"The empires of the future are the empires of the mind," intoned one of the most ardent enthusiasts of the British Empire, Winston Churchill, in 1943. He uttered those words at the height of the most intense clash of empires history has ever witnessed. He was visiting the United States on one of his several visits to promote support for the epic struggle of the western allies against Hitler's Third Reich, or Third Empire.
Almost seven decades later, we have lived to see his prophecy come to pass - to a certain extent - for we now occupy a world where people appear to want to communicate more than anything else. It's not unusual these days to see a humble village woman in Bangladesh, a Masai cattle herder in Kenya, a Philippine peasant or a push-cart operator from Trench Town pull out a cellphone and call up somebody to ask about payment for a task they had just completed or about medicine for a sick relative.
But we are still a long way off from the time when the mind is the only realm of the empire. The mightiest empire the world has ever seen - the one which created our homeland and which shaped our world view - essentially ended 15 years ago when the Union Jack was lowered over Hong Kong for the last time as its symbol of state power. And while it's true that the British Empire is still alive, it exists only as a matter of practicality because it would be totally unrealistic for places like the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos, Bermuda, Montserrat, the Falklands and Gibraltar to conduct the full range of normal business of a modern country.
While the British Empire lasted for some 300 years, the one founded by Vladimir Lenin in 1917 lasted less than 75 years, but the Soviet Union and its satellites grew into one of the strongest blocs the world has witnessed. Britain reached the zenith of its powers right after the end of the First World War, when it acquired mandates over former German and Ottoman territories, controlling more than 600 million people from London. The end of the Second World War saw the beginning of the shrinking of the British Empire. The war had drained Britain of its economic power, and in fact, it was because of the manpower and cash contributed by its colonies and Commonwealth partners, together with the almost bottomless economic and physical bounty of the former rebel colony, the United States, that it was able to preside over the destruction of Hitler's formidable and diabolical war machine.
That monumental clash of arms decapitated notions of empire incubated in Tokyo and Berlin by political figures and military leaders with dangerous delusions of grandeur. Japan, a nation confined to its cluster of large islands for hundreds of years, began looking outwards for places to conquer and began with Korea, which it colonised in 1910. Later it turned its eyes on China and then to the other island territories with their vast stores of food, forests, minerals and petroleum.
Japan's rule over these places was unbelievably harsh and cruel, and has left a bitter taste among those peoples to this day. The Japanese rulers of those times weren't very nice to their own people either, especially those in uniform, and the whole ghastly experience has apparently cured that nation of any imperialist tendencies. So turned off have the Japanese become that they have stayed away even from international peace-keeping efforts if they require the presence of Japanese wearing military uniforms.
Rebuilding is the focus
Like the other bad boys of World War Two - the Germans - Japan has spent the years since that war concentrating almost exclusively on rebuilding its economy and society. Today, citizens of the two countries are better off than almost anyone else in the world. They have first-class industries making high-quality goods sold almost everywhere. Their children are healthy and well-fed and are among the best educated in the world. In survey after survey, both countries score near the top of almost any kind of list devised to measure success and prosperity.
Hitler called his regime the Third Reich, a grandiose gesture harking back to the power and reach of the first two German Empires. The first was the Holy Roman Empire, which began after the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 and lasted a millennium until Napoleon abolished the title in 1806. For much of that time, after Otto the Great was crowned in 936, German rulers were also heads of the HRE. But that Empire was essentially a loose federation of German princes who chose the head of the HRE.
By the middle of the 19th century, the Prussians, who dominated the German duchies and principalities, formed the North German Confederation. It was pulled together by Otto von Bismarck, a determined, conservative, militaristic and monarchist leader. He consolidated his hold on all of Germany in a series of wars and with the proclamation of King Wilhelm I of Prussia in 1871, the confederation was dissolved and the Second Reich was proclaimed.Wilhelm II fired Bismarck in 1890 and embarked on a course of his own, based on building a strong navy and becoming a colonial power. His foreign policy was erratic and uneven and led ultimately to the first World War and the demise of the Second Reich in 1918.
Incidentally, the German national anthem, "Deutschland über Alles" was chosen in the mid-19th century to help promote national unity and cement rival fiefdoms into a coherent whole. It doesn't mean "Germany over the world" but rather "Germany over the individual states" and its lovely tune was written by Josef Haydn a century earlier.
Today, Hitler would be amazed to see how high Germany has risen once again to its Fourth Reich. You will never get the post-war crop of leaders to admit such a notion, even though Germany, with its 81 million people, is the leader of one of two empires ruling today's world. The other, in spite of its current difficulties, is the United States.
The US got to where it is by its economic might, its "can-do" attitude, egalitarian and democratic philosophy, and equally by exporting its culture through its vast entertainment industry and the information revolution. In Germany's case, it's also because of its productivity, discipline, work ethic and fiscal prudence. Germany is the biggest nation in the European Union and carries a lot of weight, although it is leery of wielding all that influence. The country is governed by rules and the observance of those rules. Other parts of Europe, like those on the southern tier, look at rules as something to work around.
Germany, one of the founders of European Community, is the world's second-largest exporter, after China, and a big chunk of those exports go to its fellow members of the European Union. It is the third-largest importer of goods and has the fourth-largest economy, after China, the US and Japan. It is also the anchor for the common currency, the euro, and it's no accident that the European Central Bank is situated in Germany's financial centre, Frankfurt.
It will be interesting to witness the skill Chancellor Angela Merkel employs in handling the delicate balancing act needed to steer the European conglomeration through the parlous, booby-trapped economic straits it is now navigating.