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Imperialism is the policy or goal of extending a nation's influence over foreign countries by means of force, economics, political influence, or colonialism.[1] Imperialism is just as old as humanity itself, beginning with clans and warbands competing with and dominating each other, and continuing through eras of national warfare and colonial exploitation.[2] Imperialism has been a central component of human history, as seen through the activities of empires like the Roman Empire and Persia, and modern states, including France, Germany, Japan, the United States and the Soviet Union. Unfortunately the subjugated nations and peoples tend to suffer imperial domination due to the imperial power's neglect or outright hostility towards their interests.[citation NOT needed] Although international law and organizations like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court seek to restrain imperialism, bodies such as they are often used by powerful nations as bludgeons against weaker ones, and are still mostly controlled by the old imperial powers.[3]

The cultural aspect of imperialism is, surprise, surprise, known as "cultural imperialism". It concerns the promoting and/or imposing a dominant nation's culture over a weaker one, an end often achieved by the creation and maintenance of unequal relations between nations.[4] Cultural imperialism is alive and well today, and the term is most often used in reference to the United States export of its own culture abroad, expedited by its considerable economic and military might.[5][6][7]

Types of empires[edit]

There are three kinds of political empires, all of which commonly involve the spread of militaristic and cultural supremacy, especially if conquest is a primary goal. They are not necessarily exclusive of one another, and an empire may exist as all three. The term itself derives from the Latin word "Imperator", a military and political role that translates roughly to "commander-in-chief", and "imperii", which refers to a specific domain under the military's influence. Historically, empires were ruled by "emperors", a term that was introduced in the middle ages to describe a ruler who was both the king of his country and the ruler of all other lands that fell under the state's dominion. In the geopolitical sense, an empire does not need to be ruled by a monarchy or an oligarchy, and in the case of modern empires the term "emperor" has been abandoned. The word "empire" is generally seen as having a negative connotation in the 21st century due to the controversial and exploitive tactics that defined the colonial empires of the 19th century. The modern geopolitical term "superpower" is essentially a stand-in and is often invoked as a means to imply empire.

Territorial empire[edit]

A territorial empire focuses primarily on military expansion and direct occupation of a conquered nation. Sometimes the local peoples are assimilated and cultural imperialism is employed, but not necessarily. Sometimes military occupation would only be provisional, as a means to transition a conquered region into an official province of some sort. The territorial approach to imperialism was often the earliest form employed by world empires. The Roman, Chinese, Ottoman, and French empires would be valid examples of a territorial empire.

Colonial empire[edit]

Colonial empires, which popularized the notion of imperialism, practiced colonialism. Colonialism was often based on settlement as opposed to intentional conquest, although conquest was often a factor in the case of indigenous civilizations. The criteria an empire must meet to be classified as a colonial empire is that it must control territory overseas, these regions often directly settled and inhabited. These territories, or colonies, are generally more autonomous than those in territorial empires. The primary motivation for colonialism is less military dominance and more economic supremacy. While officially under the directorate of the central state, or "mother country", colonies, due to the vast distance between old and new worlds, generally operate with semi-autonomy, although the colonists generally have fewer political rights than those of the nation-state. The former British Empire, the German Empire, the Belgian Empire, and the modern "American Empire" would be valid examples of Colonial Empires. Geopolitically speaking, the latter would be the sole colonial empire in existence.

Hegemonic empire[edit]

Hegemonic Empires refer to a collection of countries that are often linked culturally and politically. While not technically "empires" in the same way that the previous two are, hegemonies nonetheless function in the same manner. The countries upon which hegemony is enacted, while not directly ruled by a dominant nation, fall under the direct influence of a powerful central state in the region, known as a hegemon. This is often done through the installment of economic supremacy, cultural imperialism, or amassing mass political influence. Sometimes this involves the establishment of puppet states. That being said, despite independent governments existing in those nations under hegemony, their governments are almost completely under the unofficial directorate of the hegemon, to the point where their survival is dependent upon the success of the dominant state. Hegemony is sometimes official policy, but often times, in recent years, it is unofficial. Territorial and colonial empires can also have hegemonies that exist outside of the state's direct control. The United States and, to a lesser extent the United Kingdom, are examples of hegemons, holding influence in countries all over the world. Other examples would include the Greater German Reich, the U.S.S.R. & countries of the Eastern Bloc under the Warsaw Pact, the Roman Republic, and the medieval Caliphate. Additionally, the European Union — its expansion an outgrowth of decolonization[8]:76-77,119 — have come to be highly dependent upon the German economy, and, in turn, Germany holds substantial political influence and power over most other countries in the European Union. That being said, it can be argued that Germany is exercising unofficial hegemony over the rest of Europe.

