From Sarmatia to Alania to Ossetia: The Land of the Iron People

Map of the Sarmatian Tribes in Late Antiquity

Map of the Sarmatian Tribes in Late AntiquityThe Caucasus is often noted as a place of cultural refuge, its steep slopes and hidden valleys preserving traditions and languages that were swept away in the less rugged landscapes to the north and south. Such a depiction generally seems fitting for the Ossetians, the apparent descendents of a nomadic group called the Sarmatians that dominated the grasslands of western Eurasia from the fifth century BCE to the fourth century CE.

The Sarmatians were probably not a single ethnic group, let alone a unified nation, but rather a collection of related tribes that spoke closely related Iranian languages and followed similar pastoral ways of life. Discussed at length by ancient Greek and Roman geographers, the Sarmatians were depicted as a proud and warlike people, noted by some for sending young women into battle. (Recent archeological investigations seem to bear this out, as many Sarmatian graves contain skeletons of women dressed for war.)

Long after they seemingly disappeared from history, the Sarmatians retained significance in the European imagination. In the seventeenth century, most members of the Polish nobility convinced themselves that they had descended not from the Slavic tribes that had given rise to their nation’s peasantry, but rather from the Sarmatians; as a result, they widely adopted modes of dress and manners that they associated with this ancient group. The resulting style, called “Sarmatism,” remained influential until the 1800s and has not completely disappeared. In its modern guise, however, the movement has been widened, with various central and eastern European nationalists claiming Sarmatian ancestry for their entire societies. Neo-Nazis also look back to the group; a “Sarmatians” image-search on the internet yields numerous links to the infamous Stormfront website.

Wikipedia map of the Alan Migrations The Sarmatian hold on their grassland home was apparently lost to others in the fourth century. It was around this time that certain Sarmatian groups became known to history as the Alans. From the west, the Germanic Ostrogoths moved into the steppes and took up a largely equestrian way of life, while the Huns invaded from the east, threatening Sarmatians and Ostrogoths alike. Pastoral polities of the time, however, were often quite fluid, allowing peoples of different language groups to join together, whether in semi-institutionalized confederacies or mere armed aggregations of coercion or convenience. A few Alan groups evidently joined the Huns, but most fled west into Europe to avoid domination. They moved not as a single people, however, but in numerous contingents, many of which attached themselves to the Germanic tribes that were also fleeing the Huns into the dying Western Roman Empire. Some Alans allied with the (Germanic) Burgundians to establish a strong presence in Gaul. Others moved into the Iberian Peninsula, ruling over a short-lived Alanic kingdom in the early 400s. Many more joined forces with the Vandals, accompanying them in their invasion of Roman North Africa in 429 CE.

Wikipedia map of Kingdoms in Iberia, Early 400s  The various Alan groups that moved into the Roman world in the late 300s and early 400s did not maintain their language or identity for long. In most cases, they merged with the more tightly unified Germanic peoples and were eventually subsumed into the general populations of the areas in which they settled. They did leave marks, however, as suggested by numerous place names along the lines of “Alainville.” They also seem to have figured prominently in the development of the medieval ideals of chivalry.

If C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor are to be believed, the cultural legacy of the Alans in Europe was profound. In a fascinating and controversial book entitled From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail (Arthurian Characters and Themes), Littleton and Malcor argue that most of the Arthurian corpus derives from the stories and myths of the Alans. Although criticized for downplaying the Celtic aspects of the legends, Littleton and Malcor present abundant evidence leading back to the Alans. Guinevere, they allow, was a Celtic figure, but Lancelot and many others seem to have a Sarmatian origin. As they show, the north Caucasus’s own epic writings, the Nart Sagas, bear a curious resemblance to the Arthurian stories, abounding in magical swords and supernatural chalices.

Map of Medieval AlaniaAlthough most of the Alans swept into Western Europe and North Africa in late antiquity, others evidently sought refuge in the deep valleys of the Greater Caucasus range, where they intermarried with the indigenous peoples of the region. In time their descendants were able to establish a state of their own. By the 700s, the Kingdom of Alania linked the central Caucasus Mountains with a broad swath of the steppe zone of the north. Alania was soon embroiled in a complex geopolitical contest for the larger region, involving the Arab Caliphate, the Byzantine Empire, and the Khazar Khanate (an empire based in the northern Caspian Sea region whose ruling elite adopted Judaism). Alliance with the Khazars evidently resulted in numerous conversions to Judaism among the Alans, but Christianity triumphed in the higher circles of Alania, based on strong connections with both the Greeks and the Georgians, although pre-Christian beliefs and practices did not vanish entirely. Medieval Alania was already well integrated into the diplomatic circles of the Orthodox Christian realm. Several Alan princesses married into royal houses in Russia, Georgia, and the Byzantine Empire.

German map of the Kingdoms of the Caucasus, Circa 1000 CEAlania was devastated by the Mongol invasions of the early 1200s and essentially destroyed by the incursions of Tamerlane in the late 1300s. As had happened in the fourth century, some Alans fled the invading armies; others sought refuge in the remote Caucasian valleys; still others became incorporated into the conquering society. Joining forces with the Mongols, more than a few ended up in China, where “30,000 Alans formed the royal guard (Asud) of the Yuan court in Dadu (Beijing).” Another sizable group received refuge in Hungary; their descendants, the Jassic people or Jász, are still viewed as a distinct ethnic group, numbering some 85,000.

The Alans who retreated into the Caucasus after the Mongol assaults were unable to reconstitute their kingdom. Instead they split into petty polities and came under the partial domination of their Kabardian neighbors. They eventually divided into two distinct ethnic groups, the Iron and the Digor, marked by differences in dialect and territory. Ossetian religion came to be marked by a strongly syncretic bent, with the names of Christian saints commonly identified with pre-Christian gods. After the Russian conquest in the late 1700s, Orthodox Christianity experienced a revival, especially among the Iron. Islam also spread into Ossetia, passing from the Kabardians to the Digor especially. Syncretic beliefs and practices, however, persist among both groups, alongside mainstream Islam and Christianity. Such syncretism has historically been common through much of the North Caucasus, although more orthodox forms of faith have been spreading rapidly over the past few decades.

In the late Soviet period, Ossetian intellectuals began to reclaim their Alanian heritage, and in 1994 North Ossetia was officially renamed “North Ossetia-Alania.” This move may have been meant to help fuse the Digor and Iron into a single nationality, as the two groups remain divided by dialect and to a certain extent by religion as well. Loyalty to the Iron people rather than to the Ossetians as a whole is evident in a disarming hip-hop video found here. Although labeled “Ossetian Rap” in the English-language YouTube service, its actual title, in Cyrillic script, is “Iron Rap” (ИРОН РЭП).


(Many thanks to David Erschler for his corrections to the original post.)

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Mega-Nationalist Fantasy Maps of the Balkans

YouTube Fantasy Maps of the Future BalkansYouTube videos of “greater countries,” which imagine the glorious expansion of existing states, have a distinct geographical distribution. The vast majority of these hyper-nationalistic fantasies come from the region stretching from Pakistan to Hungary. Although a number of “greater” countries outside of this area have been proposed, few are supported at the popular level by YouTube productions. Greater Morocco, for example, is a historically potent and often-mapped idea, but a video search on the subject yields nothing but “greater flamingos” inhabiting certain Moroccan lagoons. The geographical clumping of this YouTube genre no doubt stems in part from the contagion effect; imaginary maps showing the expansion of one country provoke nationalists in neighboring countries to respond in kind.

YouTube Map of Greater Albania and the "Albanian Sea" The Balkans and environs form the focal area of the genre. A YouTube search for “future Balkans” returns an especially rich trove of grandiose maps. Quite a few depict multiple “greater” countries. The images at the top of the post, for example, envisage the simultaneous expansion of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece. Maps of this type have a distinctly Christian bias, if not a more narrowly Eastern Orthodox one, as they prophesy the diminution or disappearance of such largely Muslim states as Turkey, Albania, and Kosovo. Macedonia, a country of mostly Orthodox Christian heritage, is usually erased as well. Bulgarian nationalists often insist that Macedonians are actually western Bulgarians, while Greek and Serbian nationalists commonly claim all or part of Macedonia on historical grounds. Western Macedonia, a mostly Albanian-speaking region, is also demanded by partisans of Greater Albania. The most imaginative map of this set takes the further step of inundating Serbia, turning it into the “Albanian Sea.”

YouTube Maps of Greater Greece Depictions of Greater Greece, sometimes expressed under the rubric of the “Megali Idea,” tend to focus mostly on territorial gains in Anatolia. In a number of depictions, Turkey disappears altogether, divided between Greece, Armenia, and other states, real or imagined. One video explicitly calls for the “repatriation of Turks and Azeris to Mongolia and areas of northern China.” Not surprisingly, YouTube maps made by champions of Greater Turkey respond in kind. Several visualize Turkey, Albania, and Macedonia expanding together at the expense of Greece. Although all such visions of the future might seem comically absurd, many have been watched tens or even hundreds of thousands of viewers.

