikes to reduce the influence of a perceived enemy as we saw with Poland and Armenia, and the Kurds. Others are the results of nationalities lumped together against their wish as we see with the Irish and Kashmiris. I also wanted to illustrate that territory can be effectively seized while leaving the current systems and government in place as we saw with Armenia and initially with Poland. That influence directly mirrors what we’re seeing with Iraq, and the justification is similar to that of Turkey – even if the methods aren’t exactly the same.

Territory isn’t always about imperialism. Sometimes it’s a boundary for an adversary, but of course, that comes at the cost of the right to self determination for a group of people. Might the Kurds still one day see their nation? It took the Poles over a hundred years. The Kurds may still be next.

Further Reading

On the Partition of Poland

On Iran’s Influence in Iraq

On the Benefits of NATO

On the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry

On General Suleimani

Independence Movements in the 21st Century

Independence movements are rocking the world right now. The most high profile of these is Britain exiting the EU – colloquially referred to as Brexit. However, it’s far from the only independence movement worth observing right now. Catalonia has denounced Spain and is demanding their independence. Scotland has a growing independence movement to breakaway from the United Kingdom. Hong Kong is experiencing growing support for full independence from China.

Let’s dive into the above movements a little further to understand what’s causing them since they’re all fairly separate movements:

You Brexit, You Buy It.

Why did Britain Vote to Leave the EU? Well, a few reasons. Let’s talk about the EU and its history first. The EU originated with the idea that pooling war resources (steel and coal) would help ensure that France and Germany never went to war again. If economies were interdependent, the reasoning goes, then war is a net negative for all involved. The 6 founding members of this agreement were Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Based on that treaty’s success, they furthered their integration in 1957 by creating the European Economic Community, which allowed for people, goods and services to all move freely across borders. This is the basis for the EU as we know it today.

The United Kingdom wouldn’t join until 1973 after seeing the success and prosperity that followed the removal of tariffs, customs, et cetera of the member states.

In the following years every day citizens would begin electing members of the European Parliament (as opposed to being delegated by the nations themselves) and more importantly, the influence of the European Parliament on individual nations grew.  This growing influence led to a greater concern that Britain was losing her sovereignty, and thus led to a desire for more control.

Support for EU membership has always fluctuated between 30 and 60% among the British populace, which makes claims that the vote’s result was due to a recent surge of xenophobia ring a bit hollow. Regardless, the United Kingdom has always identified themselves as Brits before Europeans, and the surge of immigrants from the EU migrant crisis certainly fueled a distrust of the open borders policy of the EU. The United Kingdom voted to secede from the Union in 2016, and their exit plan is due in just a few days. The UK is hoping to gain more control over their borders and economy despite repeated warnings of the potentially disastrous consequences to their market. Their secession is expected with or without any exit plan unless they renege their exit vote with a second referendum, a growing possibility.

Brexit is threatening to tear apart the UK government. The lack of ability to come to a consensus on what Brexit would mean has already triggered a vote of no-confidence (comparable to an impeachment in the United States) and caused several cabinet resignations. You’ve probably heard of soft vs hard Brexit, and the main difference is just how integrated into the EU Britain would remain. Some countries, such as Norway, pay a lump sum into the Union’s budget for access to the Union’s Economic area, but are not full fledged voting members. This would situation would be similar to the result of a soft Brexit. A hard Brexit would be total and complete withdrawal, which gives Britain the control over its borders it wants, but would also introduce tariffs that non members must pay for trade.

Catalan Can, Catalan Can’t

Spain’s Catalonia is a region with its own language and culture, and is experiencing a growing movement for full independence since a referendum for further autonomy was struck down in 2006. The small region of Catalonia provides over a 5th of Spain’s GDP and tax revenue, and many of the aggrieved Catalans argue that the Spanish government doesn’t use that tax money wisely. Things have only worsened since the 2008 economic crisis, and protests are commonplace.

Catalonia held a referendum for full independence in 2017. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of independence, although turnout was only 43%. Spain not only dubbed the referendum illegal and refused to recognize the result, but violently smashed polling booths, suppressed demonstrations, and injured nearly 1,000 people.

The movements leaders are on trial and some are on the run. The 12 leaders on trial are facing decades in prison, and 10s of thousands of people are protesting in Madrid.

Hong Kong Is China. Or Else.

Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau are all in odd places within the Chinese sphere. China has made it incredibly clear that if any were to declare independence, they would invade straight away. However, that doesn’t stop 1 in 6 Hong Kong citizens from supporting the movement or a mere 3% of citizens in Hong Kong referring to themselves as Chinese – the lowest in 2 decades. Even so, independence is an incredibly taboo topic, and the Chinese government is cracking down. Just recently, Hong Kong itself banned their own independence party known as the Hong Kong National Party, and the Chinese government applauded the decision. Being a member or raising funds for the party is now a crime, one that’s justified by concerns for national security.

Historically, there are a lot of independence movements to choose from. Last time I spoke almost exclusively about post world war II movements, so as tempting as Gandhi’s India was as a topic, I decided to return to my favorite periods of history, antiquity (specifically Rome), the Industrial Revolution and the first world war.

If the Roman Emperor Won’t Protect Me, I’ll Protect Myself.

The role of what exactly government’s role should be is one of the most contentious topics in our time, and that’s not unique to our time either. However, most can agree that if government has only one basic function, it is to protect its citizens from invaders. That’s the one thing Rome could not do in the 3rd century. As a result, the Roman Empire broke into thirds, the Gallic Empire in the west, lead by a great general named Postumus and the Palmyrene Empire in the East, so what set off these independence movements in the world’s greatest empire?

The empire was at war on all sides. A plethora of various Germanic barbarian tribes were invading from the north, the Sassanid Persian Empire was invading from the east, and the emperor simply couldn’t be everywhere at once.

Making matters worse was an ongoing succession crisis. When Emperor Alexander Severus was assassinated by his own troops in 235, it kickstarted a series of usurpations and civil wars lasting most of the century. Each time any general successfully fended off an invading force without the emperor present, his troops would hail that general as emperor. The new emperor would lead his army to confront and fight the reigning emperor causing a cycle of usurpers. There would be 25 emperors over the following 50 years. For context, prior to the crisis of the 3rd century, the average reign of an emperor was 20 years.

So that’s the backdrop, war and a lack of a stable leadership. Each of the following two secessions will be slightly different in character. Unfortunately, much less is known about this period of Roman History than any other period of the Roman Empire. What we do know is that Gallienus was co-emperor with his father Valerian in 268. Valerian was on the eastern front fighting against the Sassanids when Valerian was captured by the Sassanids. The Franks, a tribe beyond the border, used this as a worthy distraction and invaded in the north east. When Gallienus got the word of the new Frank invasion, he was helping Postumus, the governor of Germania Inferior (north west-ish area of the empire), defend against a separate invasion. He left Postumus in charge while he attended to the new invasion.