Fake empires[edit]

Some kingdoms, federations, and rump states would call themselves "empires" despite the fact that they hold little geopolitical similarities to empire. A lot of the time, this was simply because the state used to be an empire and still refers to itself as such, like the Western Roman Empire after Constantine's death. Throughout history, some leaders proclaimed themselves "emperor", despite not ruling a kingdom large enough to be considered as such. One such example was the Holy Roman Empire, which was more of a confederation led by an elected emperor and under quasi-papal hegemony.

Common traits[edit]


Tonkinese villagers forced to bow to French soldiers.
When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the Missionaries had the Book. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Book.
—Jomo Kenyatta, first Prime Minister of Kenya[9]

Colonialism is the act of one country taking over some other area (farms, mines, ports, provinces or entire states) and settling it or ruling over it. It is very similar to imperialism, although colonists can be invited by the receiving country.[note 1] Colonialism has been around since at least the Classical World: the Phoenicians and the Greeks colonized much of the fringes of Northern Africa, the Black Sea, Sicily, Spain, etc. The Viking Norsemen may hold the all-time championship for colonization: they colonized Ruthenia, Iceland, Greenland, the British Isles and Normandy; their descendants in Normandy in turn colonized Sicily and England; England in turn colonized large chunks of Asia, Africa and North America; North America in turn colonized places like Hawaii and the Philippines ...

Usually, when speaking of modern colonialism, people refer to European colonialism (glossing over historical facts such as the Japanese colonial-era takeover of Taiwan in 1895 and of the Korean EmpireWikipedia in 1910). European countries — most notably Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands — engaged in large amounts of colonialism. After a false start with the Kingdom of JerusalemWikipedia (1099-1291), which saw settlers from Western Europe encouraged to migrate to Palestine and other parts of OutremerWikipedia, serious systematic European colonization started in the 15th century (in Africa) and mostly ended in the 20th. Much of the world's land surface comprises former European colonies. For example, all of the Americas and Australia, and almost all of Africa and Asia were colonized at some point. Some states, such as France and Great Britain, still have overseas colonies/dependencies/overseas-territories. However, the largest and furthest-flung colonial empire was that of Great Britain, which ruled much of Africa and the Middle East, along with (for example) India, parts of China, Australia, New Zealand and a large part of North America.

Colonialism as a acceptable worldwide system began to fade after World War II (1939-1945), due to a multitude of causes. In part, many of the old colonial powers came to accept the need/justice/convenience of self-determination in their colonies. At the same time, great advances started to take place in "asymmetric warfare",[10] as evidenced by the ability of the poorly-equipped Vietnamese forces to fight off both France and the United States of America.

These days, accusations of colonialism are most often leveled at the United States, Israel, and China. This might be unreasonable, since Russia, via the former Russian Empire and the later Soviet Union, colonized much of eastern Europe and western and northern Asia. In the Bad Old Days troops in the service of Russia or of the Soviet Union forcibly suppressed attempts by Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and others to remove the colonial yoke. But a new era of independence has dawned — Germany is now one country and Czechoslovakia has become Czechia and Slovakia. Russia under Vladimir Putin (in office 1999- ) shows signs of trying to revive the old modality - as seen in Crimea in 2014, and in less brazen interventions in places such as Georgia (2008) and Moldova. It must be said that Moscow pursues worldwide colonization with some trepidation in comparison with that of the recent activities of the United States.

A particular branch of study, "postcolonialism", has arisen to study the effects and aftermaths of colonialism on different parts of the world, from the point of view of the former colonies. It particularly focuses on differences in colonial structures and their results. Meanwhile "neocolonialism"Wikipedia has become one of the new snarl-words used to condemn the venerable age-old practice of exercising foreign control and economic dominance/exploitation.


