On the End of Empires
When I was born, all Europeans lived in states which were part of empires in the traditional monarchical or the nineteenth-century colonial sense of the world, except the citizens of Switzerland, the three Scandinavian states, and the former dependencies of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans—and some of these had left the Ottoman Empire only just before the First World War. The inhabitants of Africa lived under empires almost without exception, and so, without any exception, did the inhabitants of the Pacific and Southeast Asian islands, large and small. But for the fact that the ancient Chinese Empire had come to an end some six years before I was born, one might have said that all the countries of Asia were parts of empires, old and new, except perhaps Thailand (then known as Siam) and Afghanistan, maintaining a sort of independence between rival European powers. Only the Americas south of the United States consisted primarily of states which neither had nor were colonial dependencies, even though they were certainly economically and culturally dependent.
In the course of my lifetime all this has gone. The First World War broke the Habsburg Empire into fragments and completed the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. But for the October Revolution, this would also have been the fate of the empire of the Russian tsar, though it was severely weakened, as was the German Empire, which lost both the imperial title and its colonies. The Second World War destroyed the imperial potential of Germany, which had been briefly realized under Adolf Hitler. It destroyed the colonial empires of the imperialist era, great and small, the British, French, and Japanese, the Dutch and Portuguese, the Belgian, and what little remained of the Spanish. Incidentally, it also brought the end of the relatively brief U.S. excursion into formal colonialism on the European model, in the Philippines and a few other territories. Finally, at the end of the last century, the collapse of European communist regimes brought to an end both Russia as a single multinational entity as it had existed under the tsars and the more short-lived Soviet Empire in East and Central Europe. The metropoles have lost their power, as they have lost their dependencies. Only one potential imperial power remains.
Thirty years ago, most of us welcomed this dramatic change in the political face of the globe, as many of us still do. However, today we look back on it from a troubled new century that seems to lack the relative order and predictability of the Cold War era. The era of empires has gone, but so far nothing has effectively replaced it. The number of independent states has quadrupled since 1913, most of them the debris of former empires, but while in theory we now live in the world of free nation-states which, according to Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt, was to replace the world of empires, in practice we live in what we can now recognize as a deeply unstable form of global disorder both internationally and within states. A number—probably a growing number—of these political entities appear incapable of carrying on the essential functions of territorial states or are threatened with disintegration by secessionist movements. What is more, since the end of the Cold War we live in an era when uncontrollable or barely controllable armed conflict has become endemic in large areas of Asia, Africa, Europe, and parts of the Pacific. Massacre amounting to genocide and the mass expulsion of populations (“ethnic cleansing”) are once again taking place on a scale not seen since the years immediately following World War II. Can we wonder that in some countries the survivors of former empires regret their passing?
How should these empires be remembered? The nature of official and popular memory depends to some extent on the length of time that has elapsed since an empire’s disappearance and whether it has left any inheritors. The Roman Empire, both in its western and eastern form, was so completely destroyed, and destroyed so long ago, that it has no inheritor, though the mark it has left on the world, even outside the area it once occupied, is enormous. Alexander’s is gone forever, and so is Genghis Khan’s and Timur’s. So are the empires of the Umayyads and Abbasids. More recently, the Habsburg Empire was so completely destroyed in 1918, and was so completely a-national in structure, that it has no effective continuity with the small nation-state now called Austria. However, often there is some continuity, especially as the end of so many empires is so recent, and has usually been accompanied or followed, in the former metropolitan states, by periods of considerable political and psychological stress. True, today no state that once ruled over a colonial empire intends to, or has any hope of, restoration. But where the metropoles of former empires survive as effective states, usually as nation-states, there is a tendency among them after a while to look back on the times of past greatness with pride and nostalgia. There is also an understandable temptation to exaggerate the benefits which the empire is said to have conferred on its subjects while it existed, such as the law and order within its territories and, with more justification, the fact that several (but not all) vanished empires have been more tolerant of ethnic, linguistic, and religious multiplicity than the nation-states that succeeded them. Nevertheless, as a writer on empires points out, reviewing Professor Mazower’s remarkable social history Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430–1950
, “this theory of empire is too good to be true. . . .” The reality of empires should not be in the hands of selective nostalgia.
Only one collective form of imperial memory has practical implications today. This is the feeling that the superior power of empires to conquer and rule the world was based on superior civilization, easily identified with moral or even racial superiority. In the nineteenth century both tended to go together, but the historical experience of Nazi Germany has eliminated racial or ethnic claims to superiority from polite discourse. However, the tacit rather than openly articulated Western claim of moral superiority remains, and finds expression in the conviction that our values and institutions are superior to others’ and may, or even should, be imposed on them to their benefit, if necessary by force of arms.NOTES
 Jan Morris, "Islam's Lost Grandeur," review of Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims, and Jews, 1430-1950
, by Mark Mazower. The Guardian (London), September 18, 2004, p.9.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from On Empire by Eric Hobsbawm. Copyright © 2008 by Eric Hobsbawm. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.