Postumus successfully repelled this invasion, and Gallienus lost a lot of support for leaving in the middle of a war. This caused Postumus’ troops to hail him as emperor, but unlike many of the previous emperors, Postumus didn’t march on Rome to take power. Instead, he setup shop and created what is now known as the Gallic empire. He would briefly absorb modern Spain into the empire as well. Interestingly, he vowed never to attack Italy, and kept that promise. This ended up allowing Gallienus to focus in the east and gave him a bit of a buffer zone between his Empire and the Germanic tribes, so while his contemporaries damned his memory for never taking it back during his life, it may have objectively been his best move.

Gaul so easily and readily broke away for two main reasons: 1. The military hailed every general as emperor after winning a battle. They were able to do this because it had become increasingly obvious that the military ultimately decided who was emperor despite any formal processes in place. If somebody, such as the senate, disagreed, well the military had all the weapons and was often loyal to the highest bidder. More importantly, 2. The actual emperor’s inability to protect the citizens of Gaul. Postumus’ ability to fend off the invaders in absence of the emperor was a clear sign that the emperor wasn’t needed. They were paying taxes for a protection that couldn’t be provided by Rome.

The Gallic empire would survive several invasion attempts from the Roman Empire to reunite the empire, but the Gallic Empire would last for fourteen years before reunification, and Gallienus would be long dead by the time it was reclaimed. Unfortunately Postumus would also be assassinated, and Postumus’ successors were not nearly as brilliant, which is a large reason it was able to be reclaimed at all.

Amidst all this, the Roman colony of Palmyra was controlling Roman troops under the blessing of Gallienus.  Before long the leader of Palmyra kicked the bucket, and his widow, Zenobia, acted as ruler. Zenobia wanted power, but bided her time and kept up the charade of loyalty to Rome, but when another Germanic tribe invaded, she wasted no time seizing the opportunity and additional territory for herself. The Roman Empire now looked like this:


Gallienus would not be remembered kindly by his contemporaries, but modern historians have taken a kinder view recognizing that the empire at large may have completely collapsed had he not given both regions up. Having a buffer zone to the Sassanids allowed Gallienus to focus his troops on invaders from a specific area.

The Gallic empire would be partially retaken by Claudius Gothicus, and then both would retaken entirely by Aurelian. In both cases, it was not that the empires couldn’t survive on their own, but that they were forcibly retaken. Ironically, the west had only left because that same military force couldn’t protect them. The east, however, left as little more than an opportunistic power grab.

The cycle of endless emperors would be ended by the reforms of emperor Diocletian starting in 286. As a result, the Roman Empire would exist for over 100 years before falling in the west, and would continue on in the east for over a millennium as the Byzantine Empire.

Haitian Revolutions

Haiti was once France’s most profitable colony. Haiti, known at the time as St. Domingue, produced 60% of the world’s coffee, and 40% of its sugar. That profit was only possible with massive amounts of slavery. In 1789, slaves outnumbered non-slaves by a factor of 10-1. Slaves were regularly imported due to conditions being so incredibly inhumane that the slave’s death rate outpaced their birth rate. Slaves weren’t the only ones unhappy with the status quo though. Both plantation owners and a group known as “petit blancs” (basically just poorer whites in service jobs such as a shopkeep) felt disenfranchised because they had no representation in the French government and were forbidden to trade with any country other than France.

Inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, ideals like every man is born equal and that circumstances of ones birth should not determine social ranking, a freed former slave by the name of Toussaint L’ouverture led a violent and bloody insurrection in 1791 that would last 14 years.

Interestingly, L’ouverture is a name given to him by fellow soldiers meaning to convey that Toussaint always found a weakness to exploit, which terrified plantation owners.

The uprising was triggered not only by the French Revolution, but also by a decree which granted freedom to men of color in May of 1791, thus enraging the Petit Blancs. This decree was not enforced in St. Domingue and by August, L’ouverture led a full rebellion that would result in him holding a third of the island in just a few months. In 1793, France issued a proclamation explicitly freeing St. Dominigue’s slaves. In exchange, L’ouverture helped the French fight the British, who’d tried to take the colony, and the Spanish, who owned the eastern half of the island.

That said, L’ouverture’s rebellion was never about independence. That is, until Napoleon came to power. Napoleon fought a lot of wars. Like…a lot. He also needed money to fund those wars, so he attempted to reestablish slavery in St. Domingue. (Quick tangent: the Louisiana purchase was also used to fund Napoleon’s wars.) Napoleon was coy about this, but soon the army of 40,000 made it pretty clear that in 1802, slavery was about to be reinstated. Napoleon still promised he wouldn’t reinstall slavery, but he’d promised the same to other islands where he went ahead and reinstated it anyway.

Napoleon may have succeeded had it not been for yellow fever ravaging his army. L’ouverture was imprisoned , and the rebel forces looked to Dessalines. Dessalines would lead his rebels to their final victory, creating both the Haitian flag and proclaiming independence in 1804. Haiti was the second country to win independence from a European power (the first being the United States), and the world’s first black republic.

What’s particularly interesting about the Haitian revolution is that it didn’t begin as an independence movement. It began as a civil rights movement, and when those rights were granted, then reneged, independence went ahead full swing. It will be interesting to see if Hong Kong takes a similar path if the Chinese government obstructs too many rights. It also bears resemblance to Catalan in that Catalan’s movement began as simply wanting more autonomy rather than full independence. While Haiti likely has less in common with Brexit than the other common stories, an important lesson that we see being repeated is that the denial of a request can lead to the demand of full independence.

Simon Says, “Viva La Revolution!”

Haiti’s Revolutions were an important inspiration for those of Latin America, and our hero of this story, a Mr. Simon Bolivar, will lead Venezuela and other Latin countries to declare their independence from Spain and attempt to form new federal republic. That republic would be the republic of Gran Colombia. Simon Bolivar gave full credit to the first president of Haiti. He even said, “Should I not let it be known to later generations that Alexander Petion is the true liberator of my country?”

Before we dive into that though, let’s talk about the situation in Venezuela. Venezuela was a Spanish colony, not unlike the United States was to Britain just a few years before. Venezuela’s grievances with the Spain didn’t resemble the States’ quarrel with Britain. This article gives a great overview, but in short there’s a few reasons:

Spain wouldn’t allow its colonies to trade with any other country, and trade with Spain was fixed at prices favorable to Spain. Colonial traders would trade with other countries illegally, but even so, having to do something illegally doesn’t beget confidence or trust in your country’s leader.

Spain was also briefly overthrown by Napoleon in 1808 during the Napoleonic wars. I’ll talk more about this later, but put it in your back pocket for now.

