Countries have come and gone over the centuries for numerous reasons, even as a result of good intentions going bad. Take a look back at the downfall of 10 nations and the build-up to their eventual demise.
The Soviet Union (officially known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) lasted from 1922 (following the Bolshevik and February Revolutions that would see Joseph Stalin placed in power after Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924) until its collapse in 1991. Assuming power in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev’s lauded reforms gave the republics more control, but this came after decades of totalitarian governing that pressed industrialization at all costs and formed a severe divide between social classes. The wealthy lived like kings, while the majority of the population were on the verge of starvation.
Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) initiative prompted the release of political prisoners and lifted the heavy hand of the totalitarian regime. His perestroika (restructuring) policy relaxed central economic control, too.
But, as Gorbachev noted in his 1991 resignation speech, “…the old system collapsed before the new one had time to begin working,” and most member states of the U.S.S.R. declared their independence to salvage what remained.
A series of peaceful political revolutions were occurring across Eastern Europe fueled by a younger generation that refused to follow the political systems their parents were forced into, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the U.S.S.R. was not immune from the momentum of change. As a result, where a single country that covered nearly one-sixth of the planet once stood is now 16 separate nations.
Yugoslavia officially existed under a variety of governmental banners and names from 1929 until 2003 when it was split into seven different countries. It started as a federation of six republics that each retained their linguistic, ethnic and cultural identities while maintaining separate parliaments and individual presidents. Slovenia (Catholic Slovenes), Croatia (Catholic Croats), Serbia (Orthodox Serbs), Bosnia Herzegovina (Muslim Bosniaks mixed with Serbs and Croats), Montenegro (an even split of Orthodox Serb and Croats) and finally Macedonia (with a 25/75 blend of Muslim Albanians and Orthodox Macedonians).
When it began, it was the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which was monarchy-based under the rule of King Alexander I and lasted until the outbreak of World War II. In 1946, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was born, a nation being steered by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. Finally, after a complicated history of deadly ethnic battling and regional disputes, Slovenia and Croatia seceded from the Yugoslav federation in 1991 which began the final, slow demise of Yugoslavia that became official in 2003.
For years following WWII, the glue holding the various fragile parts of Yugoslavia together was a moderately successful economy and stable federal government, led by president-for-life Josip Broz Tito and his Communist Party of Yugoslavia. Tito was a war hero, and was surrounded in his personal life by ethnic influences from across the republic — his wife was Serbian, his mother Slovenian, his father Croatian.
Tito’s death in 1980 weakened the state too much to stabilize the numerous rebellions that occurred, inspired in no small part by Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika policies. Now we have these nations in the global community:
East and West Germany
To be fair, “Germany” as we know it today used to be over 300 principalities before 1871. This is more of a reunification than a dissolution of states.
Following the German defeat in World War II, the country was divided between the Soviet Union, France, Britain and America. Wanting to get the German economy stabilized, the Western nations pushed for their three zones to be merged into one. So began the life of East and West Germany, with the Soviets implementing the Berlin Blockade on June 24, 1948, less than 24 hours after it was announced the Western-controlled zones of Germany would have one single currency. Communism took the East, democracy took the West.
As the Cold War-era Soviet Union began to really get frosty on the economic stability front, so did the situation in East Germany. As Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev preached a new beginning of openness and possibilities for his country’s people, a plan that looked good on paper backfired and caused protests across Eastern Europe. As West Germany enjoyed its post-war “economic miracle” (as it was initially branded by British publication The Times) and cemented itself with a bounce-back economy, East Germany struggled under crippling Soviet policies.
It became clear that Germany would not remain divided once East Germans began fleeing into the West as soon as the opportunity arose. When Hungary opened its borders with Austria in 1989, thousands of East Germans flew the coop. West German embassies in neighboring countries began to see an influx of East Germans seeking asylum along with emigration requests to make West Germany their home. The Berlin Wall collapsed (along with relations with the Soviet Union) soon afterward, and the rest is history.
The independence of Tibet and whether or not it was ever its own country depends on who you’re talking to — a government official from China or anyone from almost anywhere outside of the country. Tibet existed peacefully under the Republic of China from 1912-1950 with plenty of autonomy, but it didn’t last for long.
When the Communist Party of China was formed in 1921 and the leadership reins handed over to Mao Zedong in 1927, Tibet (and its young leader, the Dalai Lama) had every reason to start getting a little nervous. Twenty years later, the Chinese communists, under Mao’s directions, staged a revolution and took power. Resource-rich Tibet became an immediate focus for Mao and his communist party cohorts.
After months of failed negotiations and a tense build-up of armed forces along their borders, the People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet to claim the territory for its own. China flooded Tibet with 40,000 armed troops, which served to keep any Tibetan uprisings in check and also act as a demonstration of power towards Tibet’s geographic neighbor, India.