It is not surprising that YouTube dreams of national aggrandizement would center on the greater Balkan region. The Balkans have seen several major geopolitical rearrangements over the past century, beginning with the two Balkan wars (1912-1913) and continuing through the emergence of two of the world’s newest countries, Montenegro (2006) and Kosovo (2008). Complex ethnic mixtures have also long characterized the region, although they have been much reduced by the legacies of war and nation-building. If mega-nationalistic videos are any indication, the geopolitical framework of the Balkans remains unsettled in the popular imagination.

YouTube Maps of Greater Hungary and Greater SlovakiaTo the north of the Balkans, Greater Hungary also has a significant YouTube presence. Hard-line Hungarian nationalists, who make up a significant political block in the country, demand the return of all territories stripped away in the Treaty of Trianon of 1920. A particularly dramatic clip shows an eagle reattaching the lost lands to the current rump Hungarian state. Neighboring Slovakia, scheduled for annexation by the devotees of Greater Hungary, has no genuine YouTube presence. One Hungarian chauvinist, however, has posted a mocking video of Greater Slovakia, placing a truncated map of the country on the South Pole, accompanied by frenetically dancing penguins. The first comment below the video, in Hungarian, states that it would have been better to have placed Slovakia on another planet. Hyper-nationalist rhetoric evidently remains virulent in some quarters of central European society.

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The End of Schengenland?

Map of Europe's Evolving Borders

Map of Europe's Evolving BordersOver the past several decades, Europe has been dismantling border controls, creating the zone of free movement informally known as Schengenland. Although the Schengen area is scheduled to expand into the southeastern European Union countries of Bulgaria, Romania, and even divided Cyprus, such a development seems increasingly unlikely. Even in the core EU countries, the integration process is currently running in reverse. On May 14, 2011 an exaggerated headline in The Independent proclaimed that the “flood of North African refugees ends EU passport-free travel.” In actuality, “the EU” never had “passport-free travel,” as several EU countries (Britain, Ireland) remained outside the Schengen area, while several non-EU countries (Iceland, Norway, Switzerland) opted in. More important, passport-free travel within Schengenland has not ended. But it is threatened. In April 2011, French authorities began checking trains arriving from Italy, looking for undocumented North African immigrants. France insisted that such actions were unrelated to the establishment of border controls, but both France and Italy have proposed the re-establishment of border checkpoints in certain circumstances. A more far-reaching challenge to open travel came in early May 2011, when Denmark announced that it would reestablish controls along its frontiers with Germany and Sweden. Immediately afterward, the European Union threatened Denmark with legal reprisals.

Denmark’s action came about through a series of parliamentary negotiations. The country’s governing coalition includes the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti, or DF), a right-wing, populist organization that advocates strict limits on immigration and is skeptical of European integration. The People’s Party also generally supports social welfare spending, provided that it is not oriented toward immigrants. Other issues, however, come first. The leading party of Denmark’s governing coalition, the center-right Liberal Party,* had been trying to phase out a costly early retirement program. Support from the People’s Party was necessary to push through the reform, but its leaders initially balked, wary of reducing governmental support for elderly Danes. Before signing on, they demanded a major change of their own: the re-imposition of border controls. The deal was subsequently accepted and pushed through parliament, putting Denmark at odds with the rest of the Schengen community.

The Danish government insists that renewed border controls are not aimed at immigrants, but rather at staunching the flow of illegal drugs and the activities of crime syndicates based in Eastern Europe. It is no secret, however, that the People’s Party wants further restrictions on the movement of people. The party, which won almost fourteen percent of the vote in Denmark’s 2007 parliamentary election, has already helped push through the EU’s toughest immigration rules. Further limitations are now being discussed. A recent report put together by five governmental ministries contends that existing restrictions have saved the Danish government five billion kroner (roughly 900 million dollars) per year since 2002, mostly from reduced social-service expenditures. As a result:

The government and its main ally, the Danish People’s Party (DF), intend to use the findings from the report to further tighten the immigration rules. …The [People’s] party also wants the local authorities to encourage immigrants who cannot find work in Denmark to return to their home countries.

If Denmark has saved money by restricting immigration, the same will almost certainly not be true in regard to the re-imposition of border controls. EU legal action against Denmark could prove costly, and the check-points themselves will be expensive to run. According to Gerd Battrup of the Department of Border Region Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, controls will result in a reduction of trade and tourism, and will also impose costs on “highly-skilled cross-border commuters, who would be discouraged by hassles and delays associated with border checkpoints.” If such commuters decide to quit their jobs in Denmark, Battrup argues, the Danish economy will suffer.

Denmark’s hardening of its borders might also impinge upon travelers from the United States. In late 2010, representative of the Danish People’s Party proposed instituting more thorough checks of U.S. citizens entering the country. “We have to acknowledge that the Americans haven’t had as good a handle on their counter-terrorism as we thought,” argued party spokesman Peter Skaarup. Particular scrutiny, his party contends, should be applied to “US citizens who have travelled many times to countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

* The party is officially called, in Danish, Venstre, Danmarks Liberale Parti, which translated as “Left, Liberal Party,” a rather ironic name for a center-right organization.

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Mapping Forms of Government in the 18th Century and Today

Forms of government in 18th century Europe

Forms of government in 18th century EuropeAs we have seen, maps from the 18th century typically subdivide Europe in a different manner from historical maps produced today, focusing much less on sovereignty. Cartographers typically divided the region into a dozen or so “countries,” some of which were independent kingdoms and others dependent lands, and one of which was a supranational organization (the Holy Roman Empire). In atlas after atlas, the same divisions employed by Robert de Vaugondy that we examined last week reappear. Minor discrepancies are encountered; some cartographers separated Norway from Denmark and Ireland from Britain, and a few differentiated the southern Low Countries (modern Belgium, essentially) from Germany. By the end of the century, most mapmakers were portraying Prussia as a separate “country,” but only the Prussian lands in the east, not those within the Empire.

Enlightenment-era cartographers seldom explained their criteria for partitioning Europe. In a 1783 introductory text (Atlas des Infans*), however, the system of division is laid out in some detail. Europe, the anonymous mapmaker proclaims, is divided into sixteen pays, (countries), described as the principal states of the region: Portugal, Spain, France, Germany (Roman Empire), Switzerland, Italy, the Low Countries, Great Britain, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Muscovy, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and Prussia. He further notes that the Italy is “composed of many sovereign states”; as he earlier deemed Italy itself a “principal state,” the mapmaker obviously did not view the state per se as wrapped up with sovereignty.

Despite the criteria that he used for mapping, the author of the Atlas des Infans was concerned with sovereignty, and elsewhere in the text he outlined the sovereign entities of Europe. His main concern here, however, was not to detail all of the many states that might have been regarded as independent, as he ignored hereditary polities with a status below that of a Grand Duchy. His aim was rather to distinguish the varieties of sovereign authority then existing, as all independent states were not regarded as having equal standing. As a result, he carefully distinguished republics from non-republican polities, and then divided the latter category into five distinct forms based on the titles of their sovereigns. Europe, he informed his readers, had one ecclesiastical sovereign (the Pope, ruling the Papal States), three emperors (those of Russia, Germany, and Turkey), eleven kings, one archduke (ruling Austria), and one grand duke (ruling Tuscany).

Most of the kingdoms listed in the Atlas des Infans were also reckoned as countries (pays), but not all. The eleven “kings” of Europe were described as reigning over the kingdoms of France, Spain, England, Portugal, Poland, Denmark, Sweden, Prussia, Bohemia & Hungary, the Two Sicilies, and Sardinia. Although the emphasis was on the personal nature of the monarchies, no mention was made of the fact that the king of “Bohemia and Hungary”—oddly combined here—was also the Archduke of Austria and the Emperor of Holy Roman Empire; as was typical of the time, the jointly ruled collection of states that we refer to as the Hapsburg or Austrian Empire remained invisible. Note also that the “country” (or “principal state”) of Italy was partitioned among two kingdoms, one grand duchy and one ecclesiastical state (as can be seen in the map that I have created based on the political taxonomy laid out in the Atlas des Infans**). Later in the text, the author notes that northern Italy included nine sovereign states and central Italy three more. Most of these states, however, were excluded from the general discussion of Europe, apparently too insignificant to merit discussion.

When it came to republics, the Atlas des Infans was far more comprehensive, including even exiguous San Marino, a sovereign state that still styles itself the “most serene republic.” Of the republics listed, two others were essentially mere city-states, Ragusa (Dubrovnic) and Geneva, and two others city-states that controlled sizable hinterlands, Venice and Genoa. Of the republics listed, only the Swiss Federation and the United Provinces (the Netherlands) also counted as countries or principal states. The extra level of attention given to republics may simply reflect their rarity, but it might also convey concern about this radical departure from the norm of monarchy.

