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Book Review: Exploring the world’s powerhouses throughout time

From the Ottomans to the Habsburgs, author Krishnan Kumar details the fascinating history of imperial conquerors.
In the very first sentence of his newly-released book, author Krishan Kumar reveals that the study of empires has never been so popular. This revelation might come as a surprise for those of us who believed that with the demise of European empires — the British, French, Dutch, Belgian and Portuguese — after World War II, imperialism had become an outmoded concept.
Empires were large-scale, multinational and multicultural entities and this book examines the ideas and ideologies that shape not only our thinking on those entities, but also the policies of imperial rulers themselves.
According to the book, most Europe-based empires were inspired by the Roman Empire. They learned from it — especially its decline in the 15th century.
The Roman Empire inspired so many others but itself looked further back in history — to the Ancient Greek leader Alexander the Great — for inspiration. In fact, when Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the 3rd century BCE Maurya Empire, was asked how he built up his power, he is said to have replied: “I watched Alexander when I was still a young man.” Alexander the Great, he claimed, could have gone on to conquer all of India because his model of rule was superior to that of all the Indian princes.
Fast forward to the Roman Empire and thinkers such as Cicero were of the opinion that “the extension of citizenship to all of Rome’s subjects was of the essence of Rome’s empire, expressing its highest and most characteristic principle. It was the thing that made it distinctive in the world, setting it off from all other states and empires, past and present,” according to the book.
In his book, Kumar has selected five empires: The Ottoman, Habsburg, Russian, British and French. “At least I can say that the empires I have chosen represent, by any standard, size, power (and) impact, the most important of the modern empires and that all of them would have to be included in any account of the role of empires in the world.”
The first empire Kumar tackles is the Ottoman Empire. European writer have often wrongly confused Turks with the Ottomans and the latter has often been described as being savage and cruel.
The Ottoman Empire can be defined as a dynastic, multinational empire, ruling over a variety of peoples. In writer Colin Imber’s words, “the Ottoman Empire was not…exclusively Islamic, nor was it exclusively Turkish. Rather it was a dynastic empire in which the only loyalty demanded of all its multifarious inhabitants was allegiance to the sultan… It was, in the end, the person of the sultan and (religious), ethnic, or other identities that held the empire together.”
Ottomans were not exclusively Turks. The term Turk refers to an ethnic group that includes members from the Balkans, Anatolia and Arab countries. The Ottomans had a mission to protect all Muslims and to spread the cause of Islam in the world. The Ottoman Empire was a Muslim empire. Throughout its history, Islam was an indelible part of its identity. Ottoman rule was characterized by a pragmatism and realism that created “a remarkable model of how different communities can live under the mantle of a supranational power. However, when Turkish nationalism emerged in the 19th century, its ideas entirely opposed to the Ottoman tradition, (it) would lead eventually to the dissolution of the empire itself.
The Habsburg Empire is probably the least known among the empires chosen by Kumar. He describes it as “tortuous, treacherous and protean.” Indeed, the Habsburg Empire ruled a disparate group of countries that included Spain, Italy, Burgundy, the Netherlands, Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, Croatia and parts of Germany. The Habsburg Empire also ruled over territories in Africa, Asia and the New World. Germans were the largest single group within the Habsburg Empire, which was founded in the 1520s, and the German language and German culture became dominant at its imperial court.
The Habsburg Empire lasted for 600 years, however, it did not fall because of any economic miscalculations. In fact, historian Michael Mann believes “the Habsburg economy was a capitalist success and Kumar adds that the empire’s downfall happened when it lost World War I.
The three remaining empires — the British, the French and the Russian — fell after World War II. It is in Russia where the loss of its imperial past is felt so strongly. Vladimir Putin himself declared that the dismantlement of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” and “a genuine tragedy for the Russian people.”
Europe no longer runs the world. Its empires have disappeared. However, Russia under Putin is still showing a strong affinity toward imperialism. Look toward the east and it is clear that China is a new superpower. After centuries of neglect, China has recovered and it is on the verge of becoming the world’s largest economy. Could it be the new face of imperialism? Empires may have vanished but is the nation state that claims sovereignty and tends toward ethnic uniformity a viable alternative? Only time and academic study will tell.
“Empires, for all their faults, show us another way, a way of managing the diversity and differences that are now the inescapable fate of practically all so-called nation-states,” Kumar concludes.