Having a territory, a population and a government, in addition to functioning independently, are the classic criteria of international law to define a state. Others more down-to-earth include having your own beer, an airline, and a football team.
Norwegian writer Bjorn Berge added another way of defining a country: having had a cachet.
This is the premise of “Lugar None – An Atlas of Countries That No Longer Exist”, launched in 2016 and now arriving in Brazil in a launch by publisher Rua do Sabão.
An architect by training, collector and student of the many twists and turns that the map has experienced over the past few centuries, Berge has listed 50 territories that at one time aspired to be recognized as independent states between 1840 and 1975.
Proof that they wanted to be taken seriously, they all created during their ephemeral existence a symbol of sovereignty: a seal. “The seals serve primarily as concrete proof that these countries really existed. But they often represent lies. They should be seen as propaganda, in which the truth is always secondary, ”the author told Folha by email.
Several cases cited in the book lasted a few decades or even a few years. Some are mere inventions of dazzled elites who wanted a country to be theirs. Others have had tragic consequences, leading to bloody wars.
One example is the Republic of Biafra, a region in eastern Nigeria that declared independence in 1967, spawning a conflict that left 2 million people dead until it ended in 1970.
In 1968, on the occasion of the first anniversary of the new “country”, the authorities of Biafra issued a stamp with a design of men working in what appears to be a laboratory. The message that the new republic wanted to send to the world was that of respect for science and progress, as opposed to the obscurantism of the enemy.
Less subtle is the inscription on the seal: “help the children of Biafra”. The war became famous for the images of starving children, which led to an international aid campaign.
However, no territory has had such lasting consequences for the history of the 20th century as the Free State of Danzig, anchored in present-day Poland. It was a sovereign entity for only 19 years, removed from German rule after World War I in 1920.
Although 95% of the population is of Germanic origin, Danzig comes under the control, in practical terms, of the Poles, although it is formally administered by the League of Nations.
A seal to mark this area, of course, could not be missing, and it was created in 1926, with the figure of a ship, a nod to the port tradition of the place. To throw salt on the German wound, it bears the inscription “Polish Courier” and designates the place under the name of “Gdansk”, its Polish name, which remains today.
In 1939, the invasion of Danzig by Adolf Hitler, putting an end to the sovereignty of the place, was the trigger for World War II.
Even the most picturesque examples cited in the book tell a story that once rocked the geopolitics of their time.
The so-called Far Eastern Republic, for example, only survived between 1920 and 1922, occupying an area in eastern Russia five times the size of Germany.
It was founded by liberal socialists after the Bolshevik revolution and accepted for a time by the Soviet leadership to give a democratic veneer to the new system.
At a time when the revolution was still taking hold, it was necessary to show tolerance to discourage possible intervention by the West or Asian powers like Japan.
His 1921 stamp features a crisscrossing anchor and pickaxe on a sheaf of ripe wheat, which appears to be a more toned down reference to the Communist hammer and sickle.
Although short-lived, until absorbed by the new Soviet Union, the republic made a contribution to twentieth-century culture. Some of its leaders inspired the novel “Doctor Zhivago”, which later became a classic film.
Another territory to bridge the gap with literature was the present day island of Tasmania, south of Australia. Between 1803 and 1856 it was a self-contained colony, wild and frightening by nature, and in practice functioned as a large prison created by the British.
The island served as the setting for a children’s literature classic, “Gulliver’s Travels”.
“We were caught in a strong storm and dragged to the shores of Van Diemen Country. Two of our men perished from overwork and eating worthless food, and it’s no wonder the others are in bad shape, ”says an excerpt from Jonathan Swift’s work.
Its stamp, created in 1855, shows a young Queen Victoria, looking somewhat frightened. “The smile gives way to a grimace of dread, an expression very much in keeping with the bad reputation of the place,” says the author in the book.
The stamps mentioned in the book are part of Berge’s collection, a habit passed down to him by his father. “It all started when I inherited his old stamp album. I noticed that many were used in letters from countries that no longer existed. They had simply disappeared, leaving few traces. Thus, my curiosity was piqued, ”says the author.
The book talks about countries that existed until 1975. According to the Norwegian, this is intentional, although ephemeral states of existence continue to appear and disappear.
“There are several more recent examples, such as the republics of the Balkans or the former Soviet Union, not to mention the Islamic State. But the story has to have time to mature, before the publicity takes off and the final story takes hold, ”he says.
In the work, there is no Brazilian example, but that does not mean that they did not exist, specifies the writer.
“I had to make a selection, because there are over a thousand cases. But I know, for example, the republics of Acre [1899-1903] and Cunani [no atual Amapá, entre 1886 e 1891], although the seals of the latter are likely fakes that appeared long after the entity ceased to exist.
There are, however, examples in South America, such as the territory of Corrientes, which existed where the Argentine province of the same name is located, between 1856 and 1875.
It was, as the author says, little more than a project of breeders who wanted to demarcate their autonomy from the central power in Buenos Aires. For their seal, they chose the effigy of Ceres, Roman goddess of agriculture and fertility, to delimit the economic vocation of the region, which continues to this day.
As has happened on several occasions, however, this was just a project with little to do with reality, Berge says. “Few countries are nations in the sense that they represent a particular culture or people. The division of the world has always been the project of the rulers and the imperialists, often not very attentive to what the inhabitants think.