Wikipedia map of forms of governmentModern-day world political maps rarely specify forms of government. What matters today is whether a given state is sovereign, as all sovereign states are regarded as forming equivalent individuals in the global community of nations. Specifying forms of government, moreover, is a surprisingly difficult exercise. The Wikipedia article on the subject does as well as might be expected, but the map that accompanies it, posted here, is of little use. I have on occasion use this map in an classroom exercise, removing the legend and asking students what it could possibly depict—and no one yet has guessed correctly. The problem, as is admitted in the key, is distinguishing the proclaimed form of government from the actual system of governance; that such democracies such as Costa Rica, South Korea, and Chile are classified alongside such non-democratic states such as Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe as “full presidential republics” is more than a little misleading. Iran too falls into the same cartographic category, although in the article that accompanies the map it is also more appropriately classified as a theocracy, along side only the Vatican City. Other discrepancies are also found between map and text. In the article, for example, Qatar is classified as an absolute monarchy, and Egypt as a “military junta state.” In an amusing and euphemistic understatement, the author deems Somalia as a “transitional state,” one in which “the system of government …, is in transition or turmoil and [is] classified with the current direction of change.”

An accurate mapping of the form of government still forces one to bypass sovereignty, as different subdivisions of composite states sometimes have different governmental forms. On the Wikipedia map, non-sovereign Hong Kong and Macao are depicted separately from China, as their governmental systems are completely diffferent. Note also dependencies are mapped separately from the states that hold their sovereignty. Almost all are put in the grey “other” category, yet Greenland is classified, like Denmark, a constitutional monarchy.

The underlying problem with classifying countries by their forms of government is one of pretense, as governments often pretend to be something that they are not. But as regular readers of GeoCurrents have seen, such charades run rampant through most of our schemes of geopolitical classification. As Stanford political scientist Stephen Krasner puts it, sovereignty is “organized hypocrisy.” Perhaps such a situation is to be expected; in the realm of diplomacy, elaborate facades are necessary. When it comes to educational and academic endeavors, however, it is our duty to strip away pretense and try to reveal what lies beneath. As such, it does us little good to pretend that Somalia is a “state in transition,” rather than the collapsed state barely hanging onto life through international support that it actually is.

*Atlas des enfans; ou, Nouvelle method pour apprendre la geographie. Published in Lyon by J.M. Bruyset., 1783

* *Unfortunately, the map is slightly anachronistic, as I used a base map depicting European states in 1700s, whereas the Atlas des Infans depicts the situation in the mid- or even late 1700s.

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The Simplistic World-View of Thomas L. Friedman

Ethnic groups in MoroccoIn his April 13, 2011 column in the New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman argues that the recent uprisings in the Arab world will probably not lead to the kind of mass democratization that occurred in eastern and central Europe after 1989. Although I must agree with Friedman’s basic thesis, I reject his reasoning, which is both simplistic and geographically misinformed. Owing to the influential nature of Friedman’s work, I fear that his interpretation will muddy rather than clarify the public understanding of contemporary Middle Eastern politics.

Friedman’s argument rests on the idea of the unified nation-state, which he finds lacking in the Arabic-speaking realm but well-established across Europe. As he puts it:

In Europe virtually every state was like Germany, a homogeneous nation, except Yugoslavia. The Arab world is exactly the opposite. … In the Arab world almost all of these countries are Yugoslavia-like assemblages of ethnic, religious, and tribal groups put together by colonial powers—except Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, which have big, homogeneous majorities.

Friedman is correct in noting that most Arab countries were artificially created by colonial powers and hence lack the deep national bonds that characterize genuine nation-states. I also agree that Tunisia and Egypt are exceptions to this rule, although Egypt’s unity is potentially compromised by the chasm separating its Muslim majority from its substantial Christian minority. Morocco, however, does not fit into this category whatsoever, as it is deeply divided between its dominant Arabic-speaking population in the lowlands and its Berber-speaking peoples of the highlands. Admittedly, Morocco does derive some sense of unity from its heritage as an indigenous kingdom. But so too does Oman, an Arab state that Friedman ignores, but which has a more homogeneous population than Morocco. Oman is divided between its dominant Ibadi Muslim population and its Sunni Muslim minority, but that gap is not nearly as wide as the one separating Arabs and Berbers in Morocco.

Friedman is equally misinformed when it comes to Europe. Most of the former Communist countries of the region had significant ethnic divisions in the 1980s, and many still do. The split between Czechs and Slovaks in Czechoslovakia was large enough to break the country apart, albeit in a peaceful manner. Slovakia, moreover, still has a large Hungarian minority, as well as a vocal and politically significant anti-Hungarian, hard-core Slovak nationalist movement. Romania also has a large Hungarian minority, and is still troubled by Romanian-Hungarian tensions. At the time of its revolution, it also had a sizable German population, but most Romanian Germans decamped for Germany after democratization. Hungary’s minority groups are not as large, but far-right Hungarian politicians constantly remind the country’s voters that a third of the Hungarian-speaking population ended up outside of Hungary’s truncated boundaries. Bulgaria has a substantial Turkic-speaking Muslim population, as well as a Bulgarian-speaking Muslim population (the Pomaks); Bulgarian Muslims, moreover, were much more numerous before the expulsions and “Bulgarianization” programs of the 1980s. The Baltic states, especially Estonia, have large Russian minorities, which are often seen as threatening national unity. Albania is divided between the Gheg- and the Tosk-speaking dialect group, and is historically rent by tribalism. And throughout the region, and particularly in Romania and Bulgaria, large Romany (Gypsy) populations remain marginalized, largely outside of the national communities.

It is tempting to wash away such diversity in order to give easy and popular explanations of large-scale social and political processes. But in doing so, we only delude ourselves, doing injustice to the complex world that we all inhabit.

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The Ambiguities of Sovereignty in Early Modern Central Europe

Locator map of the Electorate of Saxony

Locator map of the Electorate of SaxonyMost current-day mapping of central Europe during the early modern period (1500-1800) emphasizes the division of the so-called Holy Roman Empire into its constituent states. Detailed maps, readily available online, delineate every kingdom, duchy, principality, imperial city, and politically independent archbishopric and bishopric within the empire, as is evident in the impressive Wikipedia map locating the Electorate of Saxony posted here. In this portrayal, the so-called imperial states are depicted as units of the same type, existing at the same level of the political hierarchy, regardless of size and significance. In one sense, such a view is appropriate, capturing an important aspect of the constitutional order of the Holy Roman Empire. Regardless of their size, the polities depicted on the map enjoyed “imperial immediacy,” which meant that they fell “under the direct authority of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Imperial Diet (Reichstag), without any intermediate liege lord(s).” As neither the emperor nor the diet actually held much authority, such states and statelets can be understood to have possessed what the Wikipedia calls a “form of sovereignty.”

But if the various imperial states of the Holy Roman Empire had sovereignty of a sort, they did not possess the full political autonomy that “sovereignty” now generally denotes. Nor were they conceptualized at the time as equivalent units. Archdukes and their archduchies outranked dukes and their duchies, just as the latter outclassed counts and their counties; hierarchy was intrinsic to the system. In the Imperial Diet itself, moreover, different kinds of states were weighed differently. The imperial free cities, for example, had only an advisory role in the Reichstag, while many minor counts and prelates were grouped together in “colleges” that had only a single vote.

Vaugondy map of Germany, 1751In the geographical imagination of the time, the minor states of the empire were of even less account. In the vast majority of maps produced during the early modern period, no effort was made to depict the quasi-sovereign subsidiary states of the Holy Roman Empire. Most were considered too small to be of significance, and—as explained previously—sovereignty per se was not the main criteria for mapping. Instead, the empire was usually subdivided into a dozen or so regional aggregations, as can be seen in the detail of the Vaugondy map of 1751, posted here. Vaugondy included a few of the Empire’s constituent states, such as the Kingdom of Bohemia, but otherwise his map bears no resemblance to our standard reconstruction of the political geography of early modern Germany. Several of Vaugondy’s regions seem odd to the modern eye, especially his Upper Saxony (Haute Saxe), which included two major states (the Electorate of Saxony in the south and the Electorate of Brandenburg in the north) as well as a number of minor ones. In the modern historical conception, “Upper Saxony” is limited to the “electorate” of the same name, never extending into Brandenburg, which was then linked to Prussia.

Vaugondy’s depiction of Upper Saxony, however, was typical of the time. It was also rooted in the geopolitical structure of the Empire. Like most produced in the eighteenth century, his map referenced an overlapping system of division, the so-called Imperial Circles. These spatial groupings were supposedly organized for defense and taxation, although their powers were marginal. They also had their own Diets, or Kreistags. Not all of the empire, however, was so “encircled.” Some of its smallest divisions remained outside the system, as did some of its largest, including Bohemia—by law the Empire’s only kingdom.* Moreover, As the Wikipedia map posted here shows, the circles were themselves fragmented (intricately so in the case of the Electoral Rhenish Circle). In a word, the Imperial Circles essentially reproduced the decentralized structure of the empire as a whole at the regional scale.

