Countries often declare independence, merge or get swallowed up by larger or more-powerful countries. These changes to names, borders and governments have happened almost constantly throughout human history as the result of war, treaties, political shifts or economic necessity.
Even today, citizens of some former countries have strong feelings about their current status as territories under a different flag. In some cases, the history under different rulers is something that becomes part of a current place’s collective pride and identity. Here are 10 countries that existed in the past, but are no longer on the map.
Austria-Hungary was a relatively short-lived country. Created after a compromise between its two namesakes in 1867, it lasted until 1918 when it found itself on the losing side of World War I. For a period of time, this new empire enjoyed success. It was Europe’s third most populous country, and it became a leader in the manufacturing of electrical appliances and electrical generation devices that were exported around the industrialized world.
World War I actually began when a Bosnian Serb nationalist killed Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, during his trip to Sarajevo. The empire, which sided with Germany and the Ottomans during the war, broke up by the time the world powers signed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. However, both Austria and Hungary remain influential countries in Central Europe to this day.
While World War I brought the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was a beginning for other Central European countries. Czechoslovakia, which was formerly part of Austria-Hungary, went through several different incarnations during its 75-year lifespan. The first republic was established in 1918. Though there were ongoing tensions between the culturally distinct Czech and Slovak groups within the country, Czechoslovakia retained a significant amount of the industry developed by the Austro-Hungarians. It started out as an economically sound model democracy, but suffered under Nazi influence during World War II and then under Soviet control afterwards.
Communist rule lasted for five decades, until an uprising in 1989 brought down the weakened government. This movement became known as the Velvet Revolution, and it is still celebrated now. Efforts to create a democratic Czechoslovakia were ultimately unsuccessful, and the country broke into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.
Gangtok was once the capital of the independent country of Sikkim. (Photo: Rajib Ghosh/Flickr)
Not many people are familiar with Rhode Island-sized Sikkim, but the land that is now an Indian state was an independent nation for centuries. Tucked away in the Himalayan Mountains, not far from Tibet, Sikkim joined India in 1975. Before then, it had a tumultuous and colorful history that included Buddhist priest-kings, conflicts with neighboring groups, and close ties with the British Empire. The Sikkimese monarchy was one of the last in the world to hold real political power.
Despite its relatively small size, modern-day Sikkim is a melting pot with no less than 11 widely spoken languages. A majority of residents are Nepali, though native Sikkimese groups, Tibetans and Hindi-speaking people who migrated from elsewhere in India also live in the state. Though its history included many conflicts, Sikkim’s merger with India was mostly peaceful. More than 97 percent of the former country’s citizens approved a 1975 referendum to join India as a state.
Now one of the 50 U.S. states, Vermont’s early history included an effort to create a separate country. Vermont was controlled by the colony of New York until 1777, when it declared itself independent. This independence effort included the drafting of a constitution. The document included ideas that were quite liberal at that time: voting rights for all adult males regardless of social status or property ownership and the prohibition of slavery.
Vermont remained an independent country because the colonial and post-Revolutionary War authorities would not admit it into the Union of States until it resolved its dispute with New York. At one point, Vermont even considered becoming part of Canada, which was still under British control. It remained independent until 1790, when it ended its dispute with New York. A year later, it was admitted into the U.S. as the 14th state.
Kingdom of Hawaii
A statue of Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, stands outside the Hawaii State Capitol building. (Photo: Daniel Ramirez/Flickr)
Hawaii became a U.S. state in 1959. Even today, though, Hawaiians celebrate the king who first unified all Hawaii’s islands in 1810. King Kamehameha Day is on June 11 each year. Under the leadership of Kamehameha and his successors, the country of Hawaii sent diplomats to North America and Europe and created trade and diplomatic agreements with the nations on these continents. It became one of the Pacific’s most influential countries.
