It is quite possible that historians of the 2050s, looking back into our now closing century, will pick out, as one deep tectonic movement stretching across more than two centuries, the disintegration of the great polyethnic, polyglot, and often polyreligious monarchical empires built up so painfully in mediaeval and early modern times.footnote In most cases the disintegration was accompanied by great violence, and was often followed by decades of civil and interstate wars. In the 1770s the first nation-state was born in North America out of armed resistance to imperial Britain, but it was inwardly so divided that it subsequently endured the bloodiest civil war of the nineteenth century. Out of the prolonged collapse of the Spanish Empire between 1810 and 1830 came the brutal despotisms, rebellions and civil strife that have plagued Latin America until our own time. As a result of the Great War of 1914–1918 the Hohenzollern, Habsburg, Romanov and Ottoman empires blew up, leaving in their wake a congeries of small, weak, and generally unstable nation-states in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Near East.

The fall of the Ch’ing Empire in 1911 opened two generations of civil wars in China. Partition in British India, massive interethnic violence in Sri Lanka, the Thirty Years War in Vietnam, the continuing civil strife in Northern Ireland, the bloody collapse of the Ethiopian Empire, the horrors in Uganda and Zaire—all in differing ways can be seen as outcomes of the same long process.

Seeming to counteract this tectonic movement—which involved, of course, liberation as much as disintegration—was Communism in its early internationalist form. The success of the Bolshevik Revolution in the very heart of the evaporated Romanov empire permitted Lenin and his associates to reassemble many of the pieces of that empire during the early 1920s. But the Soviet Union did not regard itself as a huge new nation-state, rather as a sort of model for a future in which nationalism as a political principle would be finally superseded. Indeed, for a time, under the centralized control of a multiethnic and militant Communist Party, nationalism was reduced generally to a politically insignificant ‘cultural’ ethnicity.

This phase, however, did not last very long. Reeling under the ferocious onslaught of Hitler’s armies, Stalin and his associates discovered that encouraging nationalism was crucial to the war effort. In a famous speech delivered on 7 November 1941, the cpsu’s general secretary urged his listeners thus: ‘Let the manly images of our great ancestors Aleksandr Nevsky, Dmitri Donskoi, Kuzma Minin, Dmitri Pozharsky, Aleksandr Suvorov and Mikhail Kutusov inspire you in this war.’footnote1 Prosperous Europe has today forgotten how much it owes both to Stalin and to Russian nationalism for the destruction of the Nazi empire. But in the war’s aftermath, it proved implausible to add the communized states of Eastern Europe to the ussr, and thus began a pluralization of Communist states bearing national names. After Eastern Europe came Yugoslavia, North Korea, China, Cuba, and Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In 1979 the first, and, it may well be, the last, wars between Communist states broke out, as Vietnam invaded Cambodia and China invaded Vietnam. A historical logic was already visible, if then generally unnoticed. Nationalism could be halted, but not permanently restrained or superseded. So that, during the 1980s, Stalin’s empire was just as surely imploding as Churchill’s had done.

Meanwhile, also in the aftermath of World War II, the bourgeois colonial empires of France, Britain, Holland, Belgium, and even Portugal collapsed, creating by the end of the 1970s a United Nations with four times the membership that had made up the pioneering League of Nations half a century earlier.