The fall of empires is one of the oldest and most popular topics for historians and storytellers.
The fall of empire has been a popular topic for historians, novelists, pundits, philosophers, movie producers, and video game developers Meanwhile, our Kindles and bookshelves are full of new tomes about the fall of historic empires or the impending fall of some contemporary empire.
One reason for the popularity of this topic is the fear that the empires we live in; such as the United States, the Republic of India, the Russian Federation, Brazil, the European Union, and the People’s Republic of China, are about to collapse. History shows that fear is well-grounded. The collapse of the British and Soviet Empires led to destructive wars and millions of deaths.
So what are the signs that your empire is about to collapse? Here are some signs of imperial collapse from history that will scare you to death.
Signs of Imperial Collapse include:
Pandemics fatally weakened several great empires; including Rome, the Byzantine Empire, the Mongol Empire, the Mexica (Aztec) Empire, the Inca Empire and the British Empire.
For instance, three pandemics the Plague of Antonius, the Plague of Cyprian, and the Plague of Galen, destroyed the economic and military resources of the Roman Empire. The plagues decreased economic activity by killing consumers and workers. The same plagues weakened Rome’s army by killing off soldiers and draft-age men.
One result of the plagues was that the Roman Empire lacked the money and the soldiers to resist massive barbarian invasions. Another result of the plagues was that Romans lost faith in their traditional gods and turned to a new religion: Christianity.
During the 14th Century, the Black Death (bubonic plague) caused the collapse of the Mongol Empire, then the world’s largest. In the 16th Century, smallpox fatally weakened the Mexica and Inca empires paving the way for Spanish Conquest.
More recently, the Spanish Flu of 1918 killed about 18 million Indians and weakened British Rule in India. Less than 30 years later, in 1947, India became independent because of widespread civil disobedience and open revolt against British authorities. The Spanish Flu turned many Indians against the British by exposing the incompetence of colonial administrators.
Thus, Americans and others are right to fear the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects. Coronavirus could lay America low because it had killed 492,789 Americans by 13 February 2020, Worldometers estimates. In contrast, China reported 4,636 COVID-19 deaths on the same day.
In particular, America’s inability to cope with coronavirus reminds me of British India’s authorities’ inability to deal with Spanish Flu in 1918 and 1919. Coronavirus could bring down the American empire by discrediting the United States government.
2. Growing Hatred and Violence
Growing intolerance and oppression of minorities often precedes imperial collapse.
For instance, pogroms; massive anti-Jewish riots characterized the last 20 years of the Russian Empire. Historians believe imperial officials organized the pogroms. Pogroms were infamous for the lynching of Jews and the looting and the destruction of Jewish homes and property.
One reason for the pogroms was to divert the people’s rage away from the nobility and incompetent imperial officials. Soldiers and police often joined and sometimes led the lynch mobs.
The pogroms began around 1881 after the assassination of Czar Alexander II and escalated as revolutionary activity and civil unrest increased. Pogroms peaked with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War that followed. The slaughter of tens of millions of Russians and others by the Communist Dictators Lenin and Stalin followed the pogroms.
Similarly, the Armenian Genocide preceded the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Turks and Armenians lived together in peace for centuries until the empire’s weakness became apparent in the 1890s.
Ottoman pogroms against Armenians began in the 1890s as Turks realized their empire was a third-rate power. In 1894 and 1896, Ottoman officials organized the first pogroms against Armenians. Soldiers, officials, and others joined mobs that lynched hundreds of thousands of Armenians.
Like Russian Jews, the Armenians were a religious minority. The Armenians were Christians; while the Turks were proud Sunni Muslims.
The Genocide itself began in 1915, when the Turks entered World War I on the German side and began to loose. The proto-fascist Young Turk government blamed Armenians for the empire’s weakness and their incompetence.
The Young Turks organized death squads; or butcher battalions that slaughtered thousands of Armenians. The Young Turks killed up to two million Armenians. The Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1922, after being dismembered by British and French colonialists.
Thus growing intolerance can be a sign of imperial weakness. Hence, Chinese need to fear their government’s genocide against the Uighur minority. That genocide could be a sign of the impending collapse of the People’s Republic.
3. Economic Weakness
Growing economic weakness often precedes imperial collapse. The British Empire, in particular, fell because of economic weakness.
Britain’s economic decline began around 1880 when the United States became the world’s largest economy. However, the British did not feel the full extent of American economic power until World War I when the world’s trading center moved from the City of London to Wall Street.
“In 1916, Britain bought more than a quarter of the engines for its new air fleet, more than half of its shell casings, more than two-thirds of its grain, and nearly all of its oil from foreign suppliers, with the United States heading the list,” David Frum writes in The Atlantic. “Britain and France paid for these purchases by floating larger and larger bond issues to American buyers—denominated in dollars, not pounds or francs.”
The British and French financed their war effort on Wall Street because there was nowhere else to get the money. One reason, the Central Powers (Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and Austria-Hungary) lost World War I was that they could not match Britain’s economic resources.
Essentially, the Central Powers ran out of money. The Entente (Britain, France, Russia, and Italy) also ran out of money. However, the British and the French could issue debt on Wall Street.
Meanwhile, the Germans and the Turks could not reach New York’s banks because of a British Naval blockade. Thus, the Germans and Turks lost even though the battlefield performance of their armies was often superior to that of the Entente’s forces.
“By the end of 1916, American investors had wagered two billion dollars (relative to America’s estimated GDP of $50 billion in 1916, the equivalent of $560 billion in today’s money) on an Entente victory,” author Adam Tooze estimates in The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931.
Britain’s economic defeat was complete at The Bretton Woods Conference in July 1944. By then, a bankrupt United Kingdom had to meet every American demand to get the money to fight World War II. One result of the Bretton Woods Conference was the US dollar‘s acceptance as the world’s reserve currency.
The reserve currency is the basis of international trade because it is the money most financial institutions accept. Before World War II, the British Pound Sterling and the Dollar were competing to be the Reserve Currency. After the near British defeat in 1940, the Dollar became the undisputed global reserve currency.
Three years after Bretton Woods, in 1947, the collapse of the British Empire began as India became independent. By 1965, every major British colony was independent, and the Empire was history.
Today, many Americans are wondering if their empire’s future is short because of China’s rise. China could overtake America fast because of COVID-19.
For instance, the People’s Republic of China overtook the United States as the world’s leading destination for foreign direct investment in 2020, The Wall Street Journal estimates. New foreign investments in the USA fell by 49% in 2020.
Furthermore, China will overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy in 2028; five years earlier than previously forecast, the British think tank Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) predicts. Similarly, China will become a high-income economy in 2023.
Thus, the economic collapse of the America empire could play out before our eyes.
The signs of imperial collapse are all around us. Smart people will pay attention to those signs and invest, move, and vote accordingly.