The Adolescent Empire: America and the Imperial Idea

The Adolescent Empire: America and the Imperial Idea

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by Author(s): James Kurth

But the most central of the ideas of the British conception of empire
was that of the British monarchy. The soul of the British Empire was
loyal service to King (or Queen) and Country. Much of the Empire's
legitimacy derived from the legitimacy of its monarchy, which was
seen as a benevolent one, and from the loyalty of the civil and
military officers who served it. The American war of independence,
which replaced a monarchy with a republic, helped make the remaining
loyal parts of the Empire even more attached to the monarchy; the
more loyalist, the more royalist. The clearest example was
English-speaking Canada, largely founded by refugees or émigrés from
the American revolution, who called themselves the United Empire

The centrality of the monarchy to the Empire was recognized and
reinforced by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli when he had Queen
Victoria become Empress of India and thus the "Queen-Empress." In
later years, there followed a succession of grand and stirring
ceremonies that gathered together the many-splendored princes,
sultans, and even kings from all the far-flung lands that were under
the benevolent rule of the British imperial crown. The climax came
with Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, undoubtedly the grandest
spectacle staged in the nineteenth century anywhere in the world.

For the British Empire, the ideal human type was the soldier, later
joined by the civil administrator, in the service of the Crown. The
virtues upheld in this ideal were loyalty, duty, honesty (from
honor), integrity, common sense, and good judgment. These qualities
could only be learned through experience, and therefore they normally
were found only in mature men. But this British ideal of maturity
could be reached at an earlier age than that of the Habsburgs,
probably in one's forties.

The French Empire and the Rational Nation-State

The French Empire was not as far-flung or as long-lasting as the
Habsburg and the British ones. For more than a century (1830s-1950s),
however, it was the second largest empire in the world. The center of
the French imperial idea was the French nation-state, organized
according to the principles of reason (or Reason). By its nature,
this idea would seem to be less universal than that of the Habsburgs
(less catholic, more national) or even than that of the British (less
global, more national). On the other hand, Reason was usually seen as
being even more universal than Catholicism. The French had to deal
continually with the tension between the national claims of France
and the universal claims of Reason.

The French imperial idea was even more constrained by the fact that
France was so clearly the quintessential nation-state. In addition,
the French Empire, more than the Habsburg and the British, was
characterized by formal rule and by formal distinctions between who
was in and who was out. The French claims to universalism rested upon
the remarkable notion that, because French national culture was the
most classical, logical, and rational of cultures, it had universal
validity and appeal. In theory human nature was perfectible, and in
practice the human nature of an elite few was perfectible through the
reason expressed, and the education organized, by the French state.

For the French Empire, the ideal human type was the man of action (or
of affairs) in the service of Reason. The human ideal was a mature
man who had lived and reasoned long enough to become an effective and
efficient administrator of others for the public good. But while the
British ideal had to be reached through experience, the French ideal
could be achieved through education. Thus, this French ideal of
maturity could be attained at an earlier age than that of the
Habsburgs or even the British, probably as early as one's thirties.

The Nazi Empire and Racial Identity

The rule of Nazi Germany over other peoples was so brief, so extreme,
and so perverse that it hardly deserves to be called an empire--which
connotes at least some degree of order and durability--at all.
However, Germany's central place in Central Europe and certain
elements of continuity between the Second Reich (reich is the German
term for empire) of Kaiser Wilhelm and the Third Reich of the Nazis
make this case an interesting story in its own right. In addition,
within the Nazi empire the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia was
a central domain.

As is well recognized, Germany's national unification in 1871 was
peculiar: it not only came late, but it also remained incomplete. At
that time virtually all of the British people were in Britain or,
when elsewhere (for example, Canada, Australia), under British rule.
Similarly, virtually all of the French people were in France (the
exceptions being Belgium, some Swiss cantons, and Quebec).