Lastly, there was a weird social hierarchy comprised of a Jenga tower of racism. Spain had purged most minority classes from its borders by the early 17th century (with measures such as the Alhambra Decree) but the colonies had not. The colonies were comprised of imported slaves, native peoples, mixed race (broken down in 64ths), Creoles, and Peninsulares in ascending order of social status. Those last two in this case are both of spanish descent, but the former was born in a colony and latter in Spain (the Spanish “Peninsula”). Even weirder, the Spanish crown would actually “sell” whiteness to those hoping to improve their social position. This would repeal certain discriminatory laws that would have otherwise applied. This process was known as gracias al sacar.

All this plus the normal high taxes, mismanagement of the colony, and of course, nationalism.

That’s how Simon Bolivar found his home country when he returned from Europe in 1807. While in Europe he witnessed Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation and became inspired to liberate Venezuela from Spain and to promote liberal ideas (liberal at the time meaning voting rights, freedom of the market and press, etc). Independence had already been a growing movement since about 1800, and in 1806 Francisco De Miranda, a successful general in the French revolution, attacked the Spanish unsuccessfully. He evaded capture and ran for his life. Fun fact, Francisco also took Catherine the Great of Russia as a mistress. Interesting dude.

In 1808 Napoleon began the Peninsular War. This war would see Napoleon betray their Spanish allies and occupy Portugal and Spain, and in the process throw the Spanish king, Ferdinand the VII, in prison. As a result, Simon Bolivar was able to convince the loyalists to declare a provisional independence in 1810 – that is, they vowed their loyalty to King Ferdinand, who was in prison. Effectively, they declared independence from France – since there was no Spanish authority to declare independence from. This satisfied the loyalists who didn’t want to declare independence, but certainly didn’t feel loyal to France. That’s not a good long term strategy since it didn’t look like Ferdinand wasn’t coming back anytime soon, so full independence was declared in 1811. This was known as the first Venezuelan Republic (of more than one, so buckle up). Venezuela was the first Spanish colony to declare independence.

In this first iteration of their republic, slavery was outlawed. Envoys were sent to the United States and Britain. Simon Bolivar actually financed one of the missions to Britain, and in exchange he was, begrudgingly, allowed to come along. He was thought to be a bit young, naive, and hot headed, but Venezuela couldn’t finance the mission on their own, so that concession was made. On this trip, Bolivar ran into Francisco De Miranda and brought him back to Venezuela with him.

The first Venezuelan Republic was not long for this world. An earthquake destroyed the capital city of Caracas in 1812 killing more than 10,000 souls. Spanish priests were able to convince a superstitious population that this was retribution for the crime of declaring independence.  Rebellions broke out and militias allied with the remaining Spanish forces and a couple provinces who were never so fond of independence to begin with. Miranda fought them all to no avail. When Bolivar returned, he did so just in time to see his republic fall. Upset, he handed over Francisco De Miranda to the Spanish forces, who threw him in jail for the rest of his life.

Bolivar was forced into exile in New Granada (modern day Colombia) where an independence movement itself was growing. Bolivar took a post and by 1813, he’d removed most Spanish forces from the area. He led an army back into Venezuela retaking every city on the way in what became known as the Admirable Campaign.  Bolivar was named liberator and dictator of the Second Republic of Venezuela. Make no mistake, Bolivar certainly believed in republican ideals, but he increasingly believed that only he could secure them.

In 1813, the war got ugly. Bolivar issued his infamous, “War to the Death” decree. In essence, he ordered all Spaniards, even civilians, executed. The only way Spanish citizens could be saved were to join Bolivar’s fight for independence.

Around this time the “Legion of Hell,” basically mercenaries, joined the cause with the Spanish. The resulting war became so merciless that cities of thousands were reduced to dozens. Corpses rotted in the street. Not even infants were spared. Joseph Bonaparte was removed from the Spanish throne, and Ferdinand (remember him?) was reinstalled. Spain was able to send an additional 10,000 troops and retake Venezuela and New Granada. In addition, with Spain back under Spanish control, many colonists felt independence was wrong. They had only helped revolt because a French usurper was on the throne, but now that the rightful Spanish king was there? Spanish rule wasn’t what some where upset about. In 1814, Bolivar was again sent into exile, this time to Haiti, and the Second Venezuelan Republic came crashing down.

The war continued with little progress for the next 6 years. Bolivar would be able to secure some more vulnerable territory with the help of Haitian funding (funding only promised on the condition that slaves be liberated – a promise Bolivar upheld), but not his homeland of Venezuela. Then, he had an idea. An audacious idea. An idea only a madman would try to execute, but it had worked before. The Andes are a mountain range just north of Bogota, New Granada/Columbia. Bolivar had the idea to march his army through the Andes and recapture Bogota, not unlike Hannibal did to the Romans centuries ago. It worked, but at a heavy cost. I saw mixed numbers on exactly how many people Bolivar lost, but it was between 1,000 and 2,000. The Spanish were completely taken off guard, and terrified of Bolivar’s decree.

The battle of Boyata was the most decisive battle in Bolivar’s war for independence. Bolivar liberated New Granada. From here, the rest was easy. He quickly liberated Venezuela and Ecuador. In 1819 he formed a united state, Gran Colombia comprising Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, and New Granada (Colombia):

Gran Colombia

Bolivar also sent an army to liberate Peru. The last of the Spanish forces were stationed there. The upper portion of Peru formed a separate state, Bolivia – named in honor of their liberator, and Bolivar was named  its president (even though he was already president of another nation, but you know, whatever).

Unfortunately, like his Republics, Gran Colombia was not long for this world. While Bolivar was off campaigning, each of the regional authorities began consolidating their power either trying to break away or raise their own leader to the office of president. Bolivar needed more power to stabilize the unruly republic and named himself dictator for life in 1828. This only fueled resentment, and eventually forced his resignation from power. In 1830, the Liberator died and with him his dream of a united federation. Gran Colombia dissolved that same year.

Bolivar’s legacy and death live on today as does the resulting strife in Latin America. Even today Bolivia is using his name and claiming that a Colombian political rival poisoned Bolivar,  and Venezuela’s government is on the brink of total collapse and civil war. Even with its problems, Latin America still exhibits more freedom than several parts of the world. The Economist rates Peru, Panama, and Ecuador between a 6-7 on its Democracy scale. The United States sits just below an 8.

