Monday, October 02, 2023

On Inflection Points Of Empire Downfalls

The indefatigable Old AF Sarge over at Chant du Depart posted an older piece of fiction yesterday (the man, by the way, can write. If you are not following him and the cast of misfits over there, you should be) about the battles of Lexington and Concord - as seen from the side of the British of that day.  In the middles of the story, one of the characters notes "It seemed to Tom that a war might be starting this very day. were these men insane?"

It was a thought provoking piece for a Sunday, which is come to be my deep breath day of the week wedged as it is between what has become effectively the end of the work week (Saturday) and the beginning of the next day.  It raised the salient thought:  How do you recognize the actual end of a civilization or a society?

These sorts of questions have always fascinated me, and of the many different types of history that I have devoured it is the end of empires that often garners the most attention.  Rome, Byzantium, The Ottoman Empire, The Austro-Hungarian Empire - I have read and re-read the fall of these empires until the progression of their unwinding becomes clear.

Why empires, or at least multinational states?  Because it is the fact that these are more often than not societies that have existed for hundreds of years and almost up to their end, they continue to show signs of life.  Even moribund, an empire can still continue to shamble forward based on the powers of a bureaucracy that defies inertia. 

And then, all of a sudden, there is the sudden end.  Curtain, finis

Were these inevitable collapses?  In hindsight of course, it is always difficult to say "no".  We know the history in a way that those living through it could not and we see all of the factors that contributed to the cracking, not just the ones that are easy to see.  But was there a moment just before the moment of inevitability, a moment where the course could have been corrected?  And if there is such a moment, could they have actually seen it for what it was?

Asked differently, can we think critically enough about pivotal points of history to consciously choose them?

I suspect the answer is no, as that would require more thought and consideration than most individuals are willing to put into any decision, let alone critical ones that impact them in ways that they cannot fully comprehend.  I do not think that this surprises me:  abstract decision making is very difficult for us when it directly impacts us, let alone when does not.  Add to that a hearty dose of kicking the can down the road, and the fact that a decision of this nature passes by in an instant is not surprising.

It does make me wonder though:  were the inhabitants of Rome or Byzantium or the Ottoman Empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the previous 200 years to somehow magically move forward in time and see the outcome of their decisions, would they have changed them?  Or is the lure of the here and now, of themselves and their plans and desires, too much to overcome the survival of that which they might have held dear?

History suggests "no", but I am always willing to be pleasantly surprised.


  1. There seems to be something about humans (I don't know if it's optimism or arrogance) that assumes Self can accomplish what others have failed at. And so we keep repeating the same "mistakes" which result in the same failures.

    I'm not terribly knowledgeable about the falls of empires, but I wonder if they had the same socio-political problem we have, i.e. that a goodly portion of the average population proudly owns hating this country and works openly to change it. I'm sure there has always been social and political discontent which results in the people versus the leadership. But we seem to have shifted to something different.

    1. Leigh, the capacity for humans in their self delusion is endless, or almost so. We think "progress" makes us more likely to succeed; it just gives us more hubris.

      There is an element of "empire-hating" in the four I quoted - or said another way, at some point the inhabitants no longer buy into the culture/mythology of said empire. There is also an element of nationalism - in all of the above examples, smaller groups eventually ended up wanting their own state (often among ethnic lines as that is how it worked in the day.

      It does make one realize how difficult it is to repair a national "consciousness" once it is torn into many pieces: once something is delegitimized people tend to move on, not stick around for the 2.0 version.

  2. Nylon124:50 AM

    Thought provoking post to ponder TB. How many inhabitants of the Japanese Empire in 1945 and the Soviet Union in 1989 wondered about their decisions? More people survived in both instances than say would have had they happened a thousand years earlier when the conquerors put the conquered to the sword. How many recognize an inflection point when they're living in it?

    1. Nylon12, you have understood my post exactly. For example, I would argue the German election of 1932 was an inflection point: the German people could have not elected Hitler. They did and the rest, as they say, is history.

      Or Japan (good example). What if the Taisho democracy had continued instead of the increasing militarism of Imperial Japan? To be fair, Imperialism was all the rage at the beginning of the Meiji era (1868-1912), so the chances were small. Or what if Japan had chosen not to invade China? Those "decisions" were made years before by those put into power, but still.

      Perhaps we are only gifted one or two realized inflection points in our lives?

    2. People forget that Hitler was democratically ELECTED. They also forget that the Nazi Party.

      A Politician that promised to END the Chaos of the Versailles Treaty (always better to BLAME Others) and the Weimar Economic Chaos of maddened money printing.