The 24-year-old Dalai Lama fled to India along with 100,000 of his supporters, leaving mainland China in charge of Tibet. Today, Tibet remains classified as an independent state under illegal occupation. Even while exiled from his home country, the Dalai Lama continues to act as a symbol for world peace. This despite 1.2 million Tibetans being killed by the Chinese, thousands more imprisoned, forced sterilization of women and 6,000 monasteries being destroyed. To add economic and environmental insult to the numerous human rights violations, the Chinese government estimates it has made over $54 billion (U.S.) from Tibetan timber.
Originally given the European name Ceilão by the Portuguese in 1505, this South Asia island 31 kilometers (19 miles) off the southern coast of India came under the control of the British in 1802. Ceilão as a name was retired, and Ceylon was the name bestowed upon the new Commonwealth republic.
Throughout the 19th century, Ceylon’s economy was based primarily on rubber and coconut plantations, and after the island’s many coffee plantations were wiped out by a fungus during the 1870s the switch was made to tea. The tea estates flourished, leading Ceylon to become the second largest of black tea behind only India. It was during this period that Indian Tamils were first brought into the country in large numbers to work the tea plantations.
Ceylon gained independence from Britain on February 4, 1948, not unlike other former British colonies (for example, Canada and Australia). Seven years later, the Dominion of Ceylon was admitted to the United Nations. It changed its name to Sri Lanka in 1972.
However, the Tamil population pushed for an independent state shortly afterward, and conflicts escalated into a civil war that lasted until 2009. Anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 people are estimated to have died, including political assassinations and suicide bombings carried out by the Tamil Tigers military outfit in its efforts to achieve an independent homeland.
As of 2011, Sri Lanka began to wash away any reference to the British colonial name Ceylon from the island’s industries and institutions (such as the Ceylon Electricity Board and the Bank of Ceylon). Except for Ceylon Tea — that was deemed a brand still proudly equated with Sri Lanka’s economic growth as a country.
The Kingdom of Siam
Siam was an absolute monarchy for seven centuries, from 1238 to 1932, until an internal revolution backed by the Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party) occurred and the switch was made to a constitutional monarchy. Basically, this meant Siam royals had to play nice with the country’s newly installed officials and leave the ‘govern with an iron fist’ thing up to them.
As World War Two loomed, Siam came under the fascist military rule of Field Marshal Luang Phibunsongkhram (Phibun for short to most Westerners) in 1939 and sided with Japan (the Axis) in World War II.
Frankly, Siam didn’t have the military strength to refuse any offers, hostile or not, when Japan demanded right-of-way so they could launch attacks on Malaya and Singapore. In the eyes of Allied nations, it didn’t sit well that Siam’s dictator was also very open about his admiration for Adolph Hitler, so when Phibun first declared in 1939 that Siam would become Thailand, Allied nations refused to recognize the new name. When the tide turned in favor of the Allied forces, Siam made peace with the West while carefully trying not to snub Japan.
It was in the aftermath of the war in that the Kingdom of Siam officially became Thailand in 1949. At least in the eyes of Western countries like the United States, which had also come to the conclusion that Phibun regime had acted under duress during the early stages of the war. Bygones were declared bygones, and Thailand became a country.
The nominal change coincided with a national focus on secondary education, a bigger military presence and an anti-Communist position on the global stage. You can bet the Western Bloc was pleased!
The United Arab Republic
Although it didn’t last for long, the United Arab Republic’s (UAR) formation in 1958 represented a celebration of Arab culture, nationalism, solidarity and its contributions to the world. That, and pushing the growing momentum of the Communist influence to the sidelines.
Egypt’s leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and Syrian president Shukri al-Kuwatli embraced this upswing of Pan-Arabism and became political allies to achieve that goal. Several major steps and changes ensued throughout the process:
– Egypt and Syria held simultaneous referendums for their nations to vote on the proposal
– a federal UAR constitution drafted, and Cairo was named the capital city
– Gamal Abdel Nasser was named president
– two stars representing Syria and Egypt were added to the Egyptian flag, which was adopted as the republic’s
– Syrian and Egyptian citizenship was abolished
But all successful relationships need balance, and the UAR did not develop the kind of balance that Syria wanted. Syrian leaders didn’t get to exercise the influence they believed they were entitled to and felt forced to buy into Egypt’s single party (and military) political structure. At the same time, Syrian officials and military officers were upset at being underpaid in comparison to their Egyptian counterparts.