What does Latin America’s experience mean for Brexit? It’s hard to say. Obviously the United Kingdom isn’t a colony of the EU, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t parallels. Independence from EU is highly contested just like Latin America’s independence from Spain. This is often a recipe for civil strife – even if a civil war is unlikely. Even so, former prime minister David Cameron believes Brexit would in increase the odds of a European war. Likewise, nationalism was a factor in both Latin America and Britian’s independence movement. Civil strife is a common theme in independence movements. Even the United States went to war with itself less than 100 years after declaring independence. Unlike all of our stories today, Britain voted to leave in a manner deemed legal by all parties. It was a vote to leave, not a rebellion. Independence being declared often leads to war, it doesn’t have to, and luckily Britain is deciding how close to stay rather than how far to go.

Further Reading:
On the Crisis of the 3rd Century

On Simon Bolivar

On the Haitian Revolution

You’d Embrace My Sword Before My Culture

Nationalism is on the rise across the globe. It’s responsible for Brexit, the rise of several nationalist parties in Europe, and the trade wars the United States is waging against her foes and allies. It’s a reason for the Arab Spring, the Russian Annexation of Crimea, and the rise of Erdogan in Turkey.

It’s easy to take an abstract concept and blame every bad thing currently occurring in the world on it, so let’s dive into what it is and how exactly it’s affecting our world.

Nationalism, in short, is the elevation of a given people’s culture and heritage above all others. This might be anything from language, history, art, or even forms of governance. It’s a loyalty to the idea that what unites us is heritage, and our heritage is superior. It ties one’s identity not to their family or town, but to their nation. Nationalism is also generally a very modern idea, one that generates from the idea that a state is controlled by its citizens. It’s modern because the idea that control would be in the hands of anyone other than a rich and blood borne aristocracy at best and a unchecked despot at worst is laughable prior to about the 17th or 18th centuries.

What’s particularly important to note is that Nationalism isn’t inherently bad, but it does have a habit of begetting conflict between the nationalists and anyone perceived as “other.”  Nationalism is often divided into two different types, Civic Nationalism and Ethnic Nationalism.   Civic Nationalism is often viewed as a positive, or at least more positive than its alternative. Civic Nationalism is effectively the idea that people are united around their liberal democracy. Ideally, under Civic Nationalism, immigrants need not integrate into the nation as much as exalt the nation’s ideals,  often ideals such as free speech and freedom of religion. This contrasts with Ethnic Nationalism, in which people often unite around their ancestry, language, religion or culture and can quickly give way to xenophobia, isolationism, or at its worst, war.

Nationalism has existed in one form or another since, at minimum, the French revolution, so why is it a big deal now? Let’s take a quick look at some of the Nationalist movements that are taking place right now that I didn’t discuss last time.

This will be a long post, so lets dive in.

The Learned Will Love China

China has never been a bastion of freedoms or human rights, but it has always used Nationalism to cultivate support for the government, and they’re doing so more frequently under Xi Jingping. Xi Jingping has been controversial for instituting several “Patriotic Education” reforms aimed at getting intellectuals to support, instead of criticize, the Communist Party of China. Their schools also routinely ask their parents for photographic evidence that their children are watching assigned propaganda films, and even more ominously, have setup “reeducation camps” for their Muslim citizens. These camps, reportedly, are for captured Muslims who are sentenced to attend without any trial in an effort to teach them the Chinese language and break them of having a belief system aside from loyalty to the CPC.

Propaganda has been a main stay of Chinese Education since shortly after the second World War, but Xi has turned into it with a fairly unprecedented ferocity cultivating a patriotism so fervent and tribal, he’s struggled to control it. When Japan bought a few small and mostly uninhabited islands in 2012, anti-Japanese riots broke out across the country.

India’s Nationalism Takes a Turn

India has a much more optimistic history than most countries when it comes to Nationalism, and a history that, in many ways, mirrors our own. India under the British Empire did not share a language, heritage, or even mutual interests with India. India, unlike the United States, had no sense of heritage from the crown, which gives the same famous declarations from the United States’ independence movement (“There shall be no taxation without representation”) both relevance and bite. Their nationalism was born from a sense of anti-colonialism and a desire for governmental reform.

However, today’s surge of Nationalism has minorities (non-Hindus) worried they may become second class citizens.  As part of this movement, India’s government, elected in 2014, will be rewriting their history books to paint all of its citizens as direct descendants from the first Hindus rather than the multi-cultural and diverse country that it truly is. Their government has two singular missions: Proving the events described in Hindu texts occurred, and that todays Hindus are direct descendants of people from those times. This alone doesn’t sound odd or even that bad, until you read that Sharma, head of their culture ministry wants to “prove the supremacy of their glorious past.”  What this means for Muslims, Christians, or members of any the other diverse religions who reside in India is unclear and unsettling.

Erdogan, My Country’s Gone

In 2004, Turkey began membership talks with the EU. It had a healthy separation of church and state, and, frankly, Turkey had an optimistic future. Unfortunately, in 2016 after a failed coup attempt, President Erdogan began a”Post-coup purge.” Thousands of journalists, policemen, teachers, professors, and politicians were (and some still are) jailed. The New York Times put into perspective exactly how many were jailed. Erdogan even claimed that Europe has failed on Democracy and that journalists are “gardeners of terrorism.

Erdogan used Nationalism extensively to secure his 2016 election bid in an age old tactic – blame others for the problems. Turkey has been pumping money into Muslim religious schools and was even accused of wanting to return to being an Ottoman Sultan. Turkey’s once democratic light is sliding quickly into authoritarianism, and every step there has been justified by claims that the dark and shadowy westerners from Britain, France and the United States have been seeking to wreck Turkey before their glorious rise to global dominance. As cartoonishly exaggerated as it sounds, it’s close to a direct quote.

When Angry People Vote

So what? It’s all talk, you might say. Kim Jong Un has been saying that North Korea’s valiant rise would see the United States fall in fiery ashes for years now. What makes the above any different? I’ve scoured the web for several examples of excessive nationalism, and there are far too many to include here. Wikipedia has a page for 39 countries titled “Nationalism in [country].” This is in addition to dozens more on history, types and ethnic groups.

Let’s take a look at how Nationalism has impacted the past.

Nationalism is often credited with originating in the American and especially the French Revolution. However, we can see similar political movements that are far, far older. One of these is the Jewish Revolt in Ancient Rome.

Yahweh made Man, and a Man-made God.

Most of our knowledge about the Jewish Revolt comes from a guy by the name of Flavius Josephus, who’s definitely a contender for the “most interesting man” award. Josephus was originally a leader during the Jewish Wars, which broke out under the reign of Nero. He was captured by then-general, but would-be emperor, Vespasian. Josephus, now a slave to Vespasian, served as a translator for Vespasian between the Romans and the Jews. He was eventually set free, and then served as an advisor to Rome’s Flavian Dynasty serving emperors Vespacian, Titus, Domitian, and possibly even Nerva and Trajan before deciding that his life really was interesting and writing it all down. You can read his entire body of work online for free here.

