Guest Roast: Why all borders are man-made: A response to DevRoast

In historical narratives encouraged by nation states and internalized by most of us, borders often take a natural character, enforcing the nation state as a ‘natural’ and ‘inevitable’ fact. However, these narratives obscure the fact that it is the state itself that drives the process of creating, defining and consolidating borders and their adjacent areas. This article explains how and why, using examples from Europe and Latin America. 

On March 28, Tracey Li wrote on the origin of borders here on the Development Roast. While the piece is both well-researched and well-written, it fails to elaborate on the centrality of states in driving the process that creates and defines national borders. Instead, agency is implicitly attributed to the (‘natural’) borders themselves: “the existence of natural borders in Europe and their absence in Africa is what makes the difference between multi-ethnic polities and ethnically homogenous ones.”

The Pyrenees between France and Spain is held up as an example of such a natural border that discourages migration and more or less naturally creates two national communities. This is incorrect: migration across the Pyrenees and around the region was common for centuries before the national border was determined. The evidence of this is clear: the Occitan language spoken in the south of France and Catalan spoken on the “Spanish side” of the mountains are closer to each other than either is to French or Spanish (or Castellano, as the Catalans call it) respectively.

Throughout the Middle Ages, borders could change sovereigns frequently for a period, and then stabilize. Berwick-upon-Tweed, northern England, changed hands at least 13 times until 1482, and has since remained under English administration – for more than 530 years.

Changing the game: enter the nation state

However, a particular innovation changed the states’ relative disinterest in the demographics of their borderlands. The nation state mimicked Universalist religious communities like Christianity and Islam by creating an ‘imagined community’[i] in which a group of people were made to feel allegiance to the state due to shared cultural connections that included, but crucially superseded, religious belief systems.

The power of this idea was such that it could undermine a state in control of lands populated by citizens culturally closer to a neighbouring state. Consequently, strong states seek to homogenize borderland populations and make them more like the centre in order to consolidate their political control. In France, this was done through an aggressive imposition of the French language that almost led to the extinction of the Breton language and a severe decline of the Occitan language.

In Spain, this process was much weaker, as the central government was facing much stronger peripheral polities in Catalonia and the Basque country. This partly explains why we today have Basque and Catalan separatists, but no Occitan or Breton ones.

Natural borders, warfare, and forced migration

While it is the active choices of states that define borders and borderlands, it is still worthwhile posing the question why many national borders coincide with natural features (or borders). The answer is probably different regarding the type of the landscape. Rivers for instance, have long provided valuable communications routes while also providing easy alternatives for dividing up land in the absence of modern surveying equipment. Choosing rivers as borders in peace treaties thus enables a visual and clear barrier between the parties while leaving the economic use of the river open for both sides.

Mountainous areas like the Pyrenees however are quite different. They do not provide the same unequivocal break point, nor do they embody a value that can easily be shared by neighbouring states. However, they do pose significant obstacles for the crossing of armies – above all their continued supply. Natural borders become important when there are strong states on either side of them that are competing over influence in the tentative “no-man’s-land” in between them. In such struggles, borders tend to stabilize around natural features due to military reasons – when the mountains have been crossed, the advancing armies are likely tired, disorganized, and undersupplied compared to the defenders who have merely waited for them in relative comfort.

Still, no matter how difficult the natural environment, a benevolent local population can turn the advancing army’s disadvantage to an advantage, by willingly providing supplies, shelter, and local geographic knowledge while denying the same to their enemies. On the Caucasus front during the First World War, mutinies by Armenians in the Ottoman army[ii] led to mass-deportations of Armenians and Anatolian Greeks, great numbers of whom perished – whether or not to label the catastrophe genocide remains a controversy to this day. However it should be labelled, a catastrophic precedent had been set: national and cultural homogeneity was starting to be seen as so crucial to state survival that it justified mass murder on the grandest scale.

20th Century demographic changes in Europe – a reversal of nature

Before the Paris Peace treaties, there was great ethnic diversity in large parts of Europe. Colonialism and nationalism had strongly shaped contemporary thinking into seeing homogenous national units as the only natural and stable option. The clearest, most liberal and modern expression of this was Woodrow Wilson’s well-meaning but ultimately catastrophic revival of the idea of American right to “national self-determination”. As it so directly contradicted the allies’ colonial claims, it was opposed by Clemenceau and Lloyd-George (except when it aided them in dismantling Austria-Hungary).