Wikipedia map of Imperial Circles 1560Most early modern cartographers had little interest in mapping such spatial “monstrosities” (as Goethe famously characterized the Holy Roman Empire itself), seeking instead to outline regions with more immediacy in the popular imagination. Vaugondy’s own map of the Holy Roman Empire was only loosely based on its division into imperial circles. Even where the place-names lined up, he made no effort to precisely portray the circles, basing his own bounded units only roughly on their territorial forms. Moreover, several of the areas that he delineated, such as Pomerania, were historically constituted regions with no specific imperial status. A handful of enlightenment geographers, to be sure, did depict the Imperial Circles, as can be seen in the Homann map of 1740. But most produced hybrid images, as in John Cary’s map of “the Circle of Upper Saxony with the Duchy of Silesia and Lusatia.”Homann Map of Imperial CirclesCary Map of Upper Saxony

* During this period, however, the King of Bohemia was the Hapsburg Emperor himself, whose forbears had accumulated a string of possessions and hence titles. Prussia was also, after 1701, styled a “kingdom”—of sorts—but that was possible only because its eastern segment (a Duchy!) lay outside of the boundaries of the Empire. Until 1772, moreover, the monarch had had to call himself “King in Prussia,” rather than the “King of Prussia” in order to maintain appearances. Before 1657, the Duchy of Prussia was held in vassalage from the Kingdom of Poland; in Vaugondy’s map, this section of Prussia is still mapped as part of Poland.

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Our Maps of the 18th Century—and Theirs

Europe of 1700, from Euratlas

Europe of 1700, from EuratlasSovereign states provide the building-blocks of contemporary world mapping. A simple image search of “world map” reveals the state-centered focus of our geographical imagination: a few of the maps returned provide land-mass outlines, and a few others depict continental divisions, but most show the world as neatly partitioned into independent countries. At a more local scale of analysis (“Europe map”), the tendency is if anything more pronounced. Countries are what count; in the public imagination, to know the locations of the member states of the UN is to have mastered world geography.

The same view is retroactively applied to the past. Pick up virtually any historical atlas, and you will find map after map of cleanly colored, clearly demarcated territorial states. As previous GeoCurrents posts have explored, while such maps often purport to depict control, what they often show are mere territorial claims over areas well beyond the reach of the state. This is especially true for depictions of early modern colonial claims in the Western Hemisphere. Maps of Europe in the same period (1500-1800 CE) face a different challenge; here virtually all lands were under some kind of governmental control, yet in many instances sovereignties overlapped. To force past polities into the mold of modern geopolitics is to court confusion.

Consider the Euratlas map of 1700 posted here—one of the most sophisticated portrayals of Europe during this period that is available online. In keeping with modern convention, the cartographer uses solid colors to portray premodern states. One “supra-state” entity is also depicted: the so-called Holy Roman Empire, generally viewed as a feckless federation of independent states. Two “personal unions,” in which one monarch reigned over several separate states, are indicated with labels (“England-Scotland-Netherlands” and “Poland-Lithuania-Saxony.”) Territorially discontiguous states are mapped in one color but are difficult to pick out; on the Euratlas site, however, one can outline such fragmented geopolitical entities with a single mouse-click. Examples here include the Spanish Empire (labeled merely “Spanish”), including Spain, southern Italy, Milan, and most of the southern Low Countries [Belgium], and Prussia-Brandenburg (unlabeled) in the north. The overall impression conveyed by the map is one of vast disparities in size among the constituent geopolitical elements of Europe. Relatively large polities dominate the western, eastern, and northern areas, whereas the central swath running from Italy to the North Sea (“German Ocean”) is a shatterbelt of micro-states. Much of central Europe is unequivocally mapped as the Habsburg Empire, shown as a territorially contiguous zone that spanned the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire.

Holy Roman Empire in 1789Even this intricate Euratlas map is at an inadequate scale of resolution to show the small German states. More detailed maps attempt to fill the gap. The second map, from the Wikipedia Commons, gives a fine-grained portrayal of the states of the so-called Holy Roman Empire as they existed in 1789. While it is remarkably rich in detail, even this mosaic fails to capture all the micro-polities of the time. The coloration scheme is also somewhat misleading, as a single color may indicate either different states of the same type (imperial cities in red; ecclesiastical lands in light purple), or single, discontiguous states (the Austrian [Habsburg] Empire in light orange-brown; Brandenburg-Prussia in slate blue). Notice the major territorial changes between the two maps, Austria having acquired the southern Low Countries from Spain, and Prussia (Brandenburg) having taken Silesia from Austria.

Such is our standard conception of Europe in the 1700s: a region cleanly divided among states of widely divergent sizes, with one vestigial “Empire” that had long since devolved into a non-sovereign federation. Educated Europeans of the time, however, had a markedly different conception of their continent’s constituent elements. Almost all maps of the time partitioned Europe into a handful of “countries” or “states” of roughly similar size, not all of which were sovereign entities. Sizable, compact, and potent states such as France, Portugal, Switzerland, the Netherlands (United Provinces), and Sweden were almost always mapped as such, appearing much as they do on our maps of the period. Smaller and less powerful states, however, disappear entirely, as do several of the larger states whose territorial integrity was compromised by fragmentation or by overlapping claims (notably those of the Holy Roman Empire, vestigial though it may have been). Sovereignty, in short, was not what mattered to early modern European cartographers. Far more important were historically and culturally constituted regional formations, conceptualized at roughly equivalent orders of magnitude.

Europe 1751 by Robert de VaugondyConsider, for example, the 1751 Robert de Vaugondy map posted here, entitled “Europe divided into its principle states.” (I have modified the map by enhancing the borders and translating and highlighting the place-labels.) Note the mapping of Italy and Germany (the latter coincident with the Holy Roman Empire) as separate “states.” Geographers at the time were well aware that neither formed a sovereign entity, but that was not the focus of their mapping. Note as well the absence of the Austrian (Habsburg) empire or Prussia-Brandenburg. That the ruler of Austria was styled an Emperor derived from the fact that the head of the Hapsburg dynasty was always elected to reign over the Holy Roman Empire; the notion of a separate “Austrian” or “Habsburg” empire is a modern construct rather than a feature of the time. Instead, the Habsburg dynasty was seen as having successfully acquired the crowns of various states, which retained their distinctive identity regardless of who ruled over them (just as England remained a separate country from the Netherlands during the period when William III was king of the former and stadtholder of the latter). The connections among the “Austrian” lands, in other words, were seen as more personal than geopolitical, easily undone though the vagaries of dynastic succession or military engagements—as indeed they often were. Geographers of the period did periodically redraw their boundaries to reflect changing political circumstances, but their maps registered far fewer changes than do ours of the same time period.

None of this is to argue that eighteenth-century mapping was superior to our cartographic reconstructions of the period. Both highlight some aspects of reality while obscuring others. My point is simply that sovereign entities need not always be the default building blocks of the human community—not now, and certainly not in the eighteenth century.

The next GeoCurrents post will examine more closely the mapping of the Holy Roman Empire during the 1700s, as a case study in the evolving concept of the territorially bounded sovereign state.

Our Maps of the 18th Century—and Theirs Read More »

Microstates in Cartograms

Microstates such as Lichtenstein or Nauru are too small to be seen on most world maps, and even a country as large as Luxembourg is usually difficult to discern. In conventional cartography, the size of an area depicted on the map is roughly proportional to its actual size, consigning tiny countries to invisibility. But not all maps are based on area. In cartograms, other variables substitute, distorting the size (and shape) of geographical entities to show their relative rankings according to any number of measurements. In a world population cartogram (first map above), the size of each country is proportional to its number of inhabitants. In the second map, GDP determines size.

In world population cartograms, microstates generally remain imperceptible. Singapore might be considered a major exception. Although only a quarter the area of Luxembourg, Singapore, with five million inhabitants, is easily seen here. Singapore may be a micro-country, but given its sizable population, it is not a microstate. Cartograms can thus effectively portray important variations that escape conventional cartography, such as the importance of Singapore. To see what else can be done with cartograms, visit the impressive collection on the Worldmapper website.

Worldmapper does not include truly tiny sovereign states, but it does map the world’s merely small countries, including Luxembourg. It is instructive to see how Luxembourg appears on its maps, given its economic strength. On the GDP cartogram posted above (made by a Worldmapper collaborator), Luxembourg is small but easily found. But on Worldmapper’s depiction of “finance and insurance service exports” – surely the most bizarre image of the world I have ever seen – it looms large as a veritable macro-state.

Useful as it is, the Worldmapper project is not without problems. Much of the data employed is seriously out of date; its internet penetration map, based on 2002 information, is of historical interest only. More inherent difficulties stem – yet again – from the use of a state-based framework. Cartograms are invariably political maps of a sort, as numbers must be gathered for clearly demarcated areas, which are almost always countries or subdivisions thereof. Political maps, however, are not the proper vehicles for all cartographic purposes: the Worldmapper portrayal of “species existing in zoos only” is particularly unenlightening. Worldmapper also scales dependencies in accordance with the countries that hold their sovereignty. As a result, the Falklands Islands (Malvinas) figure as part of the United Kingdom, and are thus enlarged on all of the maps posted above, grotesquely so in the financial export map (note that even uninhabited South Georgia is depicted as a huge island here). Yet oddly enough, Worldmapper colors both the Falklands Islands and South Georgia as if they were Latin American countries.