To understand the situation in Judea (roughly the area surrounding modern day Jerusalem) and accept the premise that this revolt is Nationalistic in character, it’s important to know the province’s history. Judea revolted against the Greeks and won its independence as its own nation in the Maccabean Revolt in the 160s BCE. Pompey the Great conquered Judea and added it to the Roman Empire around 63 BCE. These people had a common religion, territory and history – something that all nationalists hold dear.

Decades of heavy taxation to fund wars against Parthia and subsequently Mark Antony drove the Jews into poverty.

Then, Emperor Caligula insisted on adding a statue of himself into the Judean temple effectively forcing the worship of the Imperial Cult onto the Jews. As we learned from the Maccabean Revolt, the Jews were ready to die for their religion. An image of Caligula in the temple was nothing short of idolatry, sacrilege, and blasphemy.  This tension between the Roman Imperial Cult who would continue to insist that Roman idols be placed in and near Jerusalem and the monotheistic Jews would divide the two peoples further apart.

Josephus also writes that the Roman Governor Florus ordered his soldiers to plunder their great temple, and when the people of Judea protested, he slaughtered 3,600 men, women, and children. This brought the entire province into a revolt for understandable reasons. The Jews managed to defeat a small army of 6,000 Romans before the Syrian Legion was brought in to crush the rebellion, and crush it they did. They destroyed the temple, plundered the rest of the city and sold thousands of Jews into slavery, many of whom would work on the Colosseum. All of which had a profound effect on the religion.

If we look at the causes for the French Revolution, often the prime example of the beginning of Nationalism, you’ll see a lot in common:

  • Overburdening taxes
  • Inept government
  • Social Antagonism
  • Economic Hardship

While the Jews didn’t necessarily have a united front in terms of what they wanted to achieve (and in fact, that lack of unity may have been a reason the revolt was shut down), they did believe that their government was not representing them, which is often a wick for Nationalism. Many of those who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 voted in hopes of getting one of their own to into the White House to “drain the swamp.” Such a phrase can only catch on in the wake of politicians out of touch with the plight of the commoners. Unlike classical liberal values, the Jews didn’t necessarily want more of a say in government (though you could make the argument that wanting your own government is the same as wanting more of a say), but they did want to be represented  (not to mention avoiding having their temples plundered or their citizens massacred). The revolt was also largely an “us vs them” mentality. Forcing statues of Roman Gods in the city of Jews isn’t too far removed from forcing Muslims to adhere to a dress code that goes against their religion.

The Shogun Show Is Gone

For a more modern and lesser known story of nationalism (and imperialism, colonialism and what could arguably be called state sponsored pirates), let’s examine the collapse of Japan’s Shogunate.

Within the Edo period of Japan, Japan kinda resembled a police state.  To expound on that, the Edo period had several interesting policies that were in contention with most of the western world. Specifically, they were extremely isolationist to the point of literally killing any Christians in Japan and forbidding any foreigners from entering (with the exception of a single Dutch trading post) in an effort to subdue any outside influences. Despite this, the Edo period was, by feudal standards, very peaceful and often considered a golden age of prosperity. They still had an emperor, but the emperor at served as more of a figurehead than anything else. The true authority rested on the highest military ranking official, the Shogunate.

The lack of war meant that constantly mobilized Japan had several Samurai’s with little to do. Most of them were poor as military service is often rewarded in loot, booty, or whatever term you prefer for the spoils of war. Samurais thus subsisted on stipends from their lords, called Daimyō. The Edo prosperity, however, gave way to an increasingly wealthy merchant class that remained stuck on the bottom rung of the social ladder. This sewed discord amongst themselves and the samurai who were now poorer than the merchants who were supposed to be “below them.”

In addition to this internal strife, many Japanese became wary of westerners after seeing what happened to China in the wake of the Opium Wars, which resulted in a humiliating defeat and one-sided trade agreements with Britain and other western countries.

A Mr. Matthew Perry would prove they had every right to be concerned. Commodore Matthew Perry was an American naval officer on a mission, open Japan’s ports. Matthew arrived with several gunboats “asking” that the Japanese open their ports to trade, and if not, well, it’d be a shame if all these canons happened to fire on your antiquated navy and towns.

There are a few reasons why Japanese trade was so important to the US, but it mostly has to do with “Manifest Destiny” (mostly a codeword for Imperialism),  merchants needing a place to fuel up  their steam ships, and other technically innocuous reasons with a specious overtone.

The shogunate saw Perry’s steamboats and realized that Japan could not win a war with America. In addition, many Japanese were seeing a steamboat for the first time, and saw it as a harbinger of impending doom like what had come to China. The following is a Japanese depiction of his boat:


The Shogunate polled his Daimyōs for advice on what to do (a blunder that would break the facade of a strong Shogunate), and received mixed responses, but one that stands out today as perfectly describing the atmosphere comes to us from the Daimyo, Shimazu Nariakira, “If we take the initiative, we can dominate; if we do not, we will be dominated.” 

The Shogun, feeling he had little choice, signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, which was perceived as capitulating to the West. This kickstarted an anti-Shogun movement fueled by an uncharacteristically militant emperor who was beginning to take more of an interest in political affairs than was traditional. Eventually, emperor Kōmei gave an order to “Expel the Barbarians” referring to all westerners. This became a rallying cry of, “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians” and resulted in trade ships being fired on from the coast of Japan. This was all in direct opposition to the Shogunate’s orders, and before long, a civil war known as the Boshin War started and resulted in the Shogun’s resignation and more importantly, the Meiji Restoration.

Fearing colonization by the west and needing a united front, Nationalism was in full swing. Top officials toured the west to modernize all of Japan. Within 40 years, Japan had created a Constitutional Monarchy based on Germany’s government with the emperor at its head, developed universal education, a conscript army, a capitalist model of economy, and even began colonizing land of its own.  The conscript army gave all Japanese a common purpose to fight for, the emperor, something that united all of the Japanese and furthered Nationalism. To give you an idea of how wide and how quickly this shift occurred, take a look at Emperor Meiji in 1872 and sometime in the 1890s:





The colonization took the form of wars, specifically, the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, where they colonized Korea, and the Russo-Japanese war in 1905. The defeat of the Russians in 1905 proved to the West that Japan was now a world power that was not to be reckoned with, and Japan alone on an island would need more colonies for resources to fuel its ongoing industrialization. This string of victories, need for resources, anti-foreign sentiment were all among their Nationalistic motives for the empire of Japan going into World War I.

Bismarck Makes His Mark

The last story of Nationalism I want to tell is that of Otto Von Bismarck and the making of the German Empire.