This did not prevent the idea from living on, primarily in what would then be considered liberal circles. National self-determination would also get an unexpected champion in Adolf Hitler. Inspired by this idea, he propelled himself into the role of transnational protector of Germans. His claim on Memel (Klaipeda) and Danzig (Gdansk), but most of all on the Sudetenland was based on their German inhabitants’ right to self-determination. That he then sought to deny the same right to other peoples did not prevent many to support German aspirations, at least in the beginning, as they were based on this supposedly liberal (but fundamentally racist) notion championed by Wilson.

In reaction to Hitler’s diplomatic strategy (as well as German war crimes), post war governments in Eastern Europe were not eager to let significant numbers of Germans stay within their borders. As a consequence, a massive exodus of 14 million Germans streamed westwards and, according to Rummel, claimed between 500,000 and 3.7 million lives.

Without these and other population transfers like the exchange of Turks and Greeks, the expulsion of Jews from the Russian Empire, the exodus of Armenians, etc, the ethnic homogeneity in Europe was comparable to that of many regions in Africa – in spite of having fairly stable borders. Indeed, European borders are just as man-made as African ones; they merely differ in the actual process by which they were created. Still, there are borders in Europe that were created “from above” like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia following the First World War. Similarly, there are borders in Africa that were formed more like European ones, like Eritrea, South Sudan, and Morocco’s southern border.

Borders in Latin America

Latin America here provides an interesting middle ground, as well as some examples closer to the dynamic that Li describes, with one crucial difference: it is not the borders themselves that constitute obstacles for migration, but the borderlands.

Whilst most Latin American states and their borders originate from the strategic concerns of the Spanish empire, unlike later colonies in Africa they were so called settler colonies (i.e. colonists took direct control of significant areas of land rather than appointing local strongmen to control land for them). Thus the process of colonization involved both a thorough destruction of previous polities, and a full re-construction of new ones.

However, the great distances and difficult terrain created significant obstacles to migration and communication. More crucially, it made it difficult for the states to maintain their presence and control in their peripheral areas. Over a few centuries this led to different cultures and dialects emerging from what originally were quite similar examples of colonial economies and political administrations. That borders on the continent have been relatively stable can be attributed to weak state penetration and limited valuable resources – human, capital, or natural – in the hinterlands.

Where there was valuable, accessible territory under dispute it came under control of the militarily stronger party. For example, Panama in 1903, which seceded from Colombia with support from the U.S.A. in their bid for control over the Pacific-Atlantic channel, and northern modern-day Chile in 1883 that conquered parts of Bolivia and Peru for its wealth of guano and saltpetre.

Borders and the state

While borders may coincide with natural features like rivers or mountain ranges, they are not natural but created and defined by the purposeful actions of states. While borders have always been important features of those states, their significance took a new meaning after the invention of the nation state: to avoid its non-national citizens being loyal to a rivalling state, it became imperative to homogenize the population within their borders.

Initially, this was primarily pursued through educational policies that undermined alternative national identities and strengthened the one of the capital. As industrialization and improved communications sped up the world, states looked for faster methods to eliminate cultural threats: mass-killings and forced population transfers. Thus, contrary to Li’s argument, all borders are indeed man-made.

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Edvin Arnby Machata is the regional editor for West Africa with Global South Development Magazine.

For your reference:

Abulof, Uriel & Danspeckgruber, Wolfgang (2010) “We the Peoples? The Birth and Premature Death of Self-Determination” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Theory vs. Policy? Connecting Scholars and Practitioners, New Orleans Hilton Riverside Hotel, The Loews New Orleans Hotel, New Orleans, LA, Feb 17, 2010 :

Guardian (2007) “The German Exodus”

ICDBL (International Committee for the Defense of the Breton Language) (2004) “How did the number of Breton speakers dwindle?”

The Imperial Archive (n.d.) “Key concepts in post-colonial studies: settler colony”

Rummel, R.J. (1997) “Statistics of Democide: genocide and mass murder since 1900” Center for National Security Law, University of Virginia

[i] It is ‘imagined’ In Benedict Anderson’s terms in the sense that we feel kinship with millions of people whom we will never meet and have little in common with except this shared, ‘imagined’ identity.

[ii] Supported by the Russian Empire and encouraged by its large Armenian population.




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