See the main article on this topic: Racism

Empires based on racism and exploitation are of more recent origin — Britain being the largest colonial power. Even in colonialist empires, attitudes on race varied from "White Man's Burden" type "We have to lift up those savages" rationalizations (like in India) to outright extermination of "lower races" in the Imperial Japanese and Nazi German colonization attempts (like in Rhodesia). Some Empires relied on local allies for administrative and military purposes and either overlooked their race or employed a "hierarchy" with certain local groups destined to rule over others, which was one of the origins of the hatred and divide between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda.

Puppet states[edit]

A puppet, client or satellite state is an example of indirect imperialism, in which a country's government is outwardly independent but is controlled by a foreign power. Historically, the governor of a client state was referred to as a satrap and their state as a satrapy. Modern incarnations of client states started with Revolutionary France and its "sister Republics" that were created via "Revolution Export". Later on, Napoleon put his family and other rulers to his liking in control of most of Europe, creating puppet states in the process. The most famous examples come from WWII, when the Nazis pulled the strings of the Vichy French government and the Japanese set up the puppet government of Manchukuo (now Manchuria) in Northern China. After that war, it occurred on an even larger scale during the Cold War in which the Soviet Union dominated its satellites in the Eastern Bloc.[note 2]

One example, important in the development of Christianity and its mythology, was the Herodian kingdomWikipedia which was a Roman client state whose rulers figure in several events of the New Testament.[note 3]



See the main article on this topic: British Empire

The British Empire was a massive Juggernaut that spanned across the world. Starting with the colonization of the Americas, it continues to exist in a much reduced form. At the height of the Empire its image was that of mustachioed men wearing silly white helmets and sipping tea while the dark-skinned people did all the hard work.


See the main article on this topic: Belgian Congo

The king of Belgium took over what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo and fucked shit over mightily. And the cruelty under the reign of Leopold II once shocked Europe for some moments as it was revealed that about 10 to 12 million Congolese died of the mass enslavement and massacres committed by the Belgian colonial authority.

US annexation of Hawaii.

United States of America[edit]

The Treaty of Paris in 1783 left the United States of America with an imperial scale even if the United States decisively rejected any concept of hereditary rule.

Other than the establishment of Liberia as a colony for freed slaves it didn't want and its involvement in the slave trade, America stayed out of Africa, though they did engage in imperialist behavior elsewhere. The United States did however engage in a sort of internal imperialism, with large numbers of Native Americans and African Americans not having full citizenship during much of its history due to disenfranchisement.[8]:69 The Spanish-American War, a splendid little conflict that resulted in a crushing victory, enabled the U.S. to exert power over the Caribbean, the Philippines, and Guam. While many Americans at the time were isolationist, the US engaged in such actions as the Open Door policy, as well as sending the Great White Fleet around the world as a show of power. But this really just demonstrates military strength; the U.S. by this time had lost interests in colonial conquests.


See the main article on this topic: French colonial empire

France extensively colonized Africa and Indochina, and still held many of its colonies until the 1970s and still retains real estate all over the globe as former colonies have been incorporated as overseas territories.[note 4] Another remnant of France's empire is the French parallel to the British Commonwealth of Nations, the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie,Wikipedia an international organization of French-speaking states. France is still very active in promoting its language abroad[14][note 5] and has intervened various times in former colonies, deposing or installing governments at will. The Quebec sovereignty movement was also backed and boosted by Charles de Gaulle[note 6] and later French leaders, creating a major headache in Canadian politics. Another remnant of french colonialism is the CFA franc, the name of two currencies: the West African CFA franc, used by the UEMOA (West African Economic and Monetary Union) and the Central Africa CFA franc used by the CEMAC (Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa). CFA's value is pegged to the euro (whose monetary policy is set by the European Central Bank). The CEMAC, the UEMOA and their central banks can't make decisions without agreement from the French Central Bank.


All the World under one Boot Roof

Japan joined the empire game relatively late, but nonetheless managed to acquire a sizable one. Initially an absolute monarchy, then a constitutional monarchy, it eventually spiraled into a fascist system which, though it kept up a façade of elections and party politics, was effectively run by a military-industrial complex. The Japanese also invented a wonderful Newspeak title for their empire (the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity SphereWikipedia), thus being Orwellian before the term was even coined.[note 7] Like the Russian Empire, the Empire of Japan had the emperor play a spiritual role. Unlike the Russians however, the Emperor was actively worshipped. This caused some trouble later. The pre-World War II colonies of Japan included what is now Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria, and Micronesia.


