Olga Romanov – the One Who Could Have Saved Russia’s Royal Family?

On 17 July 1918, the Royal Family of Russia: Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Tsarevich Alexei were rounded up, led downstairs to the basement and brutally murdered one by one by members of the Bolshevik Party. Their death was tragic, brutal and unnecessary. 

The Tsar’s abdication on 1 March 1917 and eventual murder was preceded by a series of events leading to a general distrust in the monarch. While the Tsar seemed unaware of his citizens’ wants as he continued to make disastrous decisions, one royal family member could have saved them from their fate: Olga.

Olga Romanov Alexandrovna was the first-born of the last Tsar of Russia. One of four sisters and a brother – Alexei – the heir, life for Olga was remarkably different to her sisters. Unlike them, she was the eldest and came close to the chance of becoming the next reigning monarch.

As the Tsarina struggled to produce a healthy male heir, in 1912 Tsar Nicholas began to put a motion for the line of succession to be changed. The solution was for Olga to be co-regent with her mother until Alexei was of age to rule by himself. He ordered this manifesto to be publicised throughout the country following the 1913 tercentennial celebrations, placing Olga in a position traditionally occupied by the male heir,thus announcing her political significance. American newspapers reported that ‘it is now considered that the law of succession may be changed in Russia to make it possible for Grand Duchess Olga to succeed the imperial family.’

Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna and her brother Tsarevich Alexei of Russia. (Credit)

Due to opposition from the Duma, these plans failed to materialise. Nicholas’ actions contravened the 1906 version of the Fundamental Laws, which the Tsar had, reluctantly, made in the Duma’s Fourth Assembly. The laws stated that no new law could take effect without the State Duma’s approval . The Duma blocked the change in succession, and it is speculated that the Amended Regency Act caused public opinion of the Tsar to deter, with many believing the act meant that the Tsar did not trust his male heir to rule Russia. It exposed an instability in the crown. 

Olga appeared to be a born leader. Throughout her childhood she showed a keen interest in national affairs in comparison to her siblings; this was ignited in 1905 with the Russo-Japanese war. She told staff Mrs Eager that ‘I hope the Russian soldiers will kill all the Japanese; not leave even one alive’. Her opinion changed though, as Mrs Eager told her of the innocent women and children who were unable to fight. According to historians, Olga asked a few more questions, concluding that the Japanese were not very different from Russians. It is said that she then ‘never made another comment about being pleased about the Japanese dying’.

But it was during World War One that Olga became increasingly concerned for the country and their opinion of the monarchy. As she and her sisters volunteered on hospital wards, the friendships made opened her eyes to the general opinion of her father. She asked her lady-in-waiting ‘Why has the feeling in the country changed against my father?’, wondering if there were more ominous reasons for the ‘unrest and ferment that she sensed rather than knew about, which filled her with a growing anxiety’.

One of these friendships was with a young soldier named Mitya. Olga spent a lot of time with him, taking photographs of him and friends, having long conversations and eventually falling in love with him. Mitya claimed he would ‘slay Rasputin’ to save her family from embarrassment – an opinion remarkably different to that of her family. 

But the war, nursing and her anxiety wore on Olga over time. Prone to depression throughout her life, it became clinical, leading to her discharging from the healthcare service. Her heartbreak over Mitya didn’t help – he left the hospital after healing to go and fight in the war again. Olga became reserved, shy, and slept often. 

It’s this kind of compassion that many historians mark Olga with. Gleb Botkin – son of the family’s physician – remarked that Olga was ‘by nature, a thinker’ and ‘as it later seemed to me, understood the general situation better than any member of her family, including even her parents’. Much to the dismay and hurt of her German mother, Olga understood the country’s dislike of the Tsarina due to her German ancestry. When talking with another nurse about a wedding of friends and the ancestry of a groom’s German grandmother being kept hidden, she remarked, ‘of course he has to conceal it. I quite understand him, she may perhaps be a real bloodthirsty German’. 

Perhaps if the line of succession did change in 1912, Olga would have become the Grand Empress. With no need for a male heir, and therefore no need for the mystic Rasputin to heal Alexei’s haemophilia, the fall of the Russian crown could have been delayed – or not as aggravated by these conditions. In fact, with Rasputin, Olga remarked that whilst his murder was ‘necessary’ it should never have been done ‘so terribly’ and was ashamed that it was done by her relatives. Again, Olga understood the political ramifications of Rasputin’s influence, but also, that his murder could bring more shame to a family already losing support, showing that she was sensitive to ideas and understanding of the political situation her family were in. 

It will never be clear as to what future Russia could have had- there were so many components that led to the downfall of the monarchy after 300 years;serfdom, World War One, Rasputin, Nicholas’ strategy, socio-economic reasons. Whilst Olga was intensely sensitive and was far more aware of the issues and situation at hand at the time,it doesn’t mean that her reign could have saved Russia. That would be purely speculative. 

