With today’s video we begin to get into the meat of it… This Avoiding the British Empire series does, in fact, have a point that it is getting to, beyond clever comparisons. This video represents the first half of the main thesis. Considering what we now know about Britain’s power in the 19th century, and how much less power everybody else had… one conclusion becomes inescapable:
World War I was Britain’s fault. I am already getting some pretty shell shocked comments on the video, but not many who dispute the point. I’d love to hear what you think!
Honestly, I think this video is the most punk rock thing I’ve ever done. I pride myself on occasionally making videos that nobody agrees with, but I think I may have really outdone myself with this one. In the series so far, I’ve laid out that my vision of what happened in the 19th and 20th centuries doesn’t exactly accord with the standard view, but I’ve been pretty delicate about it. With this one I go ahead and torch a whole bunch of historical pieties in the loudest way possible. Yes, as a title “European Empire is a Myth” is outrageous, and that’s kind of the point. This is YouTube after all, and I’ve got to take shots at virality occasionally.
At the end of the day, though, once you think about it, I hope you’ll agree that the people who will be most offended by this episode are Nazis, white supremacists, British nationalists and possibly an Oxbridge historian or two who doesn’t have a sense of humor. I think the upending of world history I do here serves a purpose. Or perhaps I’m just an asshole. You be the judge!
There are some standard stories about the fall of the British Empire, like imperial overstretch, and the rise of nationalism world-wide. But they are rarely linked to what I see as the real cause of the Empire’s fall: incessant war mongering. As we close out this epic week of content on the British empire, World War One will take center stage. World War One has a much more central part in British mythology than it does in the US. That may be the reason why people are reluctant to draw the connection between that “victory” and the end of the Empire as closely as I do.
The story I’m telling in today’s video is a bit reductive. It must seem crazy, or even a little racist to try to boil all of history down to the actions and power of two Atlantic empires, the British and the American. I am aware that this vision of history is easy to argue against. But as weird as it is, I think it’s definitely saner than the standard view. The 19th and the second half of the 20th centuries are often described as if they were stable systems, governed by agreement, or at least peaceful competition between great powers. The longer I look at these issues, the more convinced I become that that’s not really what’s going on. The stability in both systems was underpinned by hegemonic power. British in the 19th, American in the 20th. The implications of this are rather grim. Looking at history this way doesn’t flatter the British or the Americans, it heaps guilt on them. That’s why British and US propagandists are so obsessed with the idea of competition.
Man, #Brexit just keeps getting worse. I’m very pleased with how this video on the Northern Ireland problem performed. A month later it’s got over 14K views, which is more than enough to consider it a success. What’s more, I got a ton of positive feedback from all over on how well it dealt with the issue… in addition to the usual nastygrams. It appears that there are a lot of Brexit supporters in the UK who have not given this issue any thought at all. As the chaos has spun up over the past month, Northern Ireland has gotten even less attention. UK Prime Minister Boris’s inability to get the Parliament to do anything has raised hopes that we will get past the October 31st deadline with another extension, this mess will drag on for another year or so, Brexit could never happen, and maybe nobody will ever have to think about Ireland’s troubles ever again. I’m not so optimistic. In fact, I’ve got a kind of disastrous scenario for this month that’s been bugging me.
Most assume that the UK government will be bullied into asking the EU for another extension. I agree that that will probably happen. It’s what happens after that’s more suspect. Everybody assumes that if Boris asks, the EU will grant another three to six months of time for fiddling about. The EU doesn’t want a no-deal either. But what if the calculation is wrong? My understanding is that all 27 EU countries need to vote unanimously to grant another extension. What if just one of those countries decides “fuck it!”? A no-deal Brexit would be bad for Europe, but the past three years of indecision and investment stagnation have been pretty bad too. It’s quite possible that Britain will ask for another extension this month, and the EU will say no. I’m not someone that thinks No-Deal will be as instantly catastrophic as advertised. At this point, it would have to kill more people than the bubonic plague to be spun as anything other than “not as bad as they said it would be”. But I do believe the long term result will be terrible for the UK eventually, and in Northern Ireland almost immediately.
Saudi Arabia is a US colony. It owes its existence to the British Empire, and it owes its continued existence to the United States. This is not widely known. Folks just assume that Saudi Arabia was always there, they got lucky with oil, and now we’re stuck with them. That’s not how it went at all. It’s probably worth documenting this claim in a longer blog post than normal. It’s a bit too complex to wrap into this video.
The Saud family, and its nasty relationship with religious extremism does go back a ways. I document this relationship at length in the essay, which I recommend you buy. They managed to put together a pretty impressive, if briefly lived state in the late 1700s and early 1800s. They held Mecca and Medina briefly, from 1802 to 1818. They were booted out of there by an Ottoman Egyptian Army. The Saud family then managed to put together another chunk of land based around Riyadh, but by the 1890s they were refugees, forced to seek shelter in Kuwait. If you’d picked a family ca. 1910 to end up the most powerful (and possibly richest) of the last royal families standing it certainly wouldn’t have been the Sauds.
Which is where the British empire stepped in. In 1915 the British were fighting World War I against the Ottoman Empire, among others. They were looking to support any Arab leader they could against the Ottomans, who had controlled the Middle East since the 1500s. Have you seen Lawrence of Arabia? That’s about the British support given to the Hashemite family, that had ruled Mecca for hundreds of years. The Arab Revolt that made Lawrence a celebrity was led by Faisal of the Hashemites. This was all lovely, stuck it to the Ottomans, and turned Faisal into a somewhat internationally respected figure.
This presented the British with a problem when the war ended in 1918. They had Faisal, a well respected, charismatic leader, with established connections to the Arab urban centers, and some modernizing instincts. Faisal had a pan-Arab mindset, and envisioned a unified, powerful and developing Arab state, stretching from his family’s territory in Mecca and Medina as far as Damascus and Baghdad, and maybe beyond. This was more or less what he had been promised during the War, and he went to the Paris Peace conference to press his case.
But the British didn’t want that. They wanted the territory for themselves. They got it, establishing “Mandates” in Palestine and Iraq. The Brits got Baghdad and Jerusalem, and the French got Damascus, establishing what became the ill-fated state of Syria. Arabia, or rather all the unimportant and desert bits of Arabia were left to the Hashemites. But not just the Hashemites. The British continued to support the Sauds, with cash subsidies, and a ton of surplus munitions from the war. It depends who you read, but many sources maintain that the British subsidies were the only thing keeping the dirt poor and enthusiastically anti-modern Saudi army going.
If you were the British who would you rather support as a neighbor? A charismatic descendant of the prophet, experienced in international diplomacy? Or a bunch of desert whackos? The desert whackos looked a lot less threatening. The British continued to support both families, but it’s unlikely that they were all that disturbed when the Sauds came screaming out of the desert and took Mecca and Medina in 1925. This conquest was accompanied by strikingly ISIS like destruction of ‘idolatrous’ Muslim heritage sites and massacres of non-combatants. The British didn’t lift a finger to help the Hashemites reclaim their historic lands. They felt a bit bad though, so they made Faisal King of Iraq. In May 1953 his descendants were massacred, and the monarchy was ended in one of Iraq’s many brutal changes of government. King Abdullah II of Jordan is the last ruling member of the Hashemite dynasty, descended from one of Faisal’s brothers. The Sauds got Mecca and Medina, the de facto leadership of Sunni Islam, and extraordinary oil wealth. The Hashemites got that really cool set from the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The British catch a lot of flack for their mishandling of the Israel-Palestine issue, but if you ask me, their creation of Saudi Arabia is a lot more unforgivable.