European Affairs

WWI Transformed the Map of Europe – Could It Change Again?     Print Email
Wednesday, 18 June 2014

brianbeary-august2011On June 26, the political leaders of the EU’s 28 member states will gather near the fields of Flanders in Ypres, Belgium, for a working summit. The meeting will take place on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event that plunged Europe into the chaos and destruction of World War 1. The leaders will visit In Flanders Fields Museum, which presents the story of the “Great War,” and the Menin Gate Memorial, which commemorates the millions of soldiers who lost their lives in the war.


The sudden and violent death of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was a major news event. No one imagined, however, the scale of bloodshed that would follow, nor the radical political changes that would follow. 

The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, disintegrated entirely. Another two – the German and Russian – witnessed the toppling of their autocratic monarchs. Germany, additionally, lost some territories. Germany re-emerged as an unstable democracy, while Russia morphed into an authoritarian, multi-ethnic, communist state - the Soviet Union. Poland, which had vanished from the map two centuries after Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia partitioned it, reappeared again. Estonia, Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania shook off Russian rule and became independent countries. Yugoslavia, a multi-ethnic state made up of Slavic nations, some Hungarians, and ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, was cobbled together from already-independent Serbia and Montenegro and bits of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. Czechoslovakia, comprised mainly of Czechs and Slovaks, was another state to rise from the ashes of the defunct Hapsburg Empire. Romania existed before the war but doubled in size because of it, notably adding the former Austro-Hungarian province of Transylvania. Hungary shrunk to a third of its pre-war size, while Italy gained territory from Austria-Hungary. The once sprawling Hapsburg Empire was whittled down to the rump state of Austria. These changes were mandated by peace treaties imposed by the victors –Saint Germain, Sèvres, Trianon, and Versailles– that collectively forged a new political and cartographic order in Europe. (See before and after maps of Europe below.)


“The Great War” also sowed the seeds for World War II (1939-45), which also resulted in territorial change, although fewer than in WWI. The Baltic nations Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were subsumed into the Soviet Union; Poland’s borders shifted westwards; and Romania, Germany and Poland each ceded territory to the Soviet Union. The Cold War (1945-89) sharpened the east-west geopolitical divide as the Iron Curtain descended but did not alter who actually governed the territories. It was not until the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s that a score of new, more ethnically-based countries were created such as Belarus, Croatia, Slovenia, and Ukraine. 

Neither the Soviet Union nor Yugoslavia’s breakup, turbulent as they were, involved countries annexing territory from other countries. That was something that Europe had not seen since Nazi Germany’s expansionist policies of the 1930s and early 1940s. Thus when, in March 2014, Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine despite having recognized Ukraine’s borders in 1994, shockwaves moved through the continent and beyond. 

Looking to the future, while there is no compelling evidence that a radical territorial change is in the offing in Europe, we should not be surprised if borders continue to change. As this dizzying chronological illustration of Europe from 1000 AD until today shows, in the great sweep of history, change is constant when it comes to political borders. (The Middle East, where borders are shifting more immediately,   proves this point again.)


While no one can know what Europe’s map will look like in the future, political undercurrents that may lead to change are emerging. In 2014, Russia and the EU are the two dominant regional players increasingly vying with one other to woo their mutual neighbors into their orbits. This rivalry led directly to Crimea being unceremoniously lopped off Ukraine. Ukraine, the EU and the U.S. continue to denounce the move but it appears too difficult to reverse at this point. 

Launched by the European Union in 2009, the Eastern Partnership initiative seeks to strengthen relations with the post-Soviet states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, through a range of agreements including free trade. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are the three countries that are closest to furthering trade relations with the European Union, although they are irritated by the EU’s refusal to say whether joining might put them on a path to full EU membership. The Eastern Partnership door is theoretically also open to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus – each a former Soviet Republic - but for differing reasons they will not be banging on that door any time soon. Meanwhile, Russia is making steady progress in putting flesh on the bones of its own common customs area, which it calls the Eurasian Economic Union. Russia signed a treaty with Belarus and Kazakhstan in May, which will enter into force in January 2015, if the three parliaments ratify it. 

