More Countries that Almost Existed

You may remember last year’s controversy in Catalonia, a region of Spain that attempted to declare its independence, only for the Spanish government to put its foot down, move in, and seize control by force. The ringleaders of the Catalan “government” fled abroad, and have been in Germany awaiting a possible extradition back to Spain. Well, two days ago Spain dropped its extradition request. The five Catalan leaders, while now free, will remain in exile, as they will be arrested for rebellion if they ever set foot in Spain.

It makes one wonder how things might be different if Catalonia had succeeded in its independence bid. Thinking about this has inspired me to, once again, look at some alternative history scenarios and examine countries that almost existed, but for one reason or another, did not.

The United States of Greater Austria

Where it would have been: Central Europe, making up all of present-day Austria, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, plus parts of Poland, Ukraine, Romania, and Italy.

The proposal: The Hapsburg family was once among Europe’s most powerful dynasties. Arising from Austria in the late Middle Ages, they expanded their power and wealth through a combination of war and strategic arranged marriages. However, in the 19th century they faced a new threat: nationalism.

The Hapsburg empire, as most empires do, encompassed a diverse population with a variety of subject peoples. There were Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Poles, Italians, Croats, and many, many others. Most of these groups wanted to break away from Hapsburg rule and establish nation-states along ethnic lines. Revolutionaries nearly toppled the Hapsburgs in 1848, and after losing wars against France and Prussia, the empire was still quite unstable. Reluctantly, the Hapsburgs reached a compromise with the Hungarians, creating the “Dual Monarchy” known as Austria-Hungary. Under this arrangement, the Empire of Austria and Kingdom of Hungary would be two separate countries with their own parliaments and laws, but they would share a monarch. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria would be King of Hungary as well. The Emperor-King would have control of the military, foreign policy, and some financial matters.

This arrangement was far from satisfactory to many in the Empire, who saw Hungarians getting special treatment and wanted to press their own demands for independence. It seemed nationalism would tear the Empire apart. Yet there was one man who had an idea that might save the Hapsburgs: Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. His proposal was to transform the empire into a federation of nation-states that would, as Austria-Hungary had, share a monarch but maintain their own independent governments. There would be 15 federal states, plus special autonomous districts within some states where a city or small region was mainly made up of a minority ethnic group within that state. In this way, everyone’s desire to be free would be satisfied, while the Hapsburgs would be a symbolic symbol of unity among these diverse peoples.

Why it doesn’t exist: Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914. With his death came the death of his grand vision, as the First World War broke out. The war proved to be the final nail in the Hapsburgs’ coffin; when it was over, they had been overthrown and their once-great empire carved up into new nations, just as Franz Ferdinand had feared. Yet I can’t help but wonder if his ideas were one of the inspirations behind the creation of the European Union.

Republic of Yucatan

Where it would have been: The Yucatan peninsula, in southeastern Mexico.

The proposal: Most Americans know the story of how Texas rebelled from Mexico, won its independence, and was an independent republic for a few years before joining the United States. However, Texas was not the only part of Mexico that tried to break away during that time period.

See, shortly after independence, Mexico adopted a federal, democratic constitution, but this was opposed by many conservatives in the new nation’s political elite. Under Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, a military dictatorship with a strong central government was imposed instead, and numerous rebellions broke out in many parts of Mexico that sought to restore the old constitution, or barring that, break away from Santa Ana’s rule. Most of these rebellions were swiftly crushed by Santa Ana. Texas, of course, was the only one to successfully break free from Mexican rule, since it was able to join another, much more powerful country.

However, one rebellion did manage to break free for a while. This was the Republic of Yucatan.

Yucatan was inspired by the success of the Texas rebels, one of whose leaders, Lorenzo de Zavala, was actually originally from Yucatan. In 1840, rebels captured Yucatan’s state capital and in 1841 they proclaimed independence. Santa Ana sent troops in to try to stop the rebellion in 1842, but they were repulsed.

Why it doesn’t exist: Yucatan faced a major problem right from the beginning: its population was heavily divided by race and class. A legacy of Spanish colonial rule was that white and mixed-race residents of the peninsula had all of the political power and the Mayan majority were forced to do most of the manual labor and pay most of the taxes. In 1847, the Mayans rose up in rebellion against these conditions, and Yucatan’s elite simply didn’t have the numbers or resources to fight these rebels. In desperation, they made offers to Spain, the United Kingdom, and even the United States to annex them. The U.S. House of Representatives actually supported this plan, but the Senate rejected it, on the grounds that they didn’t want American troops to have to deal with the Mayan rebels.

At last, with no other options, Yucatan agreed to rejoin Mexico in return for Mexican military support in crushing the Mayan rebels.

A unified Arab super-state

Where it would have been: North Africa and the Middle East, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf

The proposal: Arab nationalism is a political movement that seeks to unify all the Arab peoples of the Middle East and North Africa into a single nation, largely in an attempt to create a nation strong enough to resist Western political and cultural influence and defeat Israel. After World War II, it was a major force that shaped Middle Eastern politics, and it looked very much like it might actually succeed in its goals.

In 1949, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria briefly entered negotiations to unify. Around the same time, the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party was founded, whose purpose was to unite the Arab nations and consequently set up branches in most Arab countries. In 1958, Egypt and Syria merged to form the United Arab Republic, and shortly thereafter, North Yemen joined with them to create the United Arab States. That same year, Iraq and Jordan merged to create the Arab Federation. Arab nationalists were gaining power in country after country!

Why it doesn’t exist: Well, basically political squabbles caused the whole thing to slowly unravel. Within only six months of the Arab Federation’s formation, a coup overthrew the government in Iraq and the federation broke up. The United Arab Republic/United Arab States fell apart after only three years when Syria broke away from Egypt and Yemen followed suit.

Still more attempts were made to unify the Arab world, with similar results. Attempts to unify Egypt and Iraq in 1964 fell apart when a pro-Egypt coup failed. In 1972, yet another attempt was made, with Libya, Egypt, and Syria forming a new Federation of Arab Republics, but this project ended with a war between Egypt and Libya in 1977.

Ironically, even though the Ba’ath Party managed to seize power in both Syria and Iraq, the Syrian and Iraqi Ba’ath leaders had a falling out in 1966 that split the Ba’ath movement in two. The Iraqi Ba’athists would end up led by Saddam Hussein, whose brutal regime was ultimately deposed by an American invasion in 2003. Meanwhile, the Syrian Ba’athists are still trying to cling to power in the Syrian Civil War.

It makes one wonder how the Middle East would be different today if the Arab nationalist leaders of the mid-20th century could have held it together and set aside their differences rather than continuously letting petty grievances divide them and undercut their goals.