What’s sure is that the line of succession, made in sexism, reproduced sexism. Russia’s greatest leaders under the monarchy have often been women: Empress Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. Olga could have been a name among them, but her fate was otherwise due to this sexist law. While monarchy is feudal, if Olga had been in control or next in line, perhaps the outcome of the Russian royal family would have been different, and less bloody, than the one that they got.

Aoifke Madeleine, History in Politics Summer Writer

Disraeli’s Public Health Reforms: How to Improve Social Care Today.

The Coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the realities of a struggling care sector unable to cope with the demands of an ever-aging society. Despite Health Minister Sajid Javid’s full job title being the Secretary of State for Health and Social Services, a chronic imbalance between his two briefs has grown and has highlighted that action needs to be taken. Using the lessons of Disraeli’s ground-breaking public health reform in the 1870s, this article makes the case that the time is now for a National Care Service.

Development in British public health policy has a gradual beginning, with its roots in the 1848 Public Health Act. Spearheaded by the work of Edwin Chadwick and following the particularly severe outbreak of cholera in the same year, the act created a Central Board for Health, and became the first law within Britain regarding public health. 

PM Disraeli. (Credit: James Gardiner Collection)

Public health policy really began to evolve in the early 1870s when Prime Minister Disraeli’s reformative government sought to further address the issue of poor public sanitation. Both the Public Health and Artisans’ Dwellings acts were passed in 1875, beginning the first concerted push to improve public health. Provisions were made to build housing with running water and to enable local authorities to begin replacing slums with better quality housing. Progress was slow, but was nevertheless a radical first step forward in the context of Victorian Britain, which was lauded by early trade unionists who recognised the government’s actions as extensively improving the public health of the masses.

What brought about such radical reform? The source of Disraeli’s public health reform can be found from two places. The first, necessity. The second, external pressure. The first is perhaps self-explanatory. Poor sanitation amongst the working classes helped no one. In fact, as Edwin Chadwick had noted in his commission on working class sanitary conditions back in 1842, families of working men who got sick were more likely to need the government’s poor relief. 

However, it was the large human cost of repeated outbreaks of disease that ultimately forced the government to act. The 1860s saw a significant push for greater rights for the working classes. In 1866, as Parliament discussed expanding the voting franchise, 200,000 protested in Hyde Park. Furthermore, Marx’s Das Kapital had its first volume published in 1867, and philosophers-turn-parliamentarians such as John Stuart Mill were influentially bringing their ideas into the public foreground. The government, undoubtedly casting their mind back to continental Europe 1848, conceded that public health had to become a political priority. 

How, however, can we apply such lessons from Disraeli’s reformative public health policies to a contemporary, 21st century setting? If sanitation was the central public health issue plaguing Disraeli’s government, what then is Johnson’s public health dilemma (putting aside momentarily the overtly obvious answer of the pandemic)? 

The answer is social care. The century-and-a-half following Disraeli has seen significant progress in the forum of public health. Sanitation and hygiene have been expanded to the point where all have access to clean water, a working sewer system, and are free of poor-hygiene related outbreaks of disease. And of course, the jewel in the British state, the National Health Service, founded through the necessity of rebuilding after the War, and the external pressure economic advisors such as Beveridge placed on the government, has provided access to free healthcare for everyone. 

Social care, however, has been largely untouched. As a private industry, it has often remained out of reach of the less privileged within our society, much as basic sanitation remained out of reach for the working classes of Disraeli’s day. Consequently, as our country’s population continues to age and a greater proportion of us reach the stage where we require assistance to carry out some of our basic functions, many are being priced out of having a meaningful last few years of their lives. 

In other words, as our country ages, we will reach a point where it is unsustainable not to approach the issue of social care. As was the case in 1875, reform is necessary. A lack of social care services only serves to provide greater pressure on the NHS, which often cannot discharge patients due to limited support. 

This reform should take place in the form of the creation of a National Care Service. A radical assumption of responsibility by government, as with Disraeli’s public health policies, will better organise social care. The pitiful distribution of PPE during the pandemic within care homes shows that a market model is not just pricing many out of social care, but also failing to properly supply those who can afford it. 

When Jeremy Hunt proposed a National Care Service as part of his campaign to become Conservative Party leader in 2019, that urgent need to reform was there, yes, but the external pressure that Disraeli’s government had was not. Whilst Corbyn’s Labour Party included plans for a National Care Service within both their 2017 and 2019 manifestos, these pledges were often overshadowed, both by other manifesto pledges which gained greater media attention, such as free tuition, and the ubiquitous topic of Brexit. 

Covid’s refocusing of the political lens from issues surrounding exiting the European Union to those surrounding public health has finally provided the opportunity to pressure the government into action. As the NHS was built from the recovery of the War, so too must the National Care Service be built from the recovery from the pandemic. 

