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4 May 2024

Borders are ridiculous. They may also be inevitable

The boundaries forged on a map centuries ago affect the identities, politics and conflicts of millions of people today.

By Jonn Elledge

In the months between Lord Mountbatten’s arrival as the last viceroy of India in March 1947 and independence the following August, his wife Edwina had an affair with the Indian National Congress leader, Jawaharlal Nehru. This became a factor in the process of partition, but not necessarily in the way you think: the Mountbattens had an open marriage, and the viceroy and the future prime minister became firm friends.

The result was that Nehru, on holiday with the Mountbattens at the time, saw a draft of the plans for partition several weeks before his rival, All India Muslim League leader and future prime minister of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. So Nehru got to influence the final outcome; Jinnah was given just hours to accept a fait accompli. Aside from his myriad other failings, Lord Mountbatten was not a fair dealer. There are many things about partition, imperialism and what the British did in India that should probably be better known. But for the scale of salaciousness alone, that must surely come near the top of the list.

I came across many stories like this while researching my new book, A History of the World in 47 Borders – stories of how individual folly or exhaustion or incompetence can affect where some line or another ended up on a map, and thus still affect the identities and politics of millions of people, decades or centuries after the fact. Take, for example, the Treaty of Verdun of 843, in which Charlemagne’s warring grandsons divided his empire up between them, creating in the process the units that would ultimately develop into France in the west, Germany in the east and another bit in between, which the first two countries would still be scrapping over a whopping 11 centuries later. Or consider the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which divided the vast unexplored North American continent between Britain and its newly independent colonies. So difficult did dividing up a place none of the signatories had ever visited turn out to be that there are detached patches of US land, only physically reachable via Canada, to this day.

Having spent two years trying to work out whether borders create national identities or national identities create borders, though, I am, if anything, less confident about which way the causality runs than before. Some European countries – Italy, Spain, Denmark – clearly result from one patch of land being divided from others by some physical feature or another, and therefore ending up as home to a particular linguistic or cultural community. But Austria, which no one these days imagines should be part of Germany, was the historic heart of the German lands, and only ended up outside it because of a bunch of stuff involving Napoleon, the Habsburgs and Otto von Bismark, all of which happened within the last 200 years; there’s no physical or linguistic separation at all. As to Switzerland, it’s essentially a bunch of places that banded together from the 13th century onwards to make sure they didn’t have to be either French or German. Sometimes the existence of a nation is a matter of path dependency: they exist because they exist.

There are three claims about borders I do feel confident in making, however. One is that they’re not going away. Many of the stories dominating the news these days – those, at least, which do not relate to the collapse of Rishi Sunak’s self-esteem and political authority – are all, on some level, about a border. From the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East to the Channel boats crisis to the debate over Scottish independence, all are rooted in a fight over territory and an argument about where the line between us and them lies. Being a wishy-washy liberal progressive who grew up on stuff like Star Trek and imagined the arc of history was towards doing away with such things, this realisation, which has been gradually dawning since Brexit, has been sobering.

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Another thing I’ve realised is that people love synecdoches, a convenient label into which they can collapse a whole bunch of complicated historical processes. The result, though, is that those labels often don’t actually mean what we think they do. Sykes-Picot, the Mason-Dixon Line, the Treaty of Westphalia – you likely have a sense of what all those things mean. I’m willing to bet that, in every case, you’re at least a little bit wrong. (The actually existing line in the sand is not the one drawn by Sykes and Picot, the Mason-Dixon line was never the border between northern and southern states but between Maryland and Delaware/Pennsylvania, while the treaties of Westphalia – there were two – have almost nothing to say about national sovereignty.)

The last piece of wisdom about borders I have to impart is that, if you spot a straight line on a map, you can safely assume that someone of European descent once leaned over that map with a pen, and that the people who lived there before them got screwed.

A History of the World in 47 Borders: The Stories Behind the Lines on Our Maps” is available now.

[See more: The internet has ruined true stories]

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