Thursday, July 16, 2009

Multi-ethnic communities - history's lessons

I finished my post Train Reading - Mazower's Hitler's empire. Can a multi-ethnic society survive? with a question:

I am left wondering just what it requires for a society with multiple ethnic groups or cultures to survive into the longer term. What are the features that society must possess?

The Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian was a strange ramshackle world. Yet no matter how cumbersome, complicated and decadent it may have been, it was still a structure in which people with differences and hatreds deeply rooted in history could co-exist.

In the decades leading up to the First World War there were great divisions. These divisions were the proximate cause of the First World War. We now forget that the majority view in the Empire was that its preservation was the best way of preserving harmony. We also forget that Austro-Hungarian thinkers had articulated a vision of a Federation of different ethnic groups that would combine central cohesion with individual difference.

My recent reading on Canadian history reminded me just how deep the divides have been between French and English Canada. In many ways, Canada is an historical accident. It should not be here. Yet it has carved out an existence as a modern nation that survives despite its differences. This may or may not continue, although I think that it will. If it does, it will be because Canadians have got something right.

The Roman Empire in its various forms has, I think, been the longest surviving human constitutional entity in history.

I may be challenged here; some would argue the Chinese Empire is older. Even if I were to accept the point on China, Rome is certainly the longest surviving clearly multi-ethnic constitutional entity.

Why did Rome survive? Any central state with sufficient power can suppress dissent. However, no oppressive coercive state has survived for as long as Rome.

Now that I have got this particular obsession, it might be interesting to see just what history tells us about multi-ethnic success stories, as well as failures.

Note to readers: You will find a full list of posts in this series here.


Neil said...

China is more multiethnic than we realise. Take the Yuan Dynasty, Kublai Khan, and all that, for starters, and the current issues with the Uighur (Turkic) and the Tibetans, not to mention the Dai (Thai) and others. 56 ethnic groups are recognised in China.

Jim Belshaw said...

Not sure about China in the context of my point, Neil. I don't know enough about Chinese history. The first centralised state with an Emperor was set up around 221 BCE, but did not survive as an entity. The ethnic mix question is interesting.

Then, too, Tibet was an empire in its own right in competition with what would be called China.

Maybe I can make a more sensible comment when i know more. My first point about Rome, though, will be that the Roman policy allowed all ethnic groups to become Romans.