Worldmapper’s motto, “the world as you have never seen it before,” is apt. But I find that different people react quite differently to its maps. Some find them fascinating, others arresting, and others disturbing. For teaching purposes, I find cartograms most effective, but only if used sparingly.

Microstates in Cartograms Read More »

Should Microstates Have Standing?

Even Europe’s larger microstates barely register on the map of the region, much less that of the world. In the basic political map of Europe posted above, Luxembourg and Malta are clearly visible, and even Andorra is fairly easily made out, but magnification is required to discern Lichtenstein and San Marino, while Monaco appears in name only. Increasingly, however, thematic maps are portraying these exiguous sovereign states as sizable circles, their regular geometric shapes indicating that they are not mapped to scale (as in the second map posted above). Although unspecified, the rationale seem to be that such entities deserve depiction on any state-based map, as they are indeed internationally recognized sovereign states. Leaving them off or mapping them (invisibly) to scale would unfairly deny them their rightful places within the so-called community of nations. In the standard model of geopolitics, all sovereign states are juridically equivalent individuals, and it would hardly be right to deny certain individuals recognition simply because they are smaller than others.

But recognizing microstates in such a manner entails severe geographical distortions. In the second map above, Andorra, Monaco, San Marino, Lichtenstein, Malta, and the Vatican City are vastly enlarged, appearing substantially larger than Luxembourg. All other countries in Europe are basically mapped to scale here, but the micro-countries are treated as deserving special notice. In a number of sources, microstates are literally mapped at vastly finer levels of resolution than others, merely by virtue of their anomalous sovereignty. In the maps used in the CIA World Factbook, one kilometer of Monaco is equal to roughly 1,400 miles of Russia.

In the standard world model, all sovereign states are portrayed as equivalent units, entities of the same scope and capacities that interact as fellow members in the “international community.” From data tables to encyclopedia and almanac entries, sovereign states tend to be depicted in the same manner, regardless of their area or population. The CIA World Factbook runs through the same information at the same level of detail for Monaco as it does for China. To be sure, the Factbook’s discussions are not exactly of equal length; 175 words are devoted to Monaco’s economy, whereas China gets 614. But China’s economy is a bit more than three and a half times the size of Monaco’s. Such portrayals are inherently misleading, outrageously minimizing large and populous countries while grotesquely maximizing small one. As a result, we lose sight of country size. When a country as large as Tunisia is routinely called “tiny,” how then are we to refer to Lichtenstein, a state one thousand times smaller? Super-teeny-tiny?

Treating microstates as equivalent to ordinary countries wastes effort and leads to misleading comparisons. Consider, for example, the Wikipedia table of average life expectancy across Europe, posted above. The numbers given seem to indicate that there is something quite special about Andorra, which posts longevity figures well beyond those of other states. In actuality, the average age of death in Andorra is much the same as it is in neighboring areas of northern Spain and Southern France, as Andorra is merely one of many similar regions in this vicinity, albeit one that happens to have sovereignty. By juxtaposing Andorra with France and Spain rather than with neighboring districts of the same scale in northern Spain and Southern France, a distorted picture results. And nothing is gained by including Monaco and the Vatican on the same list, with their “n/d [no data]” entries, other than the knowledge that the author is aware that these are internationally recognized sovereign states.

Ironically, in our drive to portray all countries in an egalitarian way, as if they were all individuals worthy of equal consideration, we end up depicting the world’s human individuals in a preposterously unequal manner. Consider the distortions that result when Nauru and India are regarded as equivalent units of the human community, worthy of the same level of attention when it comes to tabulating basic information about the world. The population of India (1.2 billion) is more than five orders of magnitude greater than that of Nauru (10 thousand), and its land area is larger still. By insisting on their equivalence, the standard world model seems to advance the claim that Nauru is 100,000 times more recognition-worthy than India, or perhaps even that each Nauruan counts as much as 100,000 Indians. Yet such an unhinged view of the world, one might argue, is essentially encoded in the very principles of the global political order. As represented in the United Nations General Assembly, each citizen of Nauru essentially has the voice of 100,000 citizens of India.

Even if we were to ignore micro-states,* the fallacy of states as equivalent units would persist. Even a country as vast as Belgium (compared to Lichtenstein or Monaco, that is) is dwarfed by China. But despite its many infelicities, the framework of sovereign states is indispensible for world mapping, as that is how most data are gathered and organized. And if microstates can be ignored most of the time without doing injustice to their inhabitants, they cannot be bypassed all of the time, as they are highly significant places in certain regards. Any serious consideration of global finance would have to consider Lichtenstein, just as one focused on gambling would have to count Monaco. And all of the microstates do indeed play their roles, if farcical at times, in the circuits of global diplomacy.

* I must admit that my own co-authored world geography textbooks include the microstates in their data tables; it is not easy to buck convention in such circumstances.

Should Microstates Have Standing? Read More »

The Anomalous Success of Luxembourg

If the formation of Belgium stemmed from the dynastic maneuvering of pre-Modern Europe, so too did that of its much smaller neighbor, Luxembourg. The Belgians almost always refer to the country of Luxembourg as “the Grand Duchy” to differentiate it from Belgium’s own province of Luxembourg, which covers a larger area. The current Grand Duchy is a remnant of a once sizable and important feudal realm. Its central fortress, deemed the “Gibraltar of the North,” may have been Europe’s strongest. In time most of Luxembourg’s lands were stripped away by France, Germany, and Belgium, but its core became a sovereign state, largely because none its neighbors wanted its territory to fall into rival hands.

Independent Luxembourg is the world’s only Grand Duchy, a political designation that was once fairly common in Europe. In the pre-modern geopolitical system, some Grand Duchies were basically independent (Grand Duchy of Tuscany), whereas others were subordinate parts of larger states (Grand Duchy of Finland, under Russian domination). In terms of diplomatic precedence, however, all Grand Dukes and Duchesses occupied the same rung: below that of kings and emperors, but above that of other titled figures. Luxembourg today is a constitutional monarchy, its Grand Duke playing a strictly ceremonial role. Until 2008, however, the Luxembourgian monarch could veto proposed legislation. In that year, the reigning Grand Duke refused to ratify a provision allowing euthanasia. As a result, the country’s parliament by-passed the monarchy, deciding that new laws no longer required ducal approval. As a ceremonial institution, however, the monarchy seems to be going strong. Just last week, the 90th birthday of the former grand duke entailed a guest list of 1,400.

As a feudal remnant, the Grand Duchy is not large; its territory could fit into that of France 261 times. At 999 square miles (2,586 square kilometers) it is a bit smaller than Rhode Island and barely visible on a world map. Yet in comparison to Europe’s other micro-states, Luxembourg is a veritable giant; five and a half Andorras, 16 Lichtensteins, 42 San Marinos, 1,208 Monacos, or 5,876 Vatican Cities could fit into its territory. Demographically as well, it is not to be dismissed; its half-million people outnumber those of seven fully sovereign states by more than an order of magnitude.

Unlike Belgium, Luxembourg has been able to generate a fairly solid sense of national identity. This process was helped by the partitions of the formerly multi-lingual Grand Duchy, whose French-speaking areas were annexed by France and Belgium. The German-speaking rump-state sought to culturally differentiate itself from Germany by elevating its own local dialect to a national language after World War II. From a linguistic standpoint, Luxembourgish (Letzeburgesch, locally) is a French-influenced variant of a group of local Germanic dialects known as Moselle Franconian. The boundaries between Germanic dialects do not correspond with national boundaries anywhere in the greater Netherlands, as the 1890 German dialect map posted above shows. Local dialects, however, are in decline, gradually being replaced by national languages. Outside of Luxembourg, Moselle Franconian is yielding to standard German to the east and north and French to the south and west. Inside the country, it is thriving. Due both to its national status and to the fact that speakers of standard German cannot generally understand it, Luxembourgish is now classified as a language rather than a mere dialect. As Ethnologue describes it:

National language. Vigorous. The language of creativity for most. Modest amounts of literature…. All domains. All ages. Pride in ethnic identity and language…. German considered a foreign language, not used with others who speak Luxembourgeois.

Regardless of linguistic pride, Luxembourgish does not take one far. Luxembourg has responded to this potential dilemma with an official policy of trilingualism. German and French also have official status in the Grand Duchy, and fluency is guaranteed by the educational system. Schooling begins with classes entirely in Luxembourgish, transitions gradually to German by grade six, and then transitions again, this time to French, in secondary school. English instruction is also compulsory, making Luxembourg effectively a quatrilingual society.