Overall, Disraeli’s example is one that must be followed. Social care reform must start. The creation of a National Care Service will serve to help address the issues of our increasingly aging and unequal population, just as Disraeli’s reforms did 150 years ago.

Matthew Lambert, History in Politics Summer Writer

Hong Kong issues: Brief summary of how the UK ruled Hong Kong during the early 20th century


Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841 to 1997. How it was actually run is rarely discussed, especially nowadays. Let’s look at four main features of the British administration in the early 20th century (1900 – 1941). 

The view from Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. (Credit: China Highlights)

Executive-led government 

During the period, the whole government was mainly led by the executive branch, i.e. the Governor. The Governor was the president of councils and had the right to appoint and dismiss members of the legislative and executive council. Governor-led government secretaries make and propose all bills and policies. The councils played merely consultative and not binding roles. Ultimately, legislation was proposed, approved and passed by the executive branch. Then it was ‘rubber-stamped’ by the legislative council.

The executive branch also had enormous power spanning a vast range of areas. The Governor exercised tremendous judicial powers by having the power to dismiss and appoint judges and grant amnesty to prisoners. Being the Commander-in-chief of the British force in Hong Kong, the Governor was also in charge of military and foreign affairs. There was no separation of powers for smooth administration. It is fair to say that the government was led by the executive and was a ‘one branch band’.

Lacked legitimacy 

The legitimacy of a government refers to the approval by a majority of the population. During the period, the nature of the British colonial government led to its low legitimacy. At that time, 98% of the population were Chinese and only 2% were foreigners. Also, it was the early years of the British government officially taking over the whole administration. It is expected that local Chinese did not trust the British colonial government. What is more, the reason the British government occupied Hong Kong is that China lost a war against the British. In the minds of the Chinese in Hong Kong, the British were enemies that invaded their motherland; some Chinese in Hong Kong hated the British administration. 

The local Chinese did not feel that the Governor cared about them. The Letters patent, Royal instructions and Colonial Regulations guaranteed the Governor’s ruling power. This means that he was not empowered by the general public. The Governor was also nominated by, thus answerable to, the British Prime Minister, and not the people. It was simply impossible for a local Chinese to relate to or feel represented by the government. 

Nor were British administration willing to let locals participate in the governance in any meaningful sense. Elections were only held in one council, the Urban Council, and only for 2 of the 13 seats. It was also hard for local Chinese to actually be inside the administration, as shown by the lack of Chinese personnel. Local Chinese had no representation in the government who could voice their demands. Officials were usually British merchants. The civil service was also monopolised by British people with key positions all occupied by British people. 

Indirect rule featuring control and conciliation 

The low legitimacy of the British colonial administration led to riots and strikes in the early years. For example, there was the Seamen’s Strike in 1922 and the Guangdong Hong Kong General Strike in 1925. The British administration also suffered ineffective implementation of policies as the local Chinese simply did not support the policies. For instance, the local inhabitants in the New Territories firmly resisted the UK’s Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. In 1923, they strongly resisted the policy regulating the building of houses. All these incidents forced the British administration to come up with new measures to maintain peace and order. 

The first measure was indirect ruling featuring control. Western education was carried out and local Chinese had to learn English. The second measure was indirect ruling featuring conciliation. Small groups of influential Chinese elites and businessmen were allowed to participate in politics to smooth tensions regarding the lack of Chinese representatives. For instance, Mr Chow Shouson, an influential Chinese man, was a consultant and mediator for the government. The government also placed heavy emphasis on these people’s opinions as they understand the local culture better. The local Chinese’s resentment towards western officials was mitigated in this way. The government also set up channels to listen to the needs of the local Chinese. For example, in 1926, Heung Yee Kuk was set up to deal with affairs in the New Territories. The British colonial government hoped that the local Chinese would feel valued and their disobedience would reduce. Other conciliatory measures were implemented, with permission given for firecrackers to be set off in the New Territories during the Lunar New Year as one illustration of how the British administration would avoid meddling in the Chinese traditional lifestyle. In addition, all male indigenous residents were allowed to own a piece of land in the New Territories, another measure by the British administration to please the local Chinese. 

Discrimination against Chinese 

The last feature of the early British colonial administration is that most measures discriminated against local Chinese. Discrimination was serious within the government. As mentioned above, local Chinese had no representation in the government as officials were usually foreigners. In the civil service, British civil servants had higher salaries and better benefits compared to Chinese civil servants of the same rank. 

In socio-economic policies, discrimination was equally clear. For example, the Peak District Reservation Ordinance restricted local Chinese from living in the Peak District which had a cooler temperature and excellent views of the city. Clubs such as The Hong Kong Club and Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club only served whites. Perhaps most strikingly, English was the only official language and the legal system was all in English. As a result, local Chinese would be greatly disadvantaged in trials as they could not even understand the language. It is shown that most policies were highly discriminating against local Chinese. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena

Is ‘Ever-Closer Union’ The Right Path for the EU’s Survival?

