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Borders Change: Short history primers on the Napoleonic Wars and the Unification of Germany and Italy

Human minds may turn fickle when not nurtured properly with knowledge, hindering the ability to discern among concepts that is generally called intelligence.  This is, of course, harmful insofar as individual lives are concerned, but a collective lack of perspective can be devastating when accumulated ignorance finally reaches the political realm.  This seems to be occurring in the present geopolitical scene, and the current situation has all the ingredients required to cause massive ruin to lives, nations, and entire peoples.  One of the cognitive dynamics that has led to the present situation has been a tenuous grasp of history by the general public.

The international agreements that ended the Second World War, along with the culmination of a long drawn-out (and hard fought) process of decolonization by the European imperial powers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, established national borders that, for better or worse, had been up until now relative stable by historical standards.  Though some borders did fluctuate, particularly in Africa and in Eastern Europe following the downfall of the Soviet Union, the resulting territorial alterations may be deemed small within the grand scope of history.  But it was precisely that long, 70 year period that has made current societies lose grasp of how quickly states can expand or be dismantled.

Historical shifts have a way of building up slowly and then happening all at once.  This was the case in 19th century Europe, as can be appreciated in the videos embedded below.  One of the long-standing factors leading to the present geopolitical situation is that the national borders created via decolonization and the post-World War II conventions rarely considered the underlying histories of the cultures that they were carving up into states, but rather largely followed the borders crafted by the imperialist expansions.  Creating and legitimizing a United Nations complete with its own armed forces afforded stability to the 20th century arrangement.  But why would this configuration last forever?  Why expect, even assume, that humanity would not revert to the historical mean insofar as the reshaping of national borders is concerned?  Two recent events have provided a wake-up call: the Russian Federation's annexation of Crimea and the rise of a transnational revolutionary force - the Islamic State - fluidly carving up its own borders over existing national borders.

In March 2014, the Russian Federation annexed the port territories of Crimea basically over a weekend, even though the political buildup to that event had been going on for years (if not decades or centuries), and within days the Western powers had recognized that what used to be Ukraine was now Russian Federation.  How quickly can 70 years of international laws become utterly obsolete!  Personally, I found strange how little importance was given to an invasion within Europe that shattered previous political convention.  But then again, might makes right... Who was going to stand up to the Russians?  Clearly, the answer is no one at all.

The case is entirely different with the Islamic State, which lacks the advanced weaponry necessary to deter the European powers.  Note that the Kurds quietly seceded from eastern Iraq and Syria, forming the new Kurdistan state.  Only Turkey bombs that new state because there is Kurdish presence on Turkey's east providences.  Most of the intervening coalition considers Kurdistan an ally.

I will not delve into the causes of the IS (or ISIS or ISIL or Daesh...) conflict as that would be a very long list, nor will I speculate as to the possible outcomes of that war since nothing can be stated with any certainty as things now stand.  Instead, it is worth merely pointing out that the geopolitical events of our era act as a reminder to the last few generations of a phenomena that they had begun to forget, of a historical fact that needs to be kept in mind as we move forward: state borders aren't set in stone and, when these shift, these change quickly and drastically, setting a novel world stage in the process.

To make this point clear, the three short videos that follow provide succinct 3 minute history primers of massive border changes that occurred in the heart of Europe during the 19th century (not that long ago!).  If you think nothing like this could ever happen again, I have a bridge that I would like to sell to you.

The first video depicts the process of the German Unification; the second summarizes the Italian Unification.  Finally, since both these rapid sequences of events were possible because of Bonaparte's Empire, a third 3 minute video is provided that covers the Napoleonic Wars.

Never forget.  When people forget, that's when history repeats itself.  Our cognitive dynamics must change with regards to our worldview in light of recent event so that we may be prepared for the geopolitical fluidity that is likely to come. 

I hope, at the very least, that you find these animated primers enjoyable, as a fun way to remember events that most of us do not tend to think about even though these have defined the shape of the Western world.

(For mobile users that may not be able to see the videos embedded below, please go to the following links:


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