Germany as we know it today was founded in the late 19th century as Prussia and multiple other German states united into what was then called the German Empire. Prior to this, modern day Germany was a set of separate states part of the Holy Roman Empire, which as Voltaire quips, “was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”

The Holy Roman Empire officially dissolved in 1806 after Napoleon crushed it in his many conquests and annexed parts of their land. The individual states later rejoined, kind of, as a band of states known as the German Confederation. The states were pretty independent, but with a mutual understanding that they would protect each other in case of war. Here’s how the “empire” compared to the German Confederation, whose borders are outlined in red, Prussia is colored in blue, Austria in yellow, and the minor provinces in grey. Note that both Prussia and Austria’s land extended beyond the confederation.



Otto von Bismarck sought to unite Germany fully. He had found himself as chancellor of Prussia, one of the dominate states of would be Germany, and he was concerned about the many Liberal democratic revolutions sweeping through all of Europe, not unlike the Arab Spring of 2011. Let’s just say, he had reason to be concerned.

A more fully realized German unity had been a political topic since the “Empire’s” dissolution. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a German philosopher, addresses the German people in 1806:

The first, original, and truly natural boundaries of states are beyond doubt their internal boundaries. Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself…they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole. Such a whole, if it wishes to absorb and mingle with itself any other people of different descent and language, cannot do so without itself becoming confused.

We immediately see the aura of Nationalism pervading the German people, even in their separate states. Otto Von Bismarck, Chancellor of Prussia, would use the common people’s sentiment to unite them. Important context going forward is that Bismarck was in favor of a “smaller” German empire; that is, one that did not include Austria, and to not include Austria, he’d need to dissolve the German Confederation which bounded all the states, Austria included, loosely together. Austria and Prussia were rivals jockeying for position, so Austria’s inclusion in the German empire may have led to further discord within the unified state. Also of note was that Catholicism was the majority religion in Austria compared to Prussia’s Protestantism, which was a bigger deal before freedom of religion was commonplace.

Bismarck’s desire for a stronger centralized state was also the will of the people’s, who wanted classical liberal rights as well, such as freedom of the press, freedom of religion, democracy, and whatnot. While Bismarck wasn’t a fan of these ideas, he did recognize that a wholly unified Germany could stand its ground against France and other European powers.

To dislodge Austria, he needed a war with Austria, but he also needed a reason, so other states would back Prussia. He was able to secure French neutrality “just in case” a war broke out between Austria and Prussia, and he also approached Italy, who was in the process of unifying herself, and said something to the effect of, “in the total wacko scenario that Austria and Prussia would go to war with each other, would you ally with Prussia in exchange for Venice?” Being that Italy needed Venice for a unified Italy, they agreed. As a pure hypothetical of course.

That pure hypothetical was of course, not a hypothetical. Prussia and Austria had been military allies just 4 years before in a war with Denmark where they liberated two duchies that had been taken from the German people during Napoleon’s conquest. They agreed that the duchies, Schleswig and Holstein, would be split. Austria would rule Holstein, and Prussia Schleswig, both outside the German Confederation. This last part is important.

Soon afterwards, Austria declared that both duchies should be matters of the federation, a clear breach of the treaty. King William, a pacifist at heart, was reportedly in tears at the betrayal. Now agreeing with Bismarck, he prepared for war.

The war known as both the Austro-Prussian War and perhaps more humorously, the Seven Weeks War started in 1866. As you might have guessed by the latter title, Prussia crushed Austria with Italy’s help. As a result of this war, Austria ceded several territories (Venice included) and Bismarck annexed his allies to form the Northern German Confederation. The southern non-Austrian states would remain independent…for now.

France, of course, was unhappy with a larger united Germany. It challenged their dominance in the region, so France, now ruled by Napoleon III, wanted to knock this newcomer down a notch, but neither country wanted to declare war for fear of interference from the other countries of Europe. Bismarck knew if he declared war, Britain would interfere on behalf of France, but if it was France’s war, Britain might just leave them alone. Bismarck managed to trick France into declaring war.

How does one “trick” a country into declaring war? Well, as you might imagine, it’s quirky and complicated, but I’ll try to keep it short.

The Spanish throne found itself vacant, and for whatever reason, they offered the job to Prince Leopold of Prussia. Napoleon the III hated this idea. Being surrounded on both sides by your enemy is generally a recipe for disaster. Leopold ended up declining the offer, but the French pushed it further. In fact, they sent their ambassador to King William asking him to promise to never, ever, consider ascending to the Spanish throne, to which the king responded with something to the effect of, “We already declined. What more do you want? I’m not going to make promises on behalf of my grand children.” King William let Bismarck give this information to the press. Bismarck, through some clever editing, made the scenario sound much more insulting than it was although French translations likely exaggerated Bismarck’s edits. This is known as the EMS telegram.

Bismarck’s edits worked like a charm. France was so insulted by both the rejection of the demand and the flippant dismissal of their ambassador, they mobilized and declared war. Britain stayed out of France’s war, and every German state rushed to Prussia’s aide to fight the warmongering French who couldn’t leave Germany alone. Germans, not Prussians, not Saxons, or any other member state would defeat France. Germans, who had all suffered under the French thumb for far too long would defeat France.

France was absolutely crushed, with Paris itself being sieged. The Frankfurt treaty officially ended the French Republic and acknowledged King William as Emperor of the German Empire. It was signed at Versailles (a location you may recognize as intentional for the signing of the World War I treaty).

The effects of the Franco-Prussian War really can’t be understated. The Italians would be granted the last remaining pieces for a united Italy. It improved the importance of mobility through rails, which Prussia excelled at. It united the Germans through Nationalism and spurred nationalistic ambitions in the French who would seek revenge for their humiliating defeat at the hands of the Germans. Each would gain allies, become overly confident in their ability to wage war until a certain boiling point in 1914.

The Point

Nationalism, while it can serve as a unifying force and a force to modernize a country thrives on the idea of supremacy to a separate group of people and seemingly inevitably leads to war because of its capacity to inflate the confidence of an easy victory over the true horrors of war. Occasionally, the easy victory is achieved. However, when it is not, it can result in a very grisly, pointless, and horrific war.

Further Reading:

On Nationalism’s Origin in Jewish Antiquity  (Requires a free account to read)

On the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate

On The United States Government’s version of Matthew Perry

On the Austro-Prussian War

On Nationalism as a cause for the first world war

Pack Up What Rubble You Love, and Go.

Immigration is probably the world’s most heated topic right now. In the United States, we’re discussing building walls, detention facilities for illegal immigrants, and travel bans. Donald Trump went as far as to praise Mexico after pepper-spraying refugees from Honduras. In Germany, the AfD (an anti-immigration party) has been gaining support, and is now one of the country’s largest parties.  In Italy, the new government recently told illegal immigrants, comprising both refugees and economic migrants, to get ready to “pack their bags.”  The UK, while accepting refugees, has been very stringent about who may be granted asylum and often for only a short time. What’s going on? Why is immigration all of a sudden the most controversial topic around the world, and how has it been dealt with historically?

