A History of Nation Building – Part 1

We regularly hear the term “nation building” these days, but there is a woeful lack of discussion of the history of the practice. Given how rarely it has happened that is understandable, but there are valuable lessons to be learned from the history of the practice.

Germany and Japan – Post-World War II Successes

The best known examples of nation building come from these two countries following their defeat in World War II. As they are incredible success stories, they are often looked to as examples of just how easy it is to build a nation. Unfortunately, this overlooks critical distinctions in the two countries.

Some of Germany’s ruins after WWII.

The first, and most important, element is that the people and surviving leaders of Germany and Japan WANTED to have the new government type and economy being “required” (imposed) upon them – they wanted to be Western-style parliamentary democracies and industrial nations.

While this may seem obvious choice to Americans, who have had a Western democratic republic for over two centuries, and an industrial economy for over a century, it is not in fact the primary choice of everyone, and, as we shall see, things become significantly more difficult when you try imposing a government and economy that people do not want on them.

It must also be noted that part of this was even simpler – before World War II Germany and Japan were already industrial nations. “Making” them industrialize after was both giving them what they wanted and not imposing an alternative they would have very much opposed. While a footnote now, the original plan to completely de-industrialize, and even de-populate Germany was the preferred choice in 1945, and it was only with the very charismatic intervention and presentation that the Marshall Plan was extended to Germany instead.

For government, while Germany and Japan had parliaments before and during World War II, they were by industrial and aristocratic factions, with Marxist factions added in Germany, and had been since their creation. Going back to pre-World War I they were both Constitutional Monarchies, with very strong monarchs. Neither nation was particularly interested in actual popular opinion, and were only barely the kind of popular democracies we think of when using the term. The change to their post-World War II governments was a change for them, but one they were prepared to make.

This leads into the next key element – both countries had ready examples of the alternative: the Soviet Union with the Iron Curtain, North Korea, and Mao. The people of both countries had ready access to the very unpleasant alternative to “accepting” their new place in the world order as client states of the West.

While both had been controlled by aristocratic-plutocratic oligarchies, with Germany also getting a Marxist derivative, neither wanted to go further into dictatorship, especially when they had a steady stream of refugees telling them just what it was like. In such circumstances “accepting” freedom and popular participation in government became even more attractive.

The final factor, often glossed over, is just how long we occupied Germany and Japan.

Japan was generally self-governing from the start of the occupation, although the occupying authority could step in at any time if needed. The occupation of the Home Islands ended with the Treaty of San Francisco in 1952. That is still a seven-year occupation. Okinawa however remained under American control until 1972, a total 27-year occupation.

Germany did not receive any significant local authority until 1949, and then primarily due to the Cold War requiring a functional state to counter-balance the Soviet Union. It would be three more years before the French agreed to end the occupation, and three years after that before West Germany was officially a state, albeit still with significant restrictions of the occupying powers. These would continue until 1990 when the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany ended those restrictions, and allowed West Germany to absorb East Germany. That is a total 10-year occupation and a 45-year “restricted” period.

It should be clear that nation building does not happen overnight.

In the next part I will look at the other side of Post-World War II nation building, the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact.


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