As civil unrest grew in Syria, primarily as a response to Egypt’s already-existing socialist policies that undercut much of the Syrian economy, a Syrian coup d’état occurred. The idea of a united Arab nation lost any momentum it initially carried when oil-rich countries such as Iraq, which was contemplating joining the UAR, decided to pass. Syria seceded in 1961, just three years after the formation of the UAR.
Like much of the Eastern Bloc, Czechoslovakia reformed into separate nations (the Czech Republic and Slovakia) as the U.S.S.R. relaxed its political and economic grip on the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Initially pieced together in 1918 from the geographical scraps that once made up the collapsed Austria-Hungary empire following the First World War, Czechoslovakia remained united despite seven years of Nazi occupation leading up to and throughout WWII and decades of Soviet influence afterward. From 1918 to 1935, Czechoslovakia was a peacefully functioning parliamentary democracy, while at the same time becoming eastern Europe’s leading example of industrial advances being put to good use.
Following World War Two, the Communist system (which initially got its foot in the door when U.S.S.R. troops liberated Czechoslovakia from Axis control) saw enough success to keep the Czech population employed. However, the Slovak population’s unemployment rate was four times higher. It was a trend that would continue for decades into the late 1980s.
The Velvet Revolution of 1989 (ten days of peaceful protests against political oppression) prompted the Communist party to step down, but the three years of democracy following the Revolution (including a brief stint being recognized as the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic) simply didn’t work for both populations.
Czechoslovakia split into two nations peacefully and aimed to keep a common currency with open trade. Secessions don’t get much better than that.
Sandwiched between the African countries of Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa, Rhodesia had a bloody history of literally being stuck in the middle of things it often couldn’t control. Rebellions, uprisings and tribal infighting was the norm for the region, When European settlers started trying to make themselves at home in the mid-1800s, life in Rhodesia became infinitely more complicated (and dangerous).
Much of this can be blamed on what the British called the Scramble for Africa. A nickname, yes, but much more interesting-sounding than its official name, the Berlin Conference. In the early 1880s, European nations caught up in Africa fever were attempting to decide which nation should get what across Africa. Of course, no one really bothered to ask anyone native to Africa what they wanted. Although African coastal regions were always of interest, inland explorations were showing that even landlocked countries like Rhodesia were full of valuable resources. So it came to pass in 1890 that Cecil Rhodes (the Rhodesia part of the equation) and his band of British colonists acting on behalf of the British South-Africa Company (BSAC) lumbered into Mashonaland and set up camp with Fort Salisbury.
From the moment Rhodesia was settled by the British, it became a war zone between the white minority and locals. For 100 years, Rhodesia, at times known as Southern Rhodesia, was a British colony that gradually evolved into a country that was fighting itself while at the same time battling to gain its independence from Britain. In 1980, Rhodesia held elections to decide its fate as a colony in the Commonwealth. It was decided by voters (the majority of whom were white) that Rhodesia would declare its independence, raise a new flag and call itself Zimbabwe.
Small in physical size but culturally mighty, Sikkim has a population of only 619,000 people that speak 11 official languages. On the political front, it also has a relatively stable foundation that was formed in 1642, when Phuntsong Namgyal was consecrated as the country’s first ruler. This Namgyal monarchy stood in place for an impressive 333 years.
Sikkim sits nestled in the Himalayas, and with Nepal, Tibet and West Bengal as neighbors. In the early years of the 19th century, the Sikkimese crossed paths with Britain for the first time. It was a meeting that both sides looked at as beneficial; Sikkim was in the midst of territorial disputes with Nepal and Bhutan and looked to the British to help supply some strength in numbers if needed. In exchange, the British had a new ally in its ongoing skirmish with Nepal and access to new trade routes.
In 1817, Sikkim signed the treaty of Titaliya that granted the country full independence from Britain that meant it was not under colonial rule by the British but allowed their overseas partners some political and economic perks. Such was the way of life for the Sikkimese people and the country’s monarchy until when it came under the control of India.
Again, Sikkim retained its independence under this arrangement, but things would change over the next thirty years. It’s not that the Sikkimese were unhappy with India’s influence on them, which was actually minimal. Instead, by the mid-1970s they were fed up with the monarchy that had ruled the country for over 300 years. Crown Prince Palden Thondup Namgyal married an American woman nearly 20 years his junior, Hope Cooke, in 1963. The couple had two children, and it was over the next ten years they would be surrounded by near-constant drama. He had numerous affairs, while she was accused of inappropriately ruling the country while her husband was out getting drunk and frisky. After a rebellion against the monarchy in 1973, a referendum was held in 1975 that saw a large majority of voters casting a ballot in favor of Sikkim shedding its ‘country’ label and becoming one of India’s 29 states instead.
15 May, 2018: An earlier version of this article mistakenly mixed up Stalin’s year of death with Lenin’s.