First, let’s understand what’s happening.


Above I mentioned both South American and Middle Eastern refugees. To narrow the focus a bit, this post will pertain to the Syrian refugee crisis. (Though I highly encourage reading about the crisis in central America.)

The Syrian Refugee Crisis was precipitated by the Arab Spring of 2011.   This event may be the most important political event in the 21st century rivaling even 9/11 in terms of its impact on the world. In short, the Arab Spring was a wave of pro-Democracy protests in northern Africa and the Middle East. Some of these led to positive change, such as in Tunisia, but many more were met with civil war or resulted in autocratic regimes including Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and of course, Syria, who is suffering the worst fate of all. As of this writing, over 5.6 million Syrians have fled their homes. This background is incredibly important because, at least in the United States, a the rhetoric around refugees centers around Muslims, and while it’s true that Islam is the dominant religion in Syria, it is not Muslims who are fleeing the region but Syrians, who are not necessarily Muslim.

Why then, is all the rhetoric aimed at Muslims? Enter IS (more commonly known as ISIS – the Islamic State [of Iraq and Syria]). I hesitate to call IS a group of revolutionaries as that seems to conjure up a certain amount of sympathy, but IS seeks to overthrow the government in Iraq and Syria to establish a Caliphate, a Theocracy not completely unlike the government in Vatican City in that there would be one person who leads the nation at the orders of God. Although the similarities end there. What brings the attention of the world to IS is their brutality and cruelty, which has provoked criticism from Muslims worldwide, literally drawing condemnation from Al-Qaeda.

IS subscribes to a belief first put forward by a guy named Qutb that the West (read the United States and Western Europe) has been persecuting Muslims ever since they dissolved the Ottoman Empire following World War I. As a result, the only way for Muslims to redeem or even defend themselves is through aggression against the west, and anyone, even other Muslims, who disagree.

Part of the core ideology is aggression towards the west and nonbelievers, but IS lack the resources to declare a full scale war (not to mention the legitimacy and sovereignty). Because of this IS has instead engaged in guerrilla warfare tactics on civilian targets (or more generally, terrorism). IS members have entered various countries all around the world most likely as a refugee from one of the war torn countries. Exactly how often this has happened is a subject of intense debate and is difficult to track by its very nature – someone can’t be identified as a terrorist until after an act of terror. Trying to escape your crazy IS uncle means you have ties to IS, but it doesn’t mean a plot to bomb civilians. On the flipside, a Muslim who otherwise may not have bought into the idea that the Western world has been waging war on a way of life, might be persuaded otherwise by the US and Europe’s military presence there, and a subsequent loss of home.

I don’t want to spend too much time discussing how often the above happens, but it’s important to note that while asylum seekers have committed terrorist attacks, so have natives inspired by IS ideology. One study suggests that while foot soldiers have used refugee routes for the purpose of terrorism, IS likely isn’t coordinating an effort to do so.

In short, many refugees are hoping to escape a violent civil war between violent factions hoping to hold onto or change the government. Among these refugees are self-proclaimed members of IS who hope to instill fear, promote terrorism and gain legitimacy through aggression against their perceived enemies.

Has it happened before?

Refugees are a fairly modern concept. While it’s fairly easy to apply the concept retroactively, it’s worth noting that the term wasn’t a legal concept until after World War II. In this definition, the United Nations declared (or perhaps recognized) that all humans have the fundamental right to seek asylum in other countries to escape persecution. This is not to be confused with the terms “migrant” or “asylum seeker.”

An asylum seeker is someone who has applied for refugee status in a foreign country. Refugee status is internationally recognized and protected by international law. All refugees were at one point asylum seekers, but all asylum seekers may not become refugees if their application is denied. Contrasting these two terms is migrant.

A migrant is someone who is leaving their country to better their lives – not necessarily because it’s dangerous to return home.

I found several similar scenarios dotted throughout history. I did quite a bit of reading and briefly outline what occurred and analyze how applicable they might be to our current situation.

The Goths in the Eastern Roman Empire

One of the earliest examples of refugees I could find was in Roman history.

The Huns were a relatively unorganized nomadic people of war that would eventually cause the Fall of Rome. Their origins aren’t particularly clear, but some believed they originate from modern day Kazakhstan. In their ruthless expansion westward, they took a liking to the resource rich lands in modern day Romania, occupied by the Visigoths in 374 CE.

The Goths, a group of Germanic tribes co-led by Fritigern and Alavivus asked the Emperor of Rome, Valens, for sanctuary from the invading Huns. Valens agreed promising both protection and farmland. Some Goths who arrived later were turned away by Valens though by this time their number may have reached as high as 200,000, though that’s likely an exaggeration.

These refugees were admitted with the intention of taxing them, using their labor on farms, and most importantly as auxiliaries in a campaign in Persia, which the Goths agreed to. However, things immediately got out of hand. The refugees were not provided food, and in fact, the food that was supposed to go to them was hijacked by the governor of the area who then sold the refugees dog meat in exchange for their children, who would become slaves.

The Goths and Romans had a somewhat turbulent history having been at war only six years before.  That’s important context to consider, but  it doesn’t change the fact that  refugees were mistreated and their leaders assassinated. This led the Goths to revolt, which is now known as the battle of Adrianople. This battle ended up being Rome’s most crushing defeat since the days of Hannibal.

How similar is it to our current crisis?

It’s hard to say as a lot of the finer details were lost to history. Cultural norms were certainly different. Slavery and military conscription were the norm. However, it is telling that people have asked for asylum in neighboring countries for 1600 years. One might also draw a parallel between the persecution of the Goths and subsequent rebellion to the perceived persecution of Islam in dismantling the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent violence carried out today by IS. Both the Goths and Romans had also been at war in years prior as well. The rationale behind whether to allow immigration however, was not based on whether these immigrants may harm civilians, as it is today, but rather whether the immigrants could work and serve in the military.

The Alhambra Decree

The Alhambra Decree was simply a decree by the government of Spain in 1492 that said Jews could no longer live in Spain. Convert or move.

This was a bit of an extension of a 1480 decree that segregated Jews and Christians. In 1492 it was decided that because “there were some wicked Christians who Judaized,”  Jews and Christians could no longer coexist. The Jews must go. The whole text is worth reading if you feel so inclined.

Many countries had a very different reaction to where these Jews fled to. Perhaps surprisingly, Muslim majority countries such as the Ottoman Empire welcomed them. Other Christian majority countries – in particular Portugal – were less kind. In fact, only 4 years after receiving refugees, the King of Portugal declared his intent to marry the heir to the Spanish throne, Isabella. As a condition of the marriage, Spain mandated that Portugal expel all Jews. In the end, most were tortured into converting to Christianity.