Depending on whether you supported the UK leaving or remaining in the European Union, you might presume that the EU is either an undemocratic mess destined to fail, or an international organisation bound to grow and strengthen in a world where cooperation is key. The problem is, in the long-run, it really is impossible to tell which possibility will prevail. 

One the one hand, this last decade has seen a rise in nationalistic sentiment and a resurgent hunger for the principles of sovereign independence; Brexit, the election of Donald Trump accompanied by the slogan ‘America first’, and Orbán’s rule in Hungary serve as just a handful of examples of such a sentiment. On the other hand, it may seem impossible that any nation could fully address its challenges alone in an age of unprecedented interdependence and interconnectedness (and the pandemic speaks for itself here). 

Since its beginning, the EU has been guided by the latter view; states must share resources, work collaboratively under formal rules, and pool their sovereignty in order to survive and prosper in a globalised world. Indeed, the European Coal and Steel Community, which evolved into what we know today as the European Union, was formally established in 1951 with the aim of regional integration in order to avoid war between France and Germany following the horrific conflict of World War II. Underlying all this was a simple perspective: without internationally agreed rules and standards, states would inevitably compete and conflict, and so overarching structures were necessary to prevent this. 

Flags at the European Union headquarters in Brussels. (Credit: Wiktor Dabkowski, action press, via Flickr)

This may appear surprising, as in recent years we’ve often heard from leave campaigners that the EU was originally a mere free trade bloc which morphed into a political union over time. However, the language of ‘political union’ and ‘ever-closer union’ has been in the treaties right from the start, and those ideas have increasingly manifested themselves. Illustrating this, just recently the German Foreign Minister went so far as to call on the EU to abolish the veto power of individual member states when it comes to foreign policy. It seems, therefore, that the EU is set to continue on its pathway towards ever-closer union and increased integration between its member-states. But is that the right path for the union to follow?? 

Despite major challenges – namely the eurozone crisis, the migration crisis, and even Brexit – the EU has succeeded on its slow march towards integration and expansion, and public support across the region has held steady. Whatsmore, continued access to the world’s largest single market area is a great benefit of EU membership, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic and its economic effects. The EU also remains a key player in global governance, attending and influencing the G7, giving the member-states a collective power that they would otherwise lack as independent nations. 

However, increased integration and ever-closer union are not guaranteed to succeed. There is t a possibility that continued allegiance to those principles could prove to be the Achilles’ heel of the EU. Vaccine access and roll-out across the EU during the pandemic highlighted the weakness of the EU in dealing with crises as a large collective, resulting in major dissatisfaction with its leaders, as well as reducing public confidence in the vaccine itself. 

Furthermore, the UK’s future success or lack-thereof as a post-Brexit independent nation will play an important role in shaping perceptions about the benefits of an ever-closer union. If the UK is seen to succeed as a nation unbound by a supranational authority in areas of trade, security, and global leadership, then the integrationist approach of the EU will be put under the spotlight.

Crucially, the sense of Europeanism among the population will likely play the key role in determining just how much further EU integration can go, whilst succeeding. If there is a strong enough European identity, as there is now, then further integration is likely to succeed. However, as we witnessed with Brexit, the electorates of Europe will not sit quietly if they feel that their national identity is being significantly displaced on the altar of ever-closer union. For now it seems as though the current path is working, and public support is holding steady. However, in the long term, the future of the EU is impossible to predict.

Leo Cullis, History in Politics Writer

Recycling Political Establishments?

The announcement made by Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019 proclaiming his candidacy for a fifth presidential term ignited an ocean of furious Algerians opposing the monotonous and stagnant regime under his rule. Since Algeria’s independence in 1962, the nature of its political system under Bouteflika’s neo-patrimonial and authoritarian rule led to a disruption of the country’s social contract resulting in a loss of legitimacy for its rulers. Algerian protestors peacefully took to the streets against Bouteflika’s bid, the pressure placed by the Hirak movement alongside the military led to the resignation of Bouteflika, restoring a sense of hope and new beginnings for the Algerian people. The resignation of Bouteflika allowed for the disclosure of the profound fractures within the Algerian organization but also led to uncertainty between political actors on how to progress in a post-Bouteflika regime. 

