South Africa and the Balkans

December 11 2013

The desperate remedy of cutting the Gordian Knot with the sword, to which Austrian statesmanship, in its dealings with Serbia and Montenegro, resorted with such fatal results in 1914, had been resorted to with impunity by British statesmanship only fifteen years before, in its dealings with the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State.

In an age when the political creed of Nationalism was gaining ascendancy throughout the Western World, an identical problem of unusual difficulty presented itself to British imperialism in South Africa and to Austrian imperialism in South-Eastern Europe. In both regions the awakening of the local populations to national consciousness – and to consequent political aspirations towards national unity and independence – found one local nationality partitioned between a great multi-national empire and two small and fragmentary and backward but at the same time independent national states; and in both cases these states came to regard it as their mission to achieve the unity and independence of the whole of their own nation under their own flag, without being deterred by the consideration that the fulfilment of this national ambition on these lines would involve the disruption of the great multinational empire which now held half their nationals as its more or less unwilling subjects. In both cases the threatened empire made a series of clumsy, but on the whole well-meaning, efforts to safeguard its own integrity against its puny neighbours’ preposterous designs without a breach of the peace or a change in the territorial status quo but in both cases the imperial statesmen rather reluctantly came to the conclusion, after a time, that the existing partition of the recalcitrant nationality was not, after all, a possible basis for a permanent settlement, and that therefore their only practical prospect of obtaining a solution that would be satisfactory to themselves lay in taking advantage of their overwhelming superiority in military strength in order to unite the recalcitrant nationality under the imperial flag by putting a forcible end to their puny but aggressive neighbours’ independence.

When the Hapsburg Government acted on this policy in 1914 it brought about the exact opposite of the result at which it was aiming; for the ultimatum which it addressed to Serbia precipitated a general war which did not come to an end until the Hapsburg Monarchy itself had been broken in pieces. On the other hand, when the British Government applied the self-same policy in dealing with the Transvaal Republic in 1899, it did successfully achieve its aim by making war. The threat of an anti-British coalition of Continental European Powers never materialized; there was no intervention; the South African War was not enlarged, like the American Revolutionary War of 1775-83 or the Austro-Serbian War of 1914-18, to the dimensions of a general engagement; and so there was no question of its ending disastrously for Great Britain. The two Dutch Republics in South Africa were duly conquered by British arms and annexed by the British Crown; and the problem with which the British Empire had been faced by the rise of the Afrikander Dutch national movement was eventually solved by the creation [in 1910], within a British political framework, of a Union of South Africa in which the whole of the Afrikander Dutch nation was enabled to enjoy its national self-government in a partnership with the English settlers in its midst. This result of cutting the Gordian Knot in the loosely woven social fabric of South Africa stands out in extreme contrast to the result in South-Eastern Europe, where the indurated texture of historic memories turned the edge of the Austrian sword with such disastrous consequences for the Power that had ventured to draw it. While Dutch nationalism in South Africa has eventually been given satisfaction, at the cost of a minor local war, through a moderate and constructive process of political consolidation, Jugoslav nationalism in South-Eastern Europe has only been satisfied at the cost of a world war which has brought in its train the violent disruption of the whole previous political régime in that quarter of Europe.

The settlement of 1910 ended on May 31 1961, when South Africa became an independent republic and left the Commonwealth, beginning its thirty-three years in disgraced isolation.

In the same year, Mandela, not yet jailed, went underground and helped to found the ANC’s military wing. He also gave his first television interview (television hadn’t arrived yet in South Africa), to the UK’s Independent Television News:

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939

One Response to “South Africa and the Balkans”


  1. […] South Africa and the Balkans […]


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