Luxembourg is widely noted for its wealth. In terms of per capita GDP (PPP), the CIA ranks it third (after Lichtenstein and Qatar), and the IMF puts it second (after Qatar), but the World Bank deems its people the wealthiest in the world. Like southern Belgium, Luxembourg once relied on heavy industry, especially steel-making. Unlike southern Belgium, it successfully transitioned to a post-industrial economy founded on finance. Luxembourg today is classified as the world’s second largest “investment fund center,” trailing only the United States. Luxembourgian finance is secretive and often shady, leading to extensive criticisms. According to the Wikipedia, “Concern about Luxembourg’s banking secrecy laws, and its reputation as a tax haven, led in April 2009 to it being added to a “grey list” of nations with questionable banking arrangements by the G20.”

Luxembourg is hardly alone in allowing “questionable banking arrangements.” Many of the world’s more dubious financial practices occur in dependent territories and micro-states, where local governments take advantage of legal autonomy to attract hot money, tax dodgers, and regulation-shunning corporations. In Europe, miniscule Lichtenstein out-does Luxembourg in several respects, giving it a per capita GDP of $122,000 according to the CIA, dwarfing that of the United States (at $46,400). A recent opinion piece from India’s Express Buzz notes that “Lichtenstein … has more registered companies than citizens,” and estimates that the world’s various tax havens together “hold 26 per cent of [global] wealth (estimated deposits US$8 trillion).”

Europe’s feudal remnants, incongruous bits of territory that escaped state-building aggregation, are often viewed as quaint anachronisms. But Luxembourg and Lichtenstein can also be viewed as highly important and utterly modern geo-political formations: small places that have leveraged their anomalous sovereignty into lucrative positions in the global financial system. Whether the roles that they have carved out for themselves serve the interests of the world at large is another question.

The Anomalous Success of Luxembourg Read More »

Why Is Belgium A Country?

The crisis of the Belgian state, discussed in Geocurrents on January 9, is rooted in the county’s unusual political history. Most western and northern European countries grew out of kingdoms or federations whose people gradually coalesced (more or less) as nations, gaining unity through common identity. Belgium, by contrast, emerged from a different regime of sovereignty, one in which territories passed among rival multinational dynasties, through war or marriage, with no regard to local desires or ethnic boundaries. The Belgian identity that began to develop after independence in 1830 was always precarious, and is now being shattered through regional resurgence made possible by European integration.
In Medieval Europe the area now known as Belgium—especially Flanders­— was the most urbanized and economically advanced area north of the Alps. As such, its was coveted by ambitious state-building lords in the late Middle Ages. In the 1300s and early 1400s, almost the entire Low Countries (modern Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and extreme northeastern France) fell to the Duchy of Burgundy, whose core lands straddled the boundary between the Kingdom of France and the so-called Holy Roman Empire. As the Burgundian dukes tried to link their various territories into a coherent and contiguous state, they faced the opposition of France, feudal suzerain over a large portion of their realm. (Sovereignty in pre-modern Europe was often vague, nested, and complexly divided.) Using Swiss mercenaries, France finally crushed Burgundy in 1477, killing its duke in the process. The duke’s daughter and heir, Mary, salvaged as much of her realm as possible by marrying the Hapsburg archduke Maximilian, heir-apparent of both the mostly fictitious Holy Roman Empire and the strengthening Austrian Empire. In the end, the Burgundian lands were divided between France and the Hapsburgs, with the Low Countries mostly going to Austria.
The vagaries of dynastic succession ensured that the settlement would not remain permanent. Philip, son of Mary and Maximilian, wed Joanna, sole surviving offspring of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Philip died young, Joanna went spectacularly insane, and their combined realm passed to their nineteen-year-old son Charles, born and raised in the Flemish city of Ghent. Charles, deemed Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and Carlos I of Spain, hoped to leverage his vast inheritance into a truly pan-European empire. He failed, due mainly to the Protestant Reformation, the opposition of France, and the Ottoman challenge. In 1556, Charles abdicated and partitioned the Hapsburg lands between the Spanish and Austrian branches of the family. The Low Countries, still the economic fulcrum of northern Europe, passed to Spain, or, more properly, to the Spanish Empire (it was a multi-national affair in which Castilians—not “Spaniards”—tended to dominate). As Protestantism spread though the northern Netherlands, Spain kicked back harshly, sparking widespread insurgency. By 1600 the north had gained independence as the federally organized Dutch Republic (or United Provinces), but the south remained largely Roman Catholic and under Spanish dominion. As well-off Protestants fled Flanders for the relatively free Dutch Republic, the economic center of gravity shifted north, especially to the Dutch heartland of Holland.

The gradually shifting territory of the Spanish Netherlands was never fully coincident with the modern country of Belgium. The erratically shaped ecclesiastical lands known as the Prince-Bishopric of Liège remained separate until dissolved by revolutionary France in 1795. The latter half of the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and the Dutch Republic (ending in 1648) saw the latter expand at the expense of the former, taking over Catholic North Brabant. France gained territory as well, annexing Artois in 1658. The Spanish Netherlands also included the modern country of Luxembourg.

Spanish power declined precipitously during the second half of the 1600s, leading to the global conflict known as the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). In the concluding Treaty of Utrecht, Spain’s Low Country holdings passed back to the Hapsburgs in Vienna. Austria retained control of the area until all the historical Netherlands fell into French hands in 1795 during the wars that followed the Revolution. After Napoleon’s downfall in 1815, the victorious powers—Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia, essentially—redrew the map of Europe, reducing but not eliminating its “medieval” complexity. Austria no longer wanted the southern Netherlands; discontiguous areas inhabited by disaffected peoples were no longer seen as advantageous. After much debate, the dominant powers passed the territory to the Dutch, whose state had just been transformed into a monarchy. The resulting United Kingdom of the Netherlands, however, did not take. A solid sense of national identity had developed among the northerners, and the more-numerous residents of the newly annexed south felt excluded and exploited. Their Catholic faith alienated them from Holland, the Dutch core, as did the fact that many of them, and most of their elite, spoke French and identified with French culture. A rebellion fifteen years later brought independence to “Belgium,” its name coming from a Latin term for the region, itself derived from an ancient Celtic tribal group. The Dutch government made stab at reconquering its rebellious new lands, but quickly withdrew when France offered to support Belgium. It did, however, manage to retain the coal-rich eastern half of Limburg, giving the Netherlands its southern extension to Maastricht.

Belgium had an economically difficult birth. Particular hardships were felt in the cotton-weaving city of Ghent and the port of Antwerp, both in the Flemish-speaking north. But by mid-century, railroad development and the exploitation of large coal deposits underwrote continental Europe’s first industrial transformation, generating tremendous wealth. The location of the industrial zone in the French-speaking (Walloon) area enhanced the domination of the Francophone elite, further marginalizing the Flemings. In the late 1800s, the Belgian monarchy attempted to enrich itself and establish national grandeur by carving out a vast central African empire; while fortunes were indeed made, the endeavor began as a hand-chopping horror under the personal rule of Leopold II and moderated into a merely brutal episode of imperialism under direct Belgian rule after 1908. As the atrocities in the Congo came to public attention, the reputation of the monarchy was not enhanced.

Twentieth-century developments did little to inculcate Belgian unity. During the Second World War, more than a few Flemings collaborated with the Germans, souring the national mood. In the post-war era, the industrial zone in the south slipped into rust-belt decrepitude, while the formerly somnolent north surged ahead. By the late 20th century, it was often said that the only things holding Belgium together were football (soccer), the monarchy, and beer—Belgium being the world’s unchallenged brewing center. But as a Der Spiegelinterviewer recently noted, “the Flemish and the Walloons each have their own beer, while the country’s football is second-class and not worthy of collective identification. That leaves the king.” Flemish separatist Bart De Wever responded by asserting that, “the king doesn’t think the way we do. It’s an advantage for the Walloons, because they are allied with him. We favor a republic.”


Why Is Belgium A Country? Read More »

Is Belgium a Failed State? Does It Matter?

News stories have been coming out for months on the continuing failure of Belgium to form a government after the June 2010 election. On January 6, 2011, the BBC announced that two Flemish parties were yet again demanding “adjustments” to a compromise plan crafted by the mediator of the Belgian king. On the face of it, the controversies—focusing on tax policies, regional subsidies, and proposed readjustments of administrative and electoral divisions in the suburban fringe of Brussels—don’t seem insurmountable. But Belgium’s underlying troubles go much deeper.

The main problem stems from the country’s stark cultural and economic divide between the generally well-off Flemish- (Dutch) speaking north and the somewhat poorer Walloon- (French) speaking south. Almost all institutions are divided along these lines. Most significantly, no political party is pan-Belgian; even the Greens split between the Flemish Groen! and its Walloon counterpart, Ecolo. Local governments on either side harshly restrict the public use of the other region’s language. Flemish voters, moreover, continue to push for higher level of autonomy, many calling for outright independence. Exasperation over subsidies flowing to the socialist-ruled south helped the separatist New Flemish Alliance to gain first place in the June elections (although with twelve parties gaining seats in the Chamber of Representatives, it received a modest 17 percent of the total vote). As the New Flemish Alliance seeks the end of Belgium, it is hardly surprising that its parliamentarians would stymie the formation of a new government.