The goals of the Hirak had endured a rancorous end as the country’s military leadership rebuffed any additional concessions, overlooking all calls necessary for an essential transition period. Algeria’s political establishment instead, marshalled propaganda and authoritarianism  to force the presidential elections in December 2019, resulting in the presidency of former Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune. Algeria has continued to struggle politically over the past two years with the Hirak movement gradually losing momentum, political stability still being seen to be lacking in the country as a vicious cycle of tainted political actors continually suspend urgently needed political and economic reforms. The Covid-19 pandemic has heightened the economic and political struggles of the country, potentially entering a state of multifaceted chaotic crisis, one would not be surprised to see the character of Algeria during the Arab Spring being brought back to life in upcoming years as the people’s needs are dismissed by Algeria’s political elite. (or something like this) 

Painted portrait of Abdelaziz Bouteflika. (Credit: Abode of Chaos, via Flickr)

The Hirak has become irrevocably divided as groups no longer share consistent socio-political aspirations, most notably the divide between the new-reformist camp. The internal weaknesses of the Hirak have meant that there has been a failure of agenda establishment regarding what exactly it is the movement seeks to achieve. Dialogue between the Hirak is a necessary channel to any form of success yet it is overdue, unless Algeria faces an existential threat that would push the system to engage collectively it seems there will be no progression for its political and economic placement.

Despite the Hirak not having achieved its major goals the opposition movement has sparked a genuine desire and need for political and social progression; however, this may take years to attain, and time is not on Algeria’s side given its serious economic and political challenges. The abandonment of Algeria by the international community has further complicated matters since 2019, Algeria is a regular when it comes to favouring the status-quo and may very well reject any interference with their internal affairs. However, the international community could afford the country a course of internal dialogue or aid the Hirak with its organizational process via encouraging greater civil and political freedoms. Algeria may not be of priority for the Biden-Harris administration, nonetheless, hand in hand with its recently reinforced relations with European governments the United States have a greater potential to revive a collective effort towards a transition period for Algeria. The June 12th snap election has not instigated any meaningful change so far with the majority of the population even boycotting the election as the military remains in control. Although it would be precarious to call for radical and instant changes it is necessary that Algeria gradually works on reciprocally beneficial reforms for both the opposition and the system.

Lydia Benaicha, History in Politics Contributor

The Painful Struggle for Transparency in British Politics

Dominic Cummings’ breath-taking appearance at the joint session of the Health and Social Care Committee and the Technology Committee in the last week of May was one of the most revealing insights into the inner workings of Westminster on record. The combination of blunt personal remarks and detailed descriptions of the Government’s strategy posed a stark contrast to the historical veil of secrecy that has guarded British governance for over a half a century. 

The culture of secrecy was heavily embedded in Britain for the duration of the second half of the 20th century, stemming from the infamous Official Secrets Acts, and favoured a system of non-disclosure. There was no right to information from public bodies, and without action from Parliament the disclosure of information was left to the will of the executive – clearly an unhappy system. 

The notion that open government is better government is well regarded and is a mantra that should be followed by governments worldwide. Not only to avoid serious abuses of power or violations of human rights, but also to ensure that proper daily governance is in operation with a key contemporary example being the scandal over the procurement of PPE for the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dominic Cummings (Credit: Reuters, via BBC)

Cummings himself has acknowledged the importance of transparency in government numerous times, often stating it in his committee appearance, aligning himself with the general trend since the turn of the century. Following the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act under the Blair administration, the public now have a right to information and can make requests for disclosures. 

This drastic change in the British attitude towards transparency was crucial in kickstarting a trend favouring openness, with the aim that more would be done to advance transparency in the future. However, what has followed can be seen as a pushback against the change started under New Labour, most recently the proposed plans to reform judicial review, which is a key tool for government accountability in the UK.

Whilst Cummings’ appearance can be seen as a signifier that the attitude in Westminster is still tilting towards openness and not secrecy, it is important not to overstate its significance. Cummings’ testimony could still appropriately be dismissed as the fulfilment of personal vendettas. However, it may lead to the development of an expectation by Parliament to have these types of hearings, upon which significant media attention is granted and provides the political incentive for their occurence.

Any further development of transparency will require significant support and demand from the electorate, which due to other current crises seems unlikely to arise any time soon, notably due to the upheavals of Brexit and coronavirus. However, scandals which showcase the importance of transparency are always in good supply and will help to maintain at least the current status quo in terms of openness. All that is needed is a good opportunity and some excess political power to encourage further serious reform of transparency.

Cummings’ appearance, the biggest since Rupert Murdoch’s during the phone hacking scandal, has reminded the public and press of the power of Select Committees. This has emboldened the theme of transparency in British politics whilst this level of access would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. The Select Committee appearance serves as a strong reminder of what the British public now expects in regard to governmental transparency, even if a similar appearance is unlikely to occur in the near future.

Aidan Taylor, History in Politics Contributor

Merkel’s Immigration Policy: A Failure?

