German Ghost Border Strikes Back

Upon analysing the results of the recent German Election, which has been a huge victory for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), I came across this fascinating graph.  It’s one of a series showing where each party has its base (Social Democrats in north-west, CDU in the south – and everywhere else, really) and this particular map shows where votes for the ‘Die Linke’ (Left) party are concentrated.  Just as I discovered with religious observance, there’s a clear east-west divide along the former border of the Iron Curtain.

I can see two immediate responses to this.  A Marxist might say that the Communist government of East Germany so successfully instilled its ideals into the population that, as with religion, they continue to advocate the state’s beliefs long after it exists.  Others might argue that this is merely the inevitable result of increased poverty in the east as a result of inefficient rule, or due to the difficulties the region must be facing in adapting to a capitalist system.

Either way, I continue to be fascinated by how history is so clearly alive today in the most surprising ways.  Do you know of any other examples of these ‘ghost borders’?  Please let me know!

 

Military Action in a Democracy

Recent events in the UK, USA and potentially France regarding military action have raised interesting questions about how militaries operate within democracies.  Last week we saw the surprising defeat of David Cameron’s attempts to gain parliamentary legitimacy for military strikes against the Syrian government – his already watered-down bill being rejected by a majority of 13 votes.  Both Foreign Secretary William Hague and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond have said that military action against Syria is now off the agenda, and that we shan’t be joining the USA in any potential strikes.  Interestingly, the votes weren’t even about the actual strikes, merely the timescale, but the defeat seems to have been interpreted as an altogether rejection of the plans.  Opinions on this particular issue aside, I’m convinced that this result was a victory for the democratic system.  Polls have repeatedly shown that the British public is against any military action, which the parliamentary vote reflected.  We’ve since had President Obama announce that Congress will have a vote on the issue*

What’s remarkable is that, to the best of my knowledge, leaders have nearly always been able to go to war without much opposition from parliament.  Before the First World War Britain was admittedly gripped by jingoistic fervour and the idea that wars had little consequence for us, therefore resulting in conflicts in South Africa and the Crimea going ahead without resistance.  But even after the First World War, we entered the Second World War, the Korean War, the Gulf War and the Iraq War without parliament stopping them.  While it’s important to make the distinction which many seem to be forgetting that David Cameron never intended to go to war over Syria, just launch strikes, parliament effectively blocking military action in such a way still seems unprecedented.  This really is a testament to just how war-weary a nation we’ve become.  I read a brilliant quote recently but unfortunately can’t remember the source, which went something like “Such processes must be alien to the Syrian military system“, which sums up precisely why I feel so privileged to live in a democracy.

The British Prime Minister and the French and American Presidents all have the power to authorise initial military action without parliamentary approval, although, unless events unfolded very favourably indeed, it would be tantamount to political suicide for any of these leaders to bypass the wishes of parliament.  So the interesting question is raised: should parliament have the legal power to authorise military action planned by the government?  There’s a strong democratic argument in favour, in that power is with the elected representatives, not one solitary leader, and that forcing debates through parliament encourages all sides of an issue to be heard and considered.  Then again, if parliament was necessary for military action to be used, we’d be helpless within a crisis without passing emergency legislation.  Take the situation in the USA, where any military action taken would occur at least three weeks after the chemical attacks of Gouta.  That’s not a problem here, where it is wise to gather as much evidence as possible before taking action, but it would be a clear problem in other scenarios.  All things considered, I think the best system might be for the elected leader to continue having the power to make decisions regarding war and peace, but parliament should have the power to block such action before it is taken – and the opportunity to do so.  Effectively, the system we have now except more ground into law.

Somewhat relevant is one of my favourite political theories: the Democratic Peace Theory.  In short, this cites statistical evidence of the fact that democracies are far less likely to wage war with one another than authoritarian states.  This could be due to the accountability of democratic militaries, or the democratic culture of achieving aims through negotiation, or the current link between democracy and globalised trade.  It’s one of the main reasons that Western policymakers are so keen to promote democracy abroad, as the theory suggests that once worldwide democracy is achieved, limited world peace might even be a possibility.  You can look at how peaceful Europe has become since becoming a democratic entity as partial evidence of this.  Anyhow, I’ve interpreted recent parliamentary procedures as more evidence of the theory working.

*Because, you know, when faced with an impossible, complex decision, who better than Congress to solve it?

German Ghost Border

I’ve just seen another map shared by the Twitter account, @onlmaps, which I felt compelled to discuss on here.  You can see it at this link.

As anyone who is familiar with maps of Europe between 1945 and 1989 can testify, this divide is almost exactly along the border between the former Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the communist, Soviet-puppet German Democratic Republic (East Germany).  Less than 30% of the population of former East Germany is religious, compared to an average of 60%-90% in former West Germany.  The reason for this seems fairly clear: after 12 years of Nazi rule, West Germany allowed its citizens to continue worshiping freely, whereas East Germany’s government advocated an atheist, secular agenda.  According to Wikipedia, one way it did this was by organising secular coming-of-age ceremonies to replace the Catholic equivalent, and largely discouraging church attendance in general.  As with the Polish Ghost Border, I find it incredible how long-gone borders between countries can continue to have a social and economic impact upon the territory they divided.

