National Destinies

Above: I wonder which nations are destined for greatness in this century?

On the Fates of Nations

Each and every nation is constrained by geography, and certain other factors, to a particular destiny. England, which eventually united with the rest of Great Britain to become a true island nation, has always found its prosperity in being the master of the high seas, using them profitably for trade, empire-building, and defence. Germany's fate, it seems to me, is to be the master of continental Europe. Throughout its history Germany has strived for this goal through multiple “Reichs”: the First Reich (the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation), the Second Reich (the 1871-1918 German Empire), the Third Reich (of course, the Nazi regime), and arguably the Fourth Reich (the European Union, widely known as being dominated by the German powerhouse). In trying to reach this goal it has come into conflict with competitors – its sibling, France (a fellow child of Charlemagne), which has brought the German giant down in the past (notably, when Napoleon destroyed the thousand-year-old First Reich) (this relationship is called the Franco-German enmity), and also Russia, master of Eurasia (the conflict between Germany and Russia is a current issue, noticeable in the expansion of NATO and the EU into Eastern Europe). From time to time England has come into conflict with Germany in its expeditionary missions to preserve the balance of power on the pesky Continent (and on other occasions the two Germanic nations have been allies, e.g. in the Napoleonic Wars). The World Wars were so great partly because this was when Germany came into conflict with Russia, France, and England all at once.

Regarding the concept of national destinies, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) wrote in his Democracy in America (published 1835-40) the startlingly prescient (although by now partially outdated; an ordinary American no longer combats the “wilderness and savage life”) following paragraphs, which make me wonder if the Russian adoption of Soviet socialism and the Cold War were somewhat inevitable:

There are at the present time two great nations in the world, which started from different points, but seem to tend towards the same end. I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and whilst the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly placed themselves in the front rank among the nations, and the world learned their existence and their greatness at almost the same time.

All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and they have only to maintain their power; but these are still in the act of growth. All the others have stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these alone are proceeding with ease and celerity along a path to which no limit can be perceived. The American struggles against the obstacles which nature opposes to him; the adversaries of the Russian are men. The former combats the wilderness and savage life; the latter, civilization with all its arms. The conquests of the American are therefore gained with the ploughshare; those of the Russian by the sword. The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of the people; the Russian centres all the authority of society in a single arm. The principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter, servitude. Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.

Some nations are destined to domination, others to submission. Many of these “destinies” may not be destinies in the truest sense, as many are avoidable. China, for instance, was an advanced yet slow-moving civilisation for thousands of years. That was its character. However, it has since been awakened from its slumber by the promptings of Europeans; since 1912 China has been energised by revolutionary vigour. Ireland, traditionally England's gimp, has, since breaking its political and economic links to the UK and replacing them with those to the EU, become Europe's gimp instead, truly proving that our destinies are our own to make ♥. Perhaps it's for the best, as Roman Catholic Ireland has always been closer to the Continent than the other nations of the British Isles have.

Another sad example of a fate being changed would be our own. Britannia, once Empress of the Seven Seas, “with Europe, but not of it”¹, has, enfeebled by the loss of her Empire and years of social decay, for the first time since Roman² rule become a province of a continental empire; in this case, Germany's. But now that we are (hopefully) leaving the EU, we may be able to rediscover our destiny and reappreciate all the things that made us unique as a nation – the Westminster adversarial system, our constitutional monarchy, common law, habeas corpus, and so on. Or not. When, or if, our country is revived, it may be quite different to the last independent Britain, and forge quite a different destiny, as China did after 1912.

¹Winston Churchill, in America's Saturday Evening Post in 1930. A fuller quote: “We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not combined. We are interested and associated but not absorbed”.

²I don't believe the Angevin Empire counts. The “Empire” (the term “Angevin Empire” is actually a neologism) was an assemblage of independent sovereign states loosely bound to one another by a shared monarch.

Footnote (November 2017): I'd like to dwell more on what I said about Germany in this article. In ways more than one, Berlin is the new Rome (by right of conquest, as it was the Germanic tribes which slew the Roman Empire). In its imperialistic domination of Europe* (see above), its authoritarian, undemocratic nature (and such government), its spreading of civil (Roman) law, its history of emperors and Roman (Catholic) religion (in Bavaria, the Saarland, Austria, etc. still), and even its past Eastern/Western divide (as the Roman Empire was split), Germany is akin to ancient Rome. It is fitting that it once referred to itself as the Holy Roman Empire, the first empire in Western Europe since that of Rome itself.

*including of Britannia, it being the only empire since that of Rome to do so.