Many highlight Angela Merkel’s policy in relation to the 2015 migrant crisis as the beginning of her downfall. In that year, Germany’s net migration figure was 1.1 million, just under double the previous year’s total. As Europe struggled to cope with refugees, Merkel made her country the continent’s biggest destination, despite the Dublin Agreement mandating that refugees should seek asylum in the first country they entered. Even today, the refugee crisis is pointed to as a key moment in Merkel’s premiership, and the moment she began to lose her grip on power. But was her immigration policy actually a failure?

When thinking of Germany and immigration, a notable example is the Gastarbeiter, or guest worker, programme which began in the 1950s. These guest workers were invited to help rebuild West Germany after the Second World War, with the main source of guests through this period being Turkey. Many workers never returned home, remaining in Germany with their families. Such people are no longer known as guests, but as Germans.

As Chancellor, Angela Merkel has spoken at length about her view of immigration. She has a markedly positive attitude on the subject, at odds with many in her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, talking of those who come to Germany as “enriching” society. She has always been clear on her approach to refugees: that there is a “moral obligation” to help those fleeing war, persecution or terror. It was this positive approach to immigration that culminated Germany’s policy during the 2015 refugee crisis.

 German Chancellor Angela Merkel receiving flowers from a Lebanese refugee; Migration Commissioner Annette Widmann-Mauz looks on from the right, June 2018. (Credit: Reuters)

Since then, Germany has homed over 1.5 million refugees, in comparison to the 450,000 by France and 300,000 by Italy. This huge influx of people into Germany proved a huge task for both local and national government, with issues such as providing German classes and wider education, as well as integrating the new arrivals into German society. As a logistical challenge, it is clear that Merkel and her government, in combination with state bodies, handled the refugee crisis robustly and commendably. Language classes were provided by the government and an effective programme of enrolling young children into nurseries to begin their education was introduced. 

There is, however, a darker side to the consequences of this policy in Germany. On a national level, the most obvious of these has been the rise of the far right and explicitly anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which surged in the 2017 Bundestag elections and in state elections since the crisis. This has led to the erosion of CDU support and, arguably, to the circumstances amongst which Merkel stood down as her party’s leader in 2018. The future of that party is now in doubt, with right wing candidate Friedrich Merz, a fierce critic of Merkel and her immigration policy in particular, finishing second in both the 2018 and 2021 leadership elections, narrowly losing each time.

Merkel’s successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, was forced to resign after CDU state parliament members in Thuringia defied her authority to vote with the AfD. Armin Laschet, the new leader, is seen as a moderate in comparison to Merz, but ran with health minister Jens Spahn, labelled the “anti-Merkel” for his fierce criticism of her handling of the 2015 crisis. Her moderate legacy in the CDU may be safe for now, but the future remains uncertain as there are fresh elections to contend in September, in the aftermath of disappointing results in March’s state elections.

Merkel’s immigration policy was a divisive path which sowed the seeds of her downfall, while providing refuge for millions fleeing war. In the short term, it has arguably been pivotal in her resignation both as CDU leader and Chancellor, while fracturing her party as it struggles with internal battles and the imposing presence of the AfD. In the long term, however, history will surely look kindly on Merkel: the Chancellor who brought millions in from the cold despite the political consequences and remained steadfast in her commitment to her instincts. A political failure but a moral success, and one which may be remembered as positively as the Gastarbeiter are today.

Joe Rossiter, History in Politics Writer

Hong Kong’s National Security Law: Power Not To The People

You might have heard of the unrest in Hong Kong last year, stemming from the Government’s attempt to introduce an extradition agreement with Mainland China and culminating in a full-blown humanitarian crisis with the enactment of the National Security Law (NSL). Why was the extradition agreement met with such vigour? The proposed Bill would have led to both foreign nationals residing in Hong Kong and local criminal suspects becoming extraditable to mainland China, which has a substantially different criminal justice system and a history of breaching fundamental human rights. This has included arbitrary detention, unfair trials and torture, with the only requirement that “prima facie” evidence, which carries a significantly low standard of proof, be provided to the Chief Executive and the courts. Following escalating public clashes between the Government, police and citizens, and protests seeing over a million people in attendance and over 10,000 people arrested, the Bill was shelved. But by that time, the damage was done. The Bill exacerbated the deep fears of local citizens and expats in Hong Kong, who saw it as an early sign of China’s descent upon the nation and the dark future to come.

Several demands arose from the locals: the formal withdrawal of the Bill, release and exoneration of those arrested from the protests, the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into police behaviour, universal suffrage for the Legislative Council, Chief Executive elections in addition to the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and lastly the retraction of the characterisation of protests as “riots”. Somewhat unsurprisingly, only the first demand was met, which was seen by the Hong Kong people as highly unsatisfactory, and protests continued with increasing intensity. All this culminated in the Chinese Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress enacting the NSL, which opened a bigger can of worms.