What happened to the Ottoman Empire and Portugal after this? Was there any tangible difference to their economy, safety, livelihood or any other metric based on their treatment of religious refugees?

The Ottoman Empire actually flourished. Jews brought new technologies, culture, and more to the Ottoman Empire and the first printing press was established there by Jews in 1493. The leader of the Ottomans, Beyazit the Just, purportedly proclaimed, “You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!” It very well could be that because the Muslims and Jews had a shared history of persecution from Europe that they were more willing to coexist.

In Portugal, after declaring all Jews must leave, the decision was changed a year later by King Manuel that instead of evacuating, Jews must convert. This decision would lead to the Lisbon massacre, where Catholics beat and burned hundreds of families of recent converts to Catholicism. Not even infants were spared.

Interestingly, after forced conversion, the massacre, and the subsequent forced emigration, many Jews still felt loyalty to the Portuguese Monarch. 

In this case, we do have immigrants who are discriminated against based on their religion, and these immigrants were refugees. These Jews, however, were seen as a legitimate threat to the way of life of Spanish Catholics – hence the aforementioned segregation. A religion threatening your way of life might sound familiar. Donald Trump mentioned Islamic Immigration threatening our way of life during his campaign, so did the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, which gained 5 seats in their most recent election. So did a prominent ally of Italy’s former prime minister. And this is all only in the west, where values of freedom of religion are supposed to reign free. Things are even worse in the east where China has admitted to “reeducation camps” for Muslims. 

There are a lot parallels between the plight of the Jews in the 15th century and Muslims today between relegating a person to one aspect of their identity, and leaving one country only to be persecuted in another. There are significant differences, however, in the role of religion in day to day life. Separation of church and state was still very far off. The Catholic church was intertwined with the government and corruption ran rampant. This corruption would lead to Martin Luther’s 95 theses in following years.

FDR’s Beware of Refugees Speech

The above examples of history fall short in one important aspect, it was a different time. While people often react the same in similar circumstances, it’s not fair to compare conscription in Rome to conscription during the Vietnam war because military service was viewed very differently. Likewise, it may not be fair to compare refugees of the past to refugees of today. However, there are a few modern examples that are strikingly similar to the suspicion held against immigrants from the middle east today. Perhaps most relevant, is Jewish migrants during World War II. Jews during this time were met with equal skepticism. FDR turned away Jewish Refugees by the boatload, fearful of spies entering the country under the guise of being a refugee.

In a speech, he even said:

Today’s threat to our national security is not a matter of military weapons alone. We know of new methods of attack. The Trojan Horse. The Fifth Column that betrays a nation unprepared for treachery. Spies, saboteurs and traitors are the actors in this new strategy. With all of these we must and will deal vigorously.

It would hard to find a more relevant passage from history with regards to the current refugee crisis. It matches the distrust of persecuted religious migrants for fear of harming the nation in which we live.

We’ve all heard about the holocaust, but it’s an important reminder that, like today, no country wanted to accept refugees.

Bosnian War

The Bosnian War was the biggest war I’d never heard of. Whether it’s a product of an America-centric education system when it comes to teaching history, or me sleeping through that lesson is anyone’s guess, but here’s some background in case anyone doesn’t know. Because it’s such a modern example, I think it’s a great fit for a comparison to our modern crisis.

The Bosnian War broke up Yugoslavia, killed well over 100,000 people, involved the first genocide in Europe since World War II, and displaced over 2 million people.  I think that this video does a nice job of summarizing the situation and conflict. While it’s truly much more complicated, in summary, Croatia declared independence. Serbia used what was left of the Yugoslavic army to prevent them from doing so. War crimes, including genocide, were committed. So many people died and were lost in rubble that as of 2017, bodies and remains were still being identified and sent to their respective families.

Whether the Bosnian War was a Civil War or International War is up for debate, and I’m not qualified enough to make an assertion one way or the other.

While refugees from this war weren’t viewed as potential spies,  it’s relevance lies in its recency. The politicians of today were watching the news when these events occurred. In addition, the violence and brutality these refugees encountered is on par with that of IS. Serbian forces specifically targeted homes for destruction to prevent Bosniaks from ever being able to return home.

In addition many of the persecuted were also Muslims. Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were specifically targeted for genocide by the Serbian forces. Trials for these cases ended less than a year ago.

Germany is a focal point then and now, and their response to both crises were quite different. During the Bosnian War, Germany acted much like Portugal after the Alhambra decree in that it accepted refugees, and then shortly after told them to leave despite getting jobs, learning German and attending school. Germany in both cases seemed to be very open to refugees on the onset, and then changed its tone after they began to arrive.

While the level of coordinated genocide isn’t occurring in Syria as it was in Yugoslavia, it might not be fair to say it’s not occurring at all. The brutality, religious persecution, civil war are all the same. The only arguable difference might be the skepticism of the intent of the refugees.

The Effects of Refugees

It’s certainly easy to write a blog about how countries exercise poor ethics for denying refugees. However, the flip side of this coin, and the one that’s often trumpeted by conservative politicians, is the effect and strain that refugees have on the accepting country. In truth, the effect is little understood. One study actually found that the local economy benefited. Essentially, the refugees produced more value than they received in aid.

While the hosting cost certainly impacts the hosting country, it’s worth noting there are several international aid organizations that help offset the cost. Even so, one of the bigger impacts is that on infrastructure and the local ecosystem. A large influx in population means land, fuel, water, food and shelter materials are in higher demand than normal. Sometimes, this can lead to higher development in a given area. Other times, people live in squalid conditions for years afterwards – as Angelina Jolie found on a recent trip to Bosnia where people are still living in near homelessness.

Interestingly, I found that the refugees in Europe and America count for a tiny portion of the total number of Syrian refugees. The vast majority, about 90%, are displaced internally within Syria or neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, or Egypt. Only about 7.6% are in Europe – mostly in Germany, and less than 1% have come to the United States. The United States hosts more refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo than any other nation.

Skepticism of refugees is widespread and eternal. However, the danger they pose has historically been minimal and vastly overstated. It is far more common for the host country to exploit people at their most vulnerable. The effects of hosting refugees are not well understood, and that should inform our dialogue when discussing refugees. However, we should also note when other countries are pulling more than their fair share, and more importantly resist the historical precedent to make the lives of refugees more difficult than they already are. A person whose home was reduced to rubble and fled for their life need not be persecuted in the country they fled to for protection.

Further Reading

On the Arab Spring

On the US definition of terrorism

On the World War II Refugee Crisis

On the current Central American Refugee Crisis

On the 1992 Bosnian Concentration Camps