Russian conquest of Samarkand.
"Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality"
—Maxim of Alexander III[note 8]

Tsarist Russia had ambitions in Asia, it being literally next door and Africa already having been taken. The Russians attempted to gain control of Manchuria and Korea, but unfortunately for them, they came in conflict with the Empire of Japan. Russia suffered a humiliating defeat, losing much of its navy while the successful Japanese assault on the Russian stronghold of Port Arthur gave some European observers some unfortunate ideas about the effectiveness of massed infantry attacks against entrenchments, machine guns and modern artillery. The Russian Empire was an autocracy with a sizable theocratic element. Unlike the aforementioned Empire of Japan, the Tsar was "merely" head of the church and answered only to God rather than being worshipped himself. It didn't end well.

At the time of the October Revolution, the successors to the tsars were hotly debating "the national question", with Lenin in favour of keeping a tight grip on the Finnish, Georgian, and Polish possessions, while Stalin (himself a Georgian), favouring more self-determination and even an eventual path to independence. Lenin saw the independence of the Tsar's possessions to be a 'betrayal of internationalist principles', and when Stalin sensed which way the wind was blowing, he switched to Lenin's side on the issue for good. Lenin also favoured turning Russia's participation in World War I into a revolutionary struggle, with the aim of making Europe's population so enraged by the war that they would rise up as he and his party had done. Ironically, this had imperialist overtones, and when Lenin grasped how unpopular the war had become in Russia, he dropped the idea.

The Bolsheviks certainly didn't want to adopt anything like a theocratic Russian autocracy—well, not theocratic[note 9] at least. Lenin didn't mind expanding Russia's domain beyond the Tsars' wildest dreams when he was able, while Uncle Joe thought that the red gospel was so fantastic that the Eastern half of Europe couldn't possibly live without it. However, when his successors tried to convince the Afghans, things ended about as well as could be expected given the history of Afghanistan.


The Holy Roman Empire over time, with modern political boundaries in outline

Holy Roman Empire[edit]

The Pope is ready to make some more emperors. Of the "Roman Empire". The Holy Roman Empire. It's actually Germany but don't worry about it.
—bill wurtz[15]

The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, but it did last some 900 years in varying forms, occasionally acquiring territories only to lose others. It never directly engaged in overseas imperial conquest. This may have been due to its generally questionable ability to effectively exert central control over the plethora of independent prince-electors, bishops, free cities and merchant republics, not to mention its failure to control external threats from France and curtail the Protestant Reformation.

However, during the reign of Charles V (1519-1556), the Emperor of the HRE inadvertently found himself in control of a blossoming global empire. In Europe, Charles V inherited Austrian territories from the Habsburg dynasty, Netherlands from the House of Valois-Burgundy, and Castile and Aragon (now Spain) from the Trastámara dynasties. This last inheritance not only gave him Aragon's considerable colonies and territories in the Mediterranean, but Castile's American and Asian possessions too. By sheer luck, Charles V found himself ruling half of Europe, Spanish Mexico, the Spanish Philippines, the Spanish West Indies, and enclaves along the coast of Northern Africa at the same time. Thus, he is said to be the first monarch to rule over an empire "on which the sun never sets", despite never engaging directly in overseas discoveries or colonization.

Second and Third Reichs[edit]

German colonial empire in 1914.

The German Empire didn't last long: from unification in 1871 to collapse after the Great War was a mere 47 years. There is an argument to be made that the Third Reich was an imperial project, but an even briefer one, lasting all of 12 years, 3 months and 8 days from start to finish. Germany got into the overseas empire game late, getting only some bits of Africa,[note 10] a small colonyWikipedia in China, and some Pacific islands.[note 11]

Hitler was ambiguous on the colonial question, first endorsing a desire to regain colonies but later reneging it and ultimately his main focus was on conquering Eastern Europe, enslaving or exterminating everything "un-German" that lived there and building a large scale land empire on the ashes. So, hooray for confining his murderous tyranny to Europe?