      Interesting to read what the Nazi party was: (BTW you CANNOT READ this in Germany FORBIDDEN).

      Snip Wilkapedia: The Nazi Party,[b] officially the National Socialist German Workers' Party (German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei[c] or NSDAP), was a far-right[10][11][12] political party in Germany active between 1920 and 1945 that created and supported the ideology of Nazism. Its precursor, the German Workers' Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei; DAP), existed from 1919 to 1920. The Nazi Party emerged from the extremist German nationalist, racist and populist Freikorps paramilitary culture, which fought against communist uprisings in post–World War I Germany.[13] The party was created to draw workers away from communism and into völkisch nationalism.[14] Initially, Nazi political strategy focused on anti–big business, anti-bourgeois, and anti-capitalist rhetoric; it was later downplayed to gain the support of business leaders. By the 1930s, the party's main focus shifted to antisemitic and anti-Marxist themes.[15] The party had little popular support until the Great Depression, when worsening living standards and widespread unemployment drove Germans into political extremism.[12]

      Anything applicable today? I note the Far RIGHT and the FAR Left often meet but with different names, eh?

    3. Messy post but I cannot edit it. Read all and it makes awkward sense (at least to myself).

      As I'm fond of the first person view of History as opposed to the Grand Sweep viewpoint a little my own family's Weimar Germany story and thought.

      I read my Grandmothers diary and is seems while Grandfather was a "well paid" Banker sort, the loss of value of the Mark created this situation:

      Grandfather would get up early to visit the baker while the bread was still steaming. He'd buy 2 loaves of bread and go to the butcher for a dry sausage. He'd got to work keeping the food SECURED in his locked desk to provide his lunch and after work would carry the 1 and one half loaf of bread and the 2/3rd of the sausage homeward. He'd trade a half of a loaf and a bit of the sausage for garden veggies and come home with their evening meal.

      He COULD have sold that extra loaf for about the SAME number of Marks he spent for the 2 loafs AND Sausage but neighborly kindness and the garden veggies were worth more to him.

      The VALUE of that extra loaf of bread in Marks OFTEN DOUBLED between the wee hours and that evening. Thus, the trade value was high that afternoon.

      People will ADAPT to slowly changing situations. Like the frog in the ever heating up pot story. They will get less happy and comfortable until the "I have HAD IT" inflection point occurs.

      Will the American inflection point be when the song of the land is "Daddy, I'm HUNGRY" occurs? It did in Weimar Germany where the Nazi's were thought of as a GOOD DEAL.

    4. Michael, I might argue that the 1932 Weimar Republic election was one of those moments that could clearly be seen, even by those in it. Hitler was clear on who he was and what he was about; people chose to ignore it.

      That is a quite a story from your family.

      (Note: Got your other message. The link is bit beyond what I like to post here.)

    5. About that harsh link, I know but it IS coming my friend. I'd like to wish or pray it away but daily it's more obvious.

      As Leon Trotsky said, "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you". Often quoted more correctly in my opinion is: You might not be interested in the revolution but the revolution is interested in you.

    6. Oh, I am sure the revolution is interested in me, Michael. But outright racism just does not get published, at least not here.

      Just because the world practices ugliness does not mean we need to. We should be better than that. If not, we are simply a different version of the problem.

  3. Much to think on here. I often wonder if we humans even recognize those inflection points. With hindsight (and data not available to those living at the time) it's often easy to see where everything "went wrong." But without all that? I wonder.

    1. Sarge, it is probably a fool's errand that - much of life - is clear on the far side of it. And yet, looking at everything leading up to it (again, in hindsight) it seems so clear.

  4. I would argue that the only way to recognize the actual end of a civilization is for future earthlings to look back and realize it in the context of history. Those of us in the present will never be able to see the end because we will either be dead or still living in the shattered remains of our civilization.

    Likewise, I don't think we can ever see it coming, and thus prevent it, because we are members of that failing civilization. It still is and always be OUR civilization until by definition, we are no longer.

    1. Likely you are right, Ed. I will note that in most cases those that lived in the civilization are there in the "new world"; I suspect at that point they are at least able to realize the outlines of what had occurred.

  5. Or Normalcy bias is real? Is that why the vast majority of Humans act like frogs in the slowly heating pot?

    1. Oh, normalcy bias is real enough. But I think we are also bound by the hubris - as Leigh pointed out - that somehow we are different than before.


Your comment will be posted after review. If you could take the time to be kind and not practice profanity, it would be appreciated. Thanks for posting!