The prolonged inability to constitute a government is nothing new to Belgian politics. After the June 2007 election, 196 days passed before an interim government emerged. Belgium itself is thus coming to be seen as a political failure. Bart De Wever, leader of the New Flemish Alliance, recently proclaimed in a contentious Der Spiegel interview that his country “has no future” and will “eventually evaporate of its own accord.” He also flatly opined that “Belgium is a failed nation.” That last assessment is difficult to dispute, inasmuch as a “nation” is formally defined as a group of people united in their belief that they form a political community. Such national identity is sorely lacking among a large percentage of the Belgian population. Whether Belgium is a failed state is a different question. “Comatose” may be a better description.

State failure is generally seen as political catastrophe of the first order, bringing economic collapse, political chaos, and overwhelming insecurity. Yet the foundering of the Belgian state is associated with none of these things. To be sure, the financial consequences could be unwelcome, as credit-rating agencies are threatening to downgrade Belgium’s ranking, undermining governmental bonds. But overall, the abeyance of the national government has been rather inconsequential. The Flemish region and Wallonia, along with multi-lingual Brussels, have gained increasing autonomy over the past several decades. Before the latest crisis hit, the central state was already sharply limited, its powers and prerogatives having been pushed both down to the country’s three regions and up to the European Union.

De Wever’s image of an “evaporating” Belgium seems apt. A violent dissolution of the state is certainly not in the offing. The New Flemish Alliance is a staid, center-right party, not interested in intensive struggle. As most Walloons and more than a few Flemings retain vestigial allegiance to the country, complete dissolution seems unlikely. Any attempt to formally dismantle the state, moreover, would stumble on Brussels, the bi-cultural city-region that both groups claim for their own. Belgium will thus likely remain an officially sovereign country, but could still steadily diminish in its scope, perhaps eventually becoming a mere shadow of a state.

The gradual diminution of the Belgian state points to a major flaw in the standard geopolitical model. In most analyses of world politics, the sovereign state is held to be the essential, all-important unit. In both international law and popular perception, the independent country is regarded as an individual, distinct from all others, possessing an integrated geographical body, and acting with purpose and volition. Together, the 200-odd sovereign states form the international community, in which they interact as fully autonomous, juridically equal individuals. Compared with the level of the sovereign state, all other rungs of the spatial hierarchy are relatively insignificant. Independent countries are what ultimately matter, more than provinces, regions, or even autonomous areas, and certainly more than multi-state blocs such as NAFTA, ASEAN, or the Arab League.

Yet in the case of Belgium, the sovereign, internationally recognized state is simply not the most important government in the land. Wallonia and the Flemish Region are much more significant—as is the European Union. In this instance, as in many others across the globe, the standard model misses a much more complex reality. Regardless of how we conceptualize them, mutually recognizing official states are not necessarily what count. Some states, like Belgium, are fading; others, such as Somalia, are little more than fictions. Power is exercised at all levels of the spatial hierarchy, from the village to the United Nations. In some cases the “state” level is of less significance than others. In the state-based model, the pretense of power is often confused for its actual existence.

The failure of the Belgian state goes curiously unnoticed in the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy’s influential “failed state index.” Strikingly, Belgium is classified here as one of the world’s most stable states, with a lower possibility of collapse than France, Germany, or the United States. This seeming paradox is explained by the fact that the index does not actually measure “state failure” at all, but rather the likelihood of systematic societal breakdown. Such collapse is not an issue in Belgium; as Der Spiegel put it in 2008, “Belgium is the world’s most successful failed state.”

Is Belgium a Failed State? Does It Matter? Read More »

The Oddities and Anomalies of Svalbard

The arctic archipelago of Svalbard is prominent on Mercator-projection world maps and figures as well in most pull-down geographical menus. Svalbard is also plenty interesting in its own right. News stories about the archipelago often focus on either its high-tech seed bank or its polar bears. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was recently described by grist as something like “an external hard drive, [that] stores ‘backup’ copies of seeds for one-third of all crop varieties.” By some accounts, Svalbard supports more polar bears (3,000) than humans (2,700). Both Svalbard and its ursine inhabitants are perhaps best known from their portrayal in Phillip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials.

Svalbard, about the size of Sri Lanka or Tasmania, is also notable for its geopolitical anomalies. The coal-rich archipelago came to Norway through the Svalbard Treaty of 1920. The treaty, signed* by the United States, Denmark, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden, ostensibly granted Norway “full and absolute sovereignty” over the entire landmass. Svalbard, the Wikipedia stresses, is not a dependency of Norway, but is fully part of the kingdom. In actuality, the situation is more complicated. Norway’s sovereignty over Svalbard is limited and the islands remain legally distinct from the mainland. Norwegian tax laws, for example, do not apply to Svalbard, and immigration rules compromise Norwegian dominion. The 1920 treaty stipulates that residents of all countries are entitled to residency in Svalbard and are granted the right to establish commercial enterprises. In terms of residency potential, the archipelago is something of a global commons.

Several foreign communities have taken advantage of Svalbard’s open borders. The islands have long supported a significant Russian population. A Russian state-owned coal company maintains Svalbard’s second largest settlement, Barentsburg, population 500 or so. Coal mining is no longer very profitable, however, and thus requires heavy subsidies from Moscow. Oddly, Thais form the second largest foreign group. In the 1970s, evidently, a number of local miners took a tropical vacation, several returning with Thai wives. Other citizens of Thailand followed, attracted by Svalbard’s relatively high wages. According to a recent story, the local supermarket “now has an ‘Asian corner’ with rice, chilies, soy and fish sauce and other Thai condiments.”

Despite its open-door policy, Svalbard does not present an easy migration option. Bitter winter cold and months of darkness, as well as an average July high temperature of 45 degrees F (7 degrees C), deter would-be immigrants. So too does official policy; welfare is not provided, and anyone without a job and a place to stay can be summarily deported. Svalbard also lacks local democracy. The governor of the archipelago, who also acts as police chief, is appointed by Oslo. Building regulations are extremely strict, and most land is devoted to nature reserves. Other oddities abound, as summarized on a libertarian website whose enthusiasts were eyeing Svalbard as a potential “European Freestate.” According to commentator Joffeloff, “outside the settlements it’s illegal to not carry a gun; inside the settlements you had better get it away quickly because then you are suddenly an unaccountable madman, guilty until proven innocent just like on the mainland.” (Guns are to be carried outside of the settlements for protection against bears.)

Svalbard is also the site of a significant international arctic research station, located at Ny-Ålesund. According to the Wikipedia, Ny-Ålesund is the “world’s northernmost functional public settlement.” In 2008, India became the eleventh country to establish a research facility at the settlement.

*A number of other countries later signed the treaty, which Wikipedia has actually mapped. Despite my enthusiasm for mapping, I have to say that this takes it a bit far. Is there really any significance to the fact that Afghanistan has signed the Svalbard Treaty, but Iran has not? People from non-signatory countries have the same right to move to Svalbard as citizens of signatory countries.

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Spain, Bolivia, Iraq, and the Fallacy of the Nation-State

This final posting on regionalism in Spain steps back to reexamine the concept of the nation-state. Spain constitutionally defines itself as a nation-state, insisting that all its citizens belong to the Spanish nation. But as we have seen, many are adamant that Spain is a country of multiple nations. Some sub-Spanish nationalists retain the nation-state ideal, arguing that the independence of Catalonia and the Basque Country is necessary for the creation of genuinely national states. Less extreme partisans reject nation-state status, arguing that Spain should declare itself a plurinational state: one country, in other words, divided into several nations.

The debate sometimes seems unduly semantic. Proponents of plurinationalism point to Switzerland, a country where several nations—speaking four languages—easily coexist in a confederation based on local autonomy. Opponents retort that Switzerland is very much a nation-state, as the vast majority of its citizens are happy to identify themselves as Swiss at the national level. In truly plurinational countries, by this way of thinking, most people place local affinity above loyalty to the state, thereby undermining it. Belgium, perennially near the edge of collapse, is their favored example.

Semantics actually matter here. People care a great deal about how they are classified, whether by themselves, their government, or foreign observers. Visitors are advised to choose their labels carefully; those in Barcelona who refer to their hosts as Spaniards are likely to get a chilly reception. More importantly, classification sometimes takes on real political significance. Bolivia, for example, has officially opted out of nation-statehood, declaring itself the Plurinational State of Bolivia (Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia). This change was accepted by the international community, with the gate-keeping 165-country International Organization for Standardization noting the new name on May 8, 2009 and correspondingly assigning Bolivia a new country identification code (ISO 3166-1 code). According to Bolivia’s revised constitution, Bolivians of indigenous background belong to different nations from those of European or mestizo descent. As one Bolivian website frames the issue, “The nation-state political project failed in Bolivia because there was no Bolivian nation that could sustain it and the first nations were excluded, without a state.”