Protesters marching at the “Stop Police Violence, Defend Press Freedom” silent march called after media professionals were insulted by police officers when covering protests against the extradition law to China. (Credit: Ivan Abreu, SOPA Images, Sipa via AP Images.)

Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1997, resulting from the First and Second Opium War, Britain handed back control of Hong Kong to China on the condition that the “One Country, Two System” and freedoms of free speech, assembly, religious belief, amongst others, would continue to be enjoyed by the former until 2047. The NSL contained intentionally vague provisions, which would allow for ‘secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces’ to become punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison. Having already been exercised to charge 50+ individuals, this has naturally given rise to a sense of deep unease in both the domestic and international sphere. As the legislation would have also allowed cases to be tried in Mainland China under their legal system, there was a real risk of criminal suspects being deprived of fundamental human rights, like being held incommunicado in undisclosed locations for up to 6 months before being formally arrested or released. Whilst the UK has similar national security laws in that suspected terrorists can be detained without charge for up to 28 days, these individuals are nevertheless allowed legal representation after a maximum period of 48 hours upon arriving at the police station. Compared to Mainland China, the UK is subject to more intense public and legal scrutiny whenever human rights are undermined. The legislations effect is essentially a complete curtailing of free speech, press and political dissent in Hong Kong. Critics worldwide have speculated that this directly contravenes the Joint Declaration’s condition of “One Country, Two Systems”, with the addition of the NSL being also applicable to crimes committed abroad, to non-permanent residents and people outside of Hong Kong. This means that the reach of the law is far and extensive, essentially subjecting foreign nationals to r to the authority of the NSL. 

Whilst the realistic probability of extraditing foreign citizens in the West for crimes committed against the communist party are relatively slim, the law has already caused a growing reluctance amongst foreign investors to conduct business in Hong Kong for fear of being subject to the extensive powers of the NSL. After the emergence of Covid-19 and consequent increasing criticism towards the Communist Party, it will be a matter of great importance for there to be checks and controls to prevent Mainland China’s ever-increasing influence. If they are left unchecked, one can only hope to stay out of the line of sight of the Chinese Government, and that is something I concern myself with, as this article has the potential to be considered “subversion” under the draconian National Security Law.

May Lam, History in Politics Contributor

Is It Time For An Elected Head of State?

Democracy and equality under the law have increasingly come to be seen as the gold-standard for structuring societies ever since the enlightenment. it may therefore appear odd to some that the United Kingdom, the ‘mother of parliamentary democracy’, is still reigned over by a monarchy. Stranger still is that despite the drastic decline in the number of monarchies worldwide since the start of the 20th century, the British monarchy continues to sit in the heart of a proudly democratic nation and continues to enjoy significant popular support amongst the general public. Perhaps this will change with the passing of our current and longest serving monarch Queen Elizabeth II, perhaps the royal family will lose its purpose, or perhaps it will continue to hold steadfast as it has done in the face of major social transformations. But while there may be calls for the monarchy to be replaced by an elected head of state, we should ask ourselves what the monarchy both means to us and offers us, domestically and internationally, before we rush to any conclusions. 

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. (Credit: AY COLLINS – WPA POOL/GETTY IMAGES)

While certainly debatable, I would contend that in its history, structures, and character, Britain is fundamentally a conservative nation. Not conservative in the sense that it strictly aligns with today’s Conservative party, but more in the sense of Burke or Oakeshott; we sacrifice democratic purity on the altar of an electoral system that is more inclined to produce stable and commanding governments; we still retain a strong support for the principle of national sovereignty in a world of increasing interdependence and cooperation; we take pride in our institutions, such as parliamentary democracy and our common law; and as evidenced by our addiction to tea, we value tradition. So is it really surprising that monarchy, the oldest form of government in the United Kingdom, still not only exists but enjoys significant public support? 

The monarchy is intended as a symbol of national identity, unity, pride, duty, and serves to provide a sense of stability and continuity across the lifespan of the nation (according to its website). Its whole existence is rooted in the conservative disposition towards traditions, historical continuity, and the notion of collective wisdom across the ages that should not be readily discarded by those in the present. The monarchy is also politically impartial, and so able to provide that described sense of unity as it is a symbol that should cut across factional lines. Finally, the royal family is not necessarily an obstacle to democracy anymore; we have a constitutional monarchy, whereby the politicians make the decisions without arbitrary sovereign rule. The Sovereign’s role is not to undemocratically dictate legislation, it is to embody the spirit of the nation and exemplify a life of service and duty to country.

Conversely, many may say with good reason that the monarchy is outdated, elitist, and a spanner in the works for democracy. Indeed monarchies are increasingly becoming a thing of the past, and in today’s world it may seem out of place to see a family of people living a life of unbounded riches and privileges simply by birth right. This is a view that is becoming increasingly popular among younger Britons. Additionally, one might contend that the monarchy has lost its magic; it no longer inspires the same awe and reverence it once did, and is unable to invoke the sense of service and duty to country that it once could. 