The main reason this divide surprised me is that I had always assumed that the Soviet-Communist governments had largely failed in bringing religious observance down.  But I’ve done some research into the former Eastern-bloc countries and the results seem to be mixed:

Country: (proportion of people who do not believe in a God)

Estonia: 71%
Ukraine: 63%
Belarus: 41%
Russia: 38%
Latvia: 21%
Czech Republic: 34%
Slovakia: 13%
Lithuania: 10%
Bulgaria: 9%
Poland: 5%
Romania: 0.2%

So actually, incredibly mixed.  Some area were successful, such as Estonia, Ukraine and Belarus.  These three countries were formerly part of the Soviet Union, yet Lithuania, also in the Soviet Union, still sees high religious observance.  Meanwhile, Poland and Romania have incredibly low rates of non-religion; I can only presume that their Cold War governments did not push an agenda of atheism.

For comparison, here’s the rates of some Western European countries:

The Netherlands: 51%
Sweden: 34%
France: 31%
Norway: 29%
Scotland: 28%*
Belgium: 27%
England and Wales: 25%
Spain: 25%
Denmark: 24%
Luxembourg: 22%
Finland: 21%
Switzerland: 20%
Italy: 15%
Portugal: 7%
Ireland: 6%

So actually, the cases of East Germany, Estonia and Ukraine aside, the Soviet-Communist governments of the Eastern Bloc don’t seem to have had that significant impact in reducing religious observance compared to the natural decline we’ve witnessed in the West.  Perhaps my original assumption was correct, and that East Germany’s government was the exception.

*This is from the 2001 census, as the results of the 2011 census for Scotland don’t seem to have been published yet.  I imagine it will be at least 30% now, considering that England and Wales lept from 15% to 25% between 2001 and 2011.  If Scotland had a similar jump, we might even see 38% of Scots claiming no religion.  It’s curious that Scotland is less religious than the rest of the UK.

Ideologies of Europe

Ideologies

I’ve just completed one of my main Summer projects: a video charting the rise and fall of ideologies across Europe over the last few centuries.  For those interested, you can watch it here.

The wide variety of ideas on how we should structure society and govern ourselves which have sprung up from Europe have always fascinated me.  From hereditary monarchies to liberal republics, Communist Utopian dreams to Fascist order and discipline – and even the idea of no structure, no state, in occasional anarchist societies; we’ve attempted the lot.  Most have failed, or been brought down, but there’s no reason to suggest what we’re experiencing now isn’t simply a brief period of calm which, as I discovered while researching the video, are extremely common, before another tumultuous divergence.  My favourite aspect of the video is watching the consensuses change: seeing the ideals of authoritarianism and ‘tradition’ dissolve while new accepted forms of governance emerge.  Is our current system of capitalist democracy here to stay, or will something currently unimaginable one day usurp it?

See, this is a prime example of how studying history is always relevant.  From the past, we can extrapolate the future.

The Legacy of Colonialism

David Cameron must be getting pretty sick of all these disputes popping up across the world about various Overseas Territories.  Recent sabre-rattling by Argentina over the Falkland Islands has only just fizzled out and now we’re seeing tensions grow between the UK and Spain once again over Gibraltar.  These stories appear in the news frequently, and each time they do I’m reminded of just how messy colonialism is.  Between roughly the 16th century and the early 20th, our country (morphing from the Kingdom of England into Great Britain into the UK) took control of approximately a quarter of the world, soaking up territories in North America, Africa, Asia as well as bits and pieces dotted about elsewhere.  However after two world wars this Empire proved unmanageable for several reasons and was gradually dismantled.  This process was mostly completed by the mid 1960s.  So how are we still facing so many issues 50 years later?

Colonialism clearly penetrates so deeply that it cannot easily be plucked free from the countries it affects.  You might expect this of the victim countries – a huge number of problems* in Africa and Asia today can be directly attributed to British colonialism – but who’d have thought we here, in the ‘master country’, would continue to be plagued by it?  Turns out letting go of our colonial possessions isn’t as easy as it sounds.  Granted, our problems are far less significant, but the point I’m trying to make is that colonialism is too messy an endeavour to possibly clean up in half a century.  It will be many more centuries, I expect, before we’re passed its repercussions.

To be clear, I’m not criticising the British government for holding onto the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar.  The people of Gibraltar have consistently shown that they would rather live under relaxed British rule than become part of Spain, while 99.8% of Falkland Islanders voted earlier this year to stay British.  As long as the people of any Overseas Territory wish to stay part of the UK, they ought to be.  It’s the imperial actions which created the problems in the first place I object to.  What’s done is done; seeking a reversal of these actions is often impossible.

Basically, continuing conflicts such as these should serve as a reminder to us and to future generations that colonialism is not only wrong but simply not worth the effort.  As time goes on and we forget about the horrors of war, imperialism and nationalism, there’s a very great risk the same mistakes might be made again.  We mustn’t let this happen.

*Okay, I acknowledge that many positive things also came from British colonialism, such as developed infrastructure, wider availability of vaccines, trade links, etc.  More bad than good, I would argue, but that’s a debate for another day.  Either way, these nations are undeniably still shaped by the legacy of colonialism.