Hawaii’s history included disputes about the contents of constitutions and the role of the monarchy. Eventually, a coup, supported by agricultural businesses with close ties to the U.S., led to the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment an independent republic. The U.S. president at that time, Grover Cleveland, thought that the coup was illegal and sought to reinstall Hawaii’s monarch, Queen Liliuokalani. However, during the Spanish American War of 1898, Hawaii became strategically important, and it was eventually annexed by the U.S.. In 1993, the Clinton Administration drafted a bill that officially apologized to Hawaiians for the overthrowing of the monarchy.
The German Democratic Republic, more commonly known as East Germany, was an independent country from 1949 until 1990. Following World War II, East Germany fell under the influence of the Soviet Union, while West Germany, which would eventually become the Federal Republic of Germany, was occupied by forces from the United States and Western Europe. East Germany, which included half of Berlin, was under Soviet control until 1954, but Moscow’s communist influence remained important throughout East Germany’s history.
East Germany’s economy paled in comparison to West Germany. Many struggling East Germans tried to emigrate, which led to the construction of the Berlin Wall and the securing of the border between East and West. Eventually, East Germany’s debt crippled the communist regime, which fell in 1989. The country held free elections in 1990, but decided to reunite with West Germany soon thereafter. Because of the poor financial state of the GDR, the West had to invest significant amounts of money to rebuild the outdated infrastructure and prop up the struggling economy. The cost of reunification was estimated to run into the trillions of euros.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), existed from 1922 to 1991. During this time, it was one of the world’s greatest military powers and the driving force behind the spread of communism, especially in Europe and Asia. During the late stages of World War I, revolutionary socialists called Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, took advantage of a weakened Russian government to seize power. Soviet influence grew after World War II thanks to agreements like the Warsaw Pact. Russia’s military and manufacturing might have helped it become one of the world’s two great powers during the Cold War era.
Under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, the USSR sought to liberalize and open the country in order to improve the stalled economy. The fall of communist governments in the Eastern Bloc and the increase of separatist movement within the Soviet Union eventually weakened Moscow to the point that the union was dissolved. Russia, the largest of 15 former Soviet republics, is recognized as its successor by the international community.
The Ashanti Empire
The Ashanti Empire began in the 17th century. The territory that the empire controlled is in present-day Ghana around the city of Kumasi. Due to Ashanti’s economic success and military might, it is a popular subject of study for historians. The country became wealthy because of trade, but became part of Britain's Gold Coast colony after the British exiled the Ashanti royal court to the Seychelles. Ashanti eventually gained protectorate status and became an independent nation again as British influence in the region waned.
The Kingdom of Ashanti exists to this day in Ghana as an officially recognized "traditional state," and it still has a king, called an Asantehene, who has regional influence, but does not participate in national politics.
Sometimes a country exists or ceases to exist because of a cartographic compromise. After the fall of Napoleon’s Empire, Europe was divided among surviving powers. In 1815, the United Kingdoms of the Netherlands and Prussia could not agree on a small sliver of space in what is modern-day Belgium. They agreed to share control of a 1.4 square mile area that contained an important zinc mine. For more than a century, this tiny country, called Neutral Moresnet existed as a co-dominion between Belgium, which took over for the Netherlands in 1830, and Prussia.
When the zinc mine was exhausted in the late 19th century, Neutral Moresnet went through a series of changes. Belgium sought to use it for casinos, and an academic attempted to make it an independent nation for speakers of the constructed international language Esperanto. None of these ideas took off, and eventually the tiny country was given to Belgium after Prussia ended up on the losing side of World War I.
Yugoslavia was formed in 1918 as a merger of kingdoms in the Balkans. Before World War II, it operated as a constitutional monarchy, but it became a socialist state with six different republics after the war. Josip Broz, more commonly known as Tito, directly ruled or influenced Yugoslavia from 1945 until his death in 1980. Many in the country considered him a benevolent dictator who was successful in unifying the different ethnic and linguistic groups of Yugoslavia.
Tito was indeed very powerful, and the country suffered economically and politically after he died. Like the rest of the Eastern Bloc, communist rule ended in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Unlike many other places, however, the resulting political tensions led to wars that left more than 100,000 people dead. The modern nations of Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro emerged from this breakup, with the former Yugoslav region of Kosovo also gaining independence.