The situation of the German people was quite different. The political
circumstances of German unification had meant that Germans in the
Habsburg monarchy, who were the dominant or imperial people in its
Austrian half, could not be included in the new German state. This
would not have been a problem for the Germans in Austria if they
could have continued to rule. By the end of the nineteenth century,
however, this was becoming problematic. The German proportion of the
empire's population was declining, while democratic suffrage was
increasing. The conjunction of the demographic trend with the
democratic one made it clear that the Germans could become merely one
of several minorities in what had been their own empire. This sense
of a steady and relentless decline in their proportion of the
population and in their political and social position gave rise in
the German communities of the Habsburg monarchy to a "politics of
cultural despair." The consequence was an acute sense of cultural
identity, which, given the reigning intellectual ideas of the time,
became an acute sense of racial identity. The consciousness of German
cultural and racial identity was much more intense in
Austria-Hungary--that is, outside of Germany--than it was in Germany
itself. Unfortunately, this was the atmosphere in which Adolf Hitler
came of age.

In later decades, other imperial peoples underwent their own
demographic and democratic transitions anddeclines, issuing in their
own politics of cultural despair. The one million French in Algeria
and the one million British in Northern Ireland are among the best
known examples. But the twelve million Germans in the Habsburg
monarchy presented a problem of vastly greater magnitude. With the
collapse of the monarchy in 1918, the problem became a disaster.

The peace settlement after the First World War created a fatal
dynamic toward a murderous empire. Given Germany's central place in
Europe's geography and its leading place in Europe's economy, it was
inevitable that German power would eventually revive. Given the
parceling-up of the non-European world between the victorious empires
of Britain and France, if a powerful Germany sought to create its own
empire, it would have to do so within Europe itself. Given the new
but weak states between Germany and Russia (which had now become the
Soviet Union), it was inevitable that Germany would create this
empire in the East. Finally, given the fact that two of these new
states (Czechoslovakia and Poland) together ruled five million
Germans, who would always be an exposed and vulnerable minority in
these states, it was inevitable that any German empire would have as
a central project, a fixed idea, the protection, preservation, and
eventual inclusion of these German minorities. The majority of these
Germans, more than three million, were concentrated in Bohemia alone.

The protection and preservation of a once-dominant and
now-subordinate minority is a difficult task, and the methods used
will normally be difficult as well, at minimum institutionalized
discrimination and repression (as the white population in the
American South--actually a demographic majority--believed for a
century after the Civil War). But from 1939 to 1945, the German
empire in East-Central Europe combined the power of the revived
German state with the ideology of racial identity, which had sprung
from the politics of cultural despair of Austria-Hungary. This
ideology of racial identity was the imperial idea of Nazi Germany.
For the Nazi empire, the ideal human type was the SS officer in the
service of the German Volk and the Aryan race. The virtues upheld in
this ideal were courage, strength, endurance, heroism, and loyalty
(the SS motto was "loyalty is my honor"). These are not the
distinguishing qualities found in a mature man. Indeed, they are most
likely to be found in a young man in his physical prime, that is, in
his twenties.

The Soviet Empire and Industrial Growth

The Soviet, or Russian, empire shared some important qualities with
the Nazi, or German, one. They both sought to rule the same
territory, East-Central Europe. They both sought to legitimize their
rule with a secular ideology.

The fundamental dynamics of the German and the Russian empires were
different, however. There were no significant Russian minorities in
East-Central Europe (although there were some further east, in
Estonia, Latvia, and Ukraine). It was not the peoples of East-Central
Europe who represented a threat to the Russians; it was the
geography. Poland in particular had been the springboard for repeated
invasions of Russia from the west (Napoleonic France, Wilhelmine
Germany, Nazi Germany, and even Poland itself in 1920). From the
Russian perspective, the real "Polish corridor" went from west to
east and was Poland itself. Other countries in East-Central Europe
(Hungary and Romania) also had served as a base for invasions. At the
end of the Second World War, Stalin insisted upon converting
East-Central Europe into a vast buffer zone between the Soviet Union
and the West, one that would be ruled (in the words of the Yalta
agreement) by "governments friendly to the Soviet Union." For the
next four decades, the central project of the Soviet empire was the
protection and preservation of this buffer zone. No other European
empire had ever had at its core quite this kind of problem and

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