Ex-colony colonialism[edit]

The behavior of some former colonies could be interpreted as colonialism. For example, the Konfrontasi during Sukarno's presidency in Indonesia resulted in ineffective invasions of neighboring Malaysia and Brunei, and the effective annexation of Irian Jaya (later Papua Province). President Suharto later annexed Timor-Leste. Several revolts against "Javanese Imperialism"Wikipedia have taken place within Indonesia in attempts to break away from the state: the Molucca (or Maluku) islands (1950, unsuccessful), Aceh Province (limited autonomy in 2002), Timor-Leste (full independence in 2002), and Papua Province (ongoing). The imperialist aspect is expressed not just by the various independence movements, but by government and military control resting largely in the hands of ethnic Javanese, and ongoing transmigration (transmigrasi) of (mostly) Javanese to far-flung provinces for what is effectively colonization.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. Note the legend of the Britons inviting Hengist and HorsaWikipedia into Britain and triggering the Anglo-Saxon takeover, the legend of the Bohemians inviting the Frankish merchant SamoWikipedia to rule over them and found their first kingdom (Samo's EmpireWikipedia), and the legend of the Eastern Slavs inviting RurikWikipedia to restore order in proto-Russia. Later the Maori would invite the Anglo-Saxons to colonise New Zealand (1840), whereas King George XII of GeorgiaWikipedia and Chairman of the Presidium of the Revolutionary Council of Afghanistan Hafizullah AminWikipedia would allegedly invite the Russians/Soviets to restore order in Georgia (1800) and in Afghanistan (1979) respectively.
  2. In the Eastern Bloc, the term 'homunculus' has referred to attempts to remold people to be "without sexual, high intellectual or high emotional 'centres'".[11]:178[12] Daniel Kalder has used homunculus to refer primarily to the heads of puppet states who felt compelled to follow the party line while at the same time not showing any innovation from the party canon.[13] Stalinist examples include Khorloogiin ChoibalsanWikipedia of Mongolia, Georgi DimitrovWikipedia of Bulgaria, Klement GottwaldWikipedia of Czechoslovakia, Enver Hoxha of Albania, Kim Il Sung of North Korea, and Konstantin ChernenkoWikipedia of the Soviet Union.[13]:212,216,242,252,279
  3. Most (in)famously the almost certainly fictitious Massacre of the InnocentsWikipedia in Matthew 2:16-18
  4. E.g. French GuianaWikipedia in South America, MartiniqueWikipedia in the Caribbean, and RéunionWikipedia in the Indian Ocean, as well as the slightly looser affiliated French PolynesiaWikipedia and New CaledoniaWikipedia in the Pacific.
  5. The state backed Alliance Française has over 800 locations in 136 countries, all offering French classes — this is much more than comparable institutes of other countries
  6. See the Wikipedia article on Vive le Québec libre. for a controversial speech he gave
  7. Whether George Orwell had Japan's euphemistic title for its empire in mind when he invented such entities as the "Ministry of Truth" for Nineteen Eighty-Four is anyone's guess.
  8. The content of "Nationality" ("Narodnost") was the problem: Did it refer to Russian nationalism? Love of the empire? The people? While usually translated as "nationality", other possible translationsWikipedia are something like the "spiritual identity of the people", or even "populism"
  9. Although communism has more than a little whiff of religious and messianic fervor about it.
  10. What is today Namibia, Tanzania and parts of Cameroon, Ghana and Togo
  11. Specifically, what is today Samoa, most of Papua New Guinea, along with parts of the Solomon Islands, Northern Mariana and Marshall Islands, as well the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru and Palau.


  1. Imperialism ""
  2. Imperialism New World Encyclopedia.
  3. Imperialism didn't end. These days it's known as international law The Guardian
  4. See the Wikipedia article on Cultural imperialism.
  5. America is the acceptable face of cultural imperialism The Telegraph
  6. America: A Modern Imperialist Huffington Post
  7. American Multiculturalism as Cultural Imperialism British Association for American Studies.
  8. 8.0 8.1 The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder (2018) Tim Duggan Books. ISBN 0525574468.
  10. See the Wikipedia article on asymmetric warfare.
  11. Literature in Post-Communist Russia and Eastern Europe: The Russian, Czech and Slovak Fiction of the Changes 1988-1998 by Rajendra Anand Chitnis (2004) Routledge. ISBN 0415355575.
  12. Чапаев: Место рождение - Рига. In: Цыганский роман by Андрей Левкин (2000). Амфора.
  13. 13.0 13.1 The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy by Daniel Kalder (2018) Henry Holt and Co. ISBN 1627793429.
  14. See the Wikipedia article on Francization.
  15. history of the entire world, i guess
  16. West Irian and Jakarta Imperialism by Kees Lagerberg (1980) Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0312863225.