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. (Credit: Marie Claire)

While support for the British monarchy appears to be holding steady, even in the wake of the latest saga with Harry and Meghan, I believe that the monarchy is on thin ice. The age of deference has long since passed, and in an era of materialism and rationality, the ethereal touch of monarchy has arguably lost its draw. Perhaps this is a good thing, or perhaps now more than ever we need a symbol of unity and duty to do our best by our neighbour and country. What is worth pointing out though is that Queen Elizabeth II, our longest serving monarch, has led the country dutifully throughout her life, and it is worth considering deeply whether the alternative (President Boris Johnson?) is really a better option.

Leo Cullis, History in Politics Writer

General Secretary Putin— the Use of History by Russia’s Regime

Putin’s propaganda machine was laid bare for all to see last month with the return of Russian dissident Alexey Navalny, after recovering from nerve agent poisoning. The Kremlin initially refrained from commenting on the activist, however as his video detailing Putin’s Black Sea palace was released and protests in support of him erupted across Russia, he was quickly depicted as a Western puppet, playing on old fears of Russia’s Cold War rivals. He was later charged with slandering a veteran of the Second World War, more commonly known as the Great Patriotic War in Russia. The defence against Nazi invasion occupies a venerated place in the minds of Russians, dating back to Stalinist propaganda. To slander a veteran would be to slander Russia’s sacrifices in the war as a whole. It is therefore, unsurprising Putin deployed this particular tactic against his adversary.

Vladimir Putin addressing Russian citizens on the State Television channels, Moscow, Russia, March 2020. (Credit: Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Throughout Putin’s time in power, he has often deployed a nostalgic form of Russian history to construct a narrative which strengthens his grip on power and maintains his popularity among the Russian public. He attempts to mirror the conditions of Russia in times when it was a global power— mostly through imitating the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. Through this, he stokes a Russian nationalism embarrassed at its nation losing its former ‘glory’ and desperate to regain it. A poll in 2018 showed 66% of Russians regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union and a poll in 2020 showed that 75% of Russians believed the USSR was the greatest time in their country’s history. Rather than facing the bleak reality of decline, Putin’s rule seemingly offers a restoration of former glory and a return to better days. By masquerading Russia as a global power, Putin attempts to distract the public from ongoing economic decline. 

This public nostalgia therefore brings the USSR to the forefront of Putin’s propaganda campaign. Russian history textbooks were remade to display the USSR in a positive and idealised light, the Soviet national anthem was reinstated. The Patriotic War was especially capitalised on, the 2020 constitutional changes went so far as to ban ‘belittling’ of Russia’s feats in the Second World War and to ‘protect the historical truth’ of the war, essentially outlawing any narratives of the war contrary to the state-sanctioned line. 

Russia’s foreign policy also reflects a desire to return to the days of the USSR. Involvement in Syria harks back to Soviet interference in Afghanistan. Annexation of parts of Crimea and Georgia portray Russia as reclaiming former lands lost since the dissolution of the USSR. The poisoning of dissidents in the UK and apparent interference in US elections are reminiscent of the days of espionage against the West.

Perhaps the most important utilisation of the USSR’s legacy is in rhetoric surrounding the West— the Other, the ever-looming threat during the Cold War. Putin plays on old Cold War mentalities by constantly depicting his adversaries as either Western or in league with the West. A dichotomy is therefore created where Putin is the defender of Russian values and stability against his opponents, who are dangerous Western puppets. Navalny, rather than being an anti-corruption activist, is a Western pawn bent on destabilising Russia. Any criticism of Putin’s regime is quickly deemed Western propaganda, calling into the question the good will of the critics.

In all of these instances, Putin is essentially creating an image of himself which capitalises on nationalistic feelings surrounding Russian history and uses this to target his opponents and perpetuate his rule. Putin cannot be criticised, for doing so would be to criticise the Great Patriotic War, the USSR, and stability itself. 

Recently, Putin’s rule has appeared more shaky, especially after his dismal coronavirus response. Moreover, this year will mark 30 years since the USSR fell. A new generation, with no memory of Russia as a global superpower, is less susceptible to Putin’s use of history: the Soviet national anthem brings up no memories, nor does linking Navalny with the West diminish their support of him. A simple look at the make-up of the Navalny campaign shows all that you need to know. Navalny himself is positioned as an opposite to Putin’s authoritarianism, he engages with his audience primarily on social media, where protests and campaigning are also organised. News reports show the protestors as young and eager for change. History is an effective tool for such authoritarians, but insofar as there is any real connection to that history in the present. As the old Soviet generation will soon start to dwindle in number, that connection is lost, and the propaganda of those authoritarians loses appeal.

Jonas Balkus, History in Politics Contributor