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Emperor Charles V was the first to rule a global empire in which "the sun never set"; Painting by Rubens

A world empire is usually an empire that encompasses large parts of the known world as well as having significant influence on historical development (political, geographical, technological, social, cultural, religious or linguistic). Often the respective self-image included the claim to either rule large parts of the (known) world or at least to be the greatest political-economic power. In contrast to world power , a world empire does not require a global political level.

Conceptual problem

Different terms for such a world empire appear in different historical epochs. The terms imperium , great empire , world empire and increasingly empire are mostly used synonymously in politics and history. There is currently no uniform definition of what an empire, a large empire and what a world empire actually would be, even though more recent political science studies have offered a number of delimitation criteria (e.g. to the territorial state), motives for action and power-theoretical structural models. However, the term is Empire in the literature commonly associated with the two Persian empires ( Achaemenid and Sassanid Empire ), the Alexander empire , the Roman Empire , the Mongol Empire , the Empire of Charles V as well as the colonial empires of Spain ( Spanish Colonial Empire ) and Britain ( British Empire ) repeated use. Today Herfried Münkler calls the USA an empire.

In this context, empires claim political dominance over large parts of the world they know, which sometimes culminated in claims to world domination .

“Empires are more than great states; they move in a world of their own. States are part of an order which they have created together with other states and which they therefore do not have at their own disposal. Empires, on the other hand, see themselves as creators and guarantors of an order that ultimately depends on them and that they have to defend against the onset of chaos. A look at the history of empires shows that linguistic expressions such as that of the 'axis of evil' or the 'outpost of tyranny' are nothing new and special. - While states stop at the borders of other states and leave it to them to regulate their own internal affairs, empires interfere in the relationships of others in order to fulfill their mission. That is why empires can initiate processes of change much more effectively, while the order of states is shaped by structural conservatism. "

In the Encyclopedia of Modern Times , Empire is defined as follows:

"Empire. 1. Term and meaning: With the term W. