Of course not, at least not in detail. Every circumstance is unique. Britain’s vote in June to leave the European Union—with similar talk in other member states—wasn’t the fall of the Roman Empire, the breakup of the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires after World War I, or the collapse of the U.S.S.R. or Yugoslavia. But certain broad patterns seem to recur. Larger and larger territorial units fracture into smaller ones. Then the process reverses.
Economic and military advantages sustain a multi-ethnic empire or union for a time, but increasing diversity makes it hard to garner loyalty and a sense of belonging. Cultural unity in a small national state feels good until lack of resources starts to bite; then adjoining states find ways to join together. Another problem with cultural unity as a basis for statehood, besides creating states too small to go it alone, is the fact that ethnic groups live intermixed. Trying to draw neat borders between them can breed disaster; just ask the people of India and Pakistan in 1947, or Bosnia in 1992-95, or Palestine for decades.
History won’t repeat itself precisely, whether we learn from it or not. But its patterns are worth noticing as we chart a course through the tensions of globalization and reaction. We can acknowledge the human craving for a sense of belonging and shared culture. We can understand that this sense won’t come from building walls to maintain an imagined cultural purity. In the U.S. in this heated political season, I hope we can promote the values, symbols, and traditions that cut across boundaries of ancestry or religion to support a sense of one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.