Unfortunately for Bolivia, such distinctions are lost on most foreign observers. The idea of the nation-state has become so powerful that it has blurred the distinctions between its component elements, impeding understanding and communication. Certainly most people in the United States consider all countries to be nation-states. In common parlance, “nation-state” is actually a redundancy, as “nation” has devolved into a mere synonym for country or sovereign state. This slippage is neither new nor specifically American; it is encoded in the very name of the world’s premiere global organization, the United Nations, as well as that of its predecessor, the League of Nations. But with Bolivia going out of its way to declare its non-nation-statehood, more precise terminology becomes necessary. Referring to contemporary Bolivia as a nation or a nation-state is simply wrong; that is exactly what the Bolivian government has proclaimed itself not to be.

In the idealized world of nation-states, each nation – defined as a group of people with a common political identity – controls its own self-governing state, and every sovereign state extends uniformly across an unambiguous territory. The nation-state concept is thus three-fold, merging identity (the nation), politics (the sovereign state), and geography (the country). But in practice it is seldom realized. As we have seen in dozens of cases, countries, states, and nations often fail to coincide, defying all the norms of geopolitics. (If memory serves, the geographer Marvin Mikesell once quipped that the world’s only perfect nation-state is Iceland.)

According to the once-conventional potted history, the nation-state can be traced back to the early modern era, when the kingdoms of England, France, Spain, and Portugal, along with the Republic of the Netherlands, gradually crystallized as territorially distinct national states. In the wake of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s failed effort to unify Europe, the ideals of nationalism coalesced and spread eastward among peoples who were divided or subdued politically yet united by language or race (as it was framed at the time). Subsequent national awakenings led to the unification of Germany and Italy in the 1870s and contributed to the break-up of the multi-national Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires in the early 1900s. With the end of European colonization in the mid-twentieth century, the idea of the nation-state spread around the world, with former colonies supposedly reconstituting themselves as nationally based sovereign states.

But even in its supposed European heartland, the nation-state model is more troubled than we might expect. State-level nationalism has been compromised by the rise of both supranational affiliation (at the level of the EU) and sub-state loyalties—and not just in Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Scotland. Large parts of Southeastern Europe, too, suffered paroxysms of violence through the 1990s as unsatisfied nationalists fought to remake political geography. Especially where national identity is assumed to be based on ancient bonds of kinship, language, or culture, locally distinctive groups are often eager to proclaim their own nationhood.

Few of the new countries to emerge out of the European colonial realm after WWII had strong national foundations, and many had none at all. These states were therefore left to construct their nations, largely by teaching their people that they belonged to a single nationality and had an equal stake in national citizenship. On the surface, such efforts were usually rather successful. Those who received national educations usually thought in national terms. People schooled in Chad, for example, generally report on surveys that they think of themselves as Chadian. As a result, outside observes declare Chad a nation-state. In actuality, merely reporting such inculcated sentiments does not mean that they have real significance, much less that they outweigh claims of ethnic, clan, or village loyalty. In many instances, nationalism generated from above remains largely negative, based more on antipathy to people of other countries than on common bonds within the so-called nation. Pakistan, as we have seen, is an excellent example of such a country; Ivory Coast is another.

In the post-colonial world of the 1950s and ‘60s, it was simply expected that all new countries would build national identities and thus become nation-states. The dangers of that assumption are now clear. In early 2003, Iraq was widely viewed in the US foreign policy establishment as a well-developed nation-state: one in which Iraqis would readily band together to run a modern democracy if only their repressive rulers could be removed by force. Recent events have exposed that view as rank fantasy. Regarding nation-states as realities, rather than ideals, generated a make-believe model of the world.

The concept of nation-building has gone through transformations of its own. Originally referring to efforts to generate a sense of national belonging, nation-building came to denote the construction of effective governmental institutions: state-building, in essence. In the wreckage of Iraq and Afghanistan, the term is apparently being downgraded again, this time to focus more narrowly on physical infrastructure. In an August 31 op-ed piece in the New York Times, the usually incisive David Brooks declared nation-building in Iraq a relative success, noting that the country now has many more internet connections and telephones than it did under Saddam Hussein.

The nation-state ideal is attractive in part because it is so simple. Things would surely be easier if the world were actually divided into unambiguous units that were at once nations, sovereign states, and countries. Geocurrents is dedicated to the proposition that the world is a good deal more complex – and vastly more interesting.

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The Parallel Paths of the Basque Country and Scotland

The Basques are not a particularly numerous people, totaling only around two and half million in Spain and another 250,000 in France. But millions more in other countries trace their ancestry to the Basque homeland once known as Vasconia. Basques were disproportionally represented in the Spanish colonial enterprise, with large numbers crossing the Atlantic to settle in the Americas. Chile in particular saw massive immigration, with Basques accounting for almost one-third of the Chilean population by the late 1700s. As the Basque intellectual Miguel de Unamuno quipped, “There are at least two things that clearly can be attributed to the Basques: the Society of Jesus and the Republic of Chile.” (Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and Francis Xavier, the society’s best-known missionary, were Basques.) Basques also settled heavily in northern Mexico; at the end of the Spanish colonial period, not coincidentally, much of the region was called “Nueva [New] Vizcaya.”

Basques were even influential in the Philippines, a Spanish colony that received very few Spanish immigrants. Both Miguel López de Legazpi, the conquistador of the archipelago, and Andrés de Urdaneta, the navigator who charted the course between New Spain (Mexico) and the Philippines, were Basques. The oldest and largest business conglomerate in the country, the Ayala Group, was founded by Basque immigrants. Marciano de Borja argues in Basques in the Philippines (University of Nevada Press, 2005) that the economic development of the country depended crucially on Basque talent, capital, and entrepreneurship.

Basque participation in maritime endeavors predates the incorporation of the Basque country into Spain. The Kingdom of Navarre is described in the Wikipedia as having been a thalassocracy, or sea-based state. Adventurers from Navarre gained holdings in the eastern Mediterranean in the late 1300s, and Basque fishermen were exploiting the immense cod fisheries of the Grand Banks off the coast of eastern Canada in the 1400s. By the beginning of the 1500s, the Kingdom of Navarre ran outposts on Newfoundland Island. Basque whalers may have “discovered America” well before Columbus.

Vasconia’s historical position is anomalous: a small country annexed by a much larger neighbor that then became central to the larger state’s global colonial enterprise. One other country shares this distinction: Scotland. Scotland lost its independence in 1707, when it joined England to form the United Kingdom. The merger was not entirely of Scotland’s choosing, as Scottish finances were in ruins after the ill-fated Darien expedition tried to wrest the Isthmus of Panama from Spain and thus found a Scottish empire. Scots were subsequently over-represented in most British colonies, just as Basques were in Spain’s colonies. And central Scotland, like central Vasconia, emerged as a hub of shipbuilding and other industrial activities.

Scotland’s shotgun wedding with England led its intellectuals to reconsider the position of their country. According to Arthur Herman in How the Scots Invented the Modern World, the shock of losing independence contributed to the remarkable outpouring of intellectual activity known as the Scottish Enlightenment. The ideas of such Scottish thinkers as David Hume and Adam Smith, Herman argues, were crucial to the development of modernity. Perhaps something similar occurred with the incorporation of the Basque Country into Spain. Although Unamuno no doubt exaggerated the role of the Basques in the creation of the Jesuit order, he was on to something. For the Jesuits too contributed crucially to the making of the modern world, bridging the intellectual spheres of Europe and East Asia and introducing Confucian ideas of meritocracy to the West.

Scotland and the Basque Country today occupy similar geopolitical positions. Both are non-sovereign, autonomous territorial units with strong but not overwhelming demands for independence. Both gained their own parliaments in the late twentieth century: the Basque Country in 1978, Scotland in 1998.

Electorally, the Basque Country is a bit more nationalistic than Scotland. In the Scottish parliamentary election of 2007, the Scottish National Party received 32.9 percent of the vote, while the three main British Parties received a combined total of 64 percent. In the Basque Autonomous Community parliamentary election of 2009, the two main Spanish parties received 45 percent of the vote, with most of the rest going to Basque parties. The Basque National Party received 38.5 percent of the vote, 6 percent went to Aralar (a non-violent leftist nationalist group), and 3 percent went to Eusko Alkartasuna (a social-democratic party), putting the nationalist total at almost half. Yet Vasconia is also home to a small but growing pan-Spanish movement led by intellectuals who have become disgusted with the excesses of local nationalists. Formed in 2007, the staunchly anti-regionalist party known as Union, Progress, and Democracy received two percent of the vote in the most recent election in the Basque Country itself, and in Spain’s European parliamentary election of 2009 it received almost half a million votes. The leaders of this party are mostly Basques. Its founder, the Basque philosopher Fernando Savater, is an ardent anglophile and defender of the Enlightenment tradition.

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