Sunday, February 26, 2012

Wiped off the map

It’s always interesting reading about countries whose names have been wiped off the map. Anybody who has ever collected postage stamps knows exactly what I mean. With the dissolution of Yugoslavia, its name was replaced by the names of its six component republics. In the same fashion the USSR became Russia and some of the other former USSR republics. A short time later, East Germany was removed, when it reunited with West Germany.

Korea is now two Koreas, China is two Chinas. The India of the British Empire disappeared to become India Bharat and Pakistan, and later Bangla Desh too. The new India wiped the remaining European enclaves off the map when it annexed Goa and Pondicherry and a few others in the 1960s. Today’s maps show only one Vietnam, one Indonesia and one Malaysia; each of those nations once comprised several separate pages in collectors’ stamp albums.

Sometimes the mapmakers are called upon to make only minor changes in names, following regime changes. The People’s Republic of Poland dropped the word People’s (all in the Polish language, of course) after the collapse of the Communist regime. The Republic of Venezuela added the word Bolivarian in its 1999 Constitution, following an election that brought in a new Government.

The Union of South Africa became the Republic of... in its 1961 Constitution. If the place we now know as Israel ever enfranchises all its subject people it might well change its name to Palestine, following a change of regime. There has been a terrible hoo-hah since Reuters reported the Iranian President’s prediction in 2008 that the Israeli regime “...will soon disappear off the geographical scene”; but it really shouldn’t be a big deal, except for the current regime itself.

The dissolution of empires is commonly accompanied by new national names. The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire were wiped off the maps after the Great War of 1914-18 – not by military conquest, quite, but by the Peace Treaties that followed the War. Dissolutions are occasionally reversed. After a few years of political independence after the 1917 revolution, parts of the old Russian Empire were absorbed into the new USSR – a Russian Empire by another name.

Much depends on the political preferences of victor nations, after wars. The destruction of the Ottoman Empire resulted in the creation or re-creation of several nations in the Middle East, some of which were considered European colonies under League of Nations “mandates”.

The Western powers’ choice of Palestine as a new territorial home for the world’s Jewry set the stage for the savage fiasco that we see today, with each of the two ethnic groups claiming naming rights. Palestinian maps show the invaders’ land as “Occupied Territories” and Israeli ones show its native reservations as “Disputed Territories”. The cleaning-up of the old Ottoman map is proving to be a long drawn-out affair.

Empires’ and nations’ boundaries change according to the demands of history and military power. It’s no longer true that the sun never sets on the British Empire. Today, the sun never sets on the American Empire. The British people were intensely proud of their empire, brutal though it was for its conquered peoples; but that was then. Americans tend to be embarrassed by theirs, and indeed by the very word “empire”.

Britain used to rule everywhere marked pink on maps of the world, and felt no shame. The USA is not yet ready to brag about the extent of its territorial over-reach. American maps don’t even identify all its satrapies and bases by a single colour, for goodness sake.