Thursday, 15 January 2015

Changing countries, changing boundaries

I've been reading the excellent book 1913: The World before the Great War by Charles Emmerson. He lays out a compelling portrait of the world in the year before the First World War (through a picture of 20 different cities across the world). He observes that the world of 1913 is often viewed through the lens of the catastrophe and carnage of the Great War, but that the war was not inevitable and there was much else happening other than the run-up to war.

Reading the book made me very aware of countries and their boundaries. The world was carved up into several large empires which no longer exist or are much reduced (notably the British, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires), while many of the countries we now take for granted as universal were part of one of those empires or another entity.

Europe in 1914 (Image: Diercke International Atlas)
If we look specifically at Europe (whose own boundaries are contested, but is often taken to go as far east as the Caucasus Mountains and the Ural River), there were 26 countries in Europe in 1914 (an easy year to get data for), while there are 46 today.

Europe in 1914 consisted of: Albania, Andorra, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Romania, Russian Empire, San Marino, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Europe today (image: Diercke International Atlas)

Europe in 2015 consists of: Albania, Andorra, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Vatican City.
For completeness, it's worth saying that there are four states which geographically are wholly (or almost wholly) in Asia, but which are often associated with European institutions, including the European Union: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cyprus and Georgia. And there are six states which are not widely recognised internationally except by a few states: Abkhazia, Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh, Northern Cyprus, Transnistria, South Ossetia. (And here's the part where I confess that my lists are extracted from Wikipedia, which is generally reliable for uncontested topics, but doesn't always handle controversies so well - so probably each state in this paragraph would be placed elsewhere by some people.)

Of the nineteen states which didn't exist in 1914: 8 were part of the Russian Empire; 5 were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; 2 were part of Britain and its empire (Ireland and Malta); 1 was part of Denmark; 1 was part of Serbia; 1 was part of Italy; and 1 (Poland) was split between Austria-Hungary, Russia and Germany. Austria-Hungary, as well as losing its empire, formally split into two successor states, Austria and Hungary. Many of these changes happened in 1918 after the First World War, but others happened at a later time.

Enough already of lists and stats. Here's the moral: boundaries change. Nations in one time are not nations in another time. Sometimes boundaries change as a result of war, sometimes due to economic pressure, sometimes due to democratic will - or all of these together. But boundaries of nations change over time. 

This is important because we are in a time when European boundaries are under question again. Scotland and Catalonia had independence referendums (of different kinds) in 2014, Ukraine's boundaries became threatened by Russia. The Balkans are quieter than they were, but not entirely settled. And there are independence movements, with more or less support, in various regions of current European states. 

Future boundary changes are hard to predict, but one thing is almost certain: the political map of 2115 will not be the same as that of 2015. And it might look just as different from 2015 as the modern map looks from that of 1914. Countries are not static entities.

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