The competition between the EU and Russia is creating tension in those countries where part of the population identifies with Russia, while another leans more to the West. For example, in southeast Europe, the small, mostly Romanian-speaking nation of Moldova became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. Since the early 1990s, Moldova has been trying to re-integrate its pro-Russian separatist enclave, Transnistria. While the pro-western government in Moldova has accepted the EU’s Eastern Partnership deal, this is complicating its efforts to re-integrate Transnistria. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for November, which may help determine the course that country takes. 

Scanning northward on the map from the Black to the Baltic Sea, a comparable fault-line can be seen in Estonia and Latvia. While native Estonians and Latvians mostly back their governments’ longstanding policy of anchoring their countries within the EU and NATO, Russian-speaking minorities make up a quarter of their populations. The ethnic Russians are not well-integrated with the rest of the country and tend to identify more with Moscow. 

Shifting westward on the map to Europe’s north-westerly edges, we hit the place most likely to give birth to a new country in the near future. This September, the people of Scotland will vote in a referendum on whether to secede from the United Kingdom and form their own state. Scotland was joined to England in 1603 when King James VI of Scotland acceded to the English throne after the death of his childless cousin Queen Elizabeth I. Independence is the long-held dream of the Scottish National Party, which for several years has held power in the Scottish regional government. And yet opinion polls point to a “No” vote. Fears of suddenly finding themselves outside the EU and its 500 million citizen-strong single market seems to be giving Scots second thoughts. 

Whatever destiny the Scots choose, their referendum is already having an impact beyond their shores. On Europe’s south-westerly edges, separatist forces are strong, especially in Catalonia, a region in eastern Spain, where a referendum on independence is planned for November. Unlike the UK government, which has promised to respect the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum, Spain’s government is categorically refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the Catalan vote. This unfolding drama is being watched in other regions of Spain such as the Basque country, where there are similar separatist impulses. The recent abdication of Spain’s King Juan Carlos in favour of his son Felipe is viewed by some in Spain as an ideal opportunity to change the country’s constitutional structure. 

Turning to the Balkans, the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s underscores how volatile the region – dubbed the ‘powder keg of Europe’ in the Archduke’s era - remains. According to the U.S. and most EU governments, the Balkans is home to Europe’s newest country, Kosovo, which seceded from Serbia in February 2008. But neither Serbia, nor Russia, nor five EU member states recognise Kosovo’s independence. In practice, Kosovo functions as an independent state. The non-recognition issue puts it in a legal limbo, which has caused its EU membership bid to stall. Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority is understandably frustrated with the situation. So much so that a political party has formed, Vetevendosje (Self-Determination), which wants to integrate Kosovo into neighboring Albania whose independence is universally recognised. This irredentist plan is not, however, supported by either the Albanian or Kosovo governments themselves – nor by Serbia, which still lays claim over Kosovo. 

Meanwhile, Bosnia, where Franz Ferdinand met his untimely end, is as unstable today as it was then. It was opposition to Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia in 1908, that led a young Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, to murder the Archduke. Today, the inability of the Serbian and Muslim political leaders in Bosnia to work together has rendered the government dangerously dysfunctional. Some doubt that Bosnia will survive intact in the long-term. Bosnia’s ethnic Serb leaders, who already rule their region – called Republika Srpska - autonomously, pay little heed what the central government in Sarajevo says and regularly threaten to hold a referendum to secede. 

The heart of Europe is not immune to separatist forces either. In Belgium, headquarters to the EU institutions, the Flemish N-VA, which wants Dutch-speaking Flanders to secede from Belgium, won more votes than any other party in last month’s national elections, taking more than a third of the Flemish vote. 

While these examples could suggest an overall weakening of nation states, countervailing forces act to bolster national sovereignty. The steady accrual of powers by the EU institutions since the 1980s is fuelling a nationalist, anti-Brussels backlash - as evidenced in last month’s European Parliament elections. Anti-EU, pro-national sovereignty political parties won the most votes in France and the UK, where the National Front and the UK Independence Party each won a quarter of the popular vote. The UK government has announced plans to hold a referendum by 2017 on whether the country should leave the EU. A vote for departure would mark the first ‘contraction’ in the EU’s territories in more than six decades, during which it has expanded from 6 to 28 member countries. 

The tides of history have rarely spared Europe’s borders. And as we approach the centennial of the beginning of World War I, it is well worth considering the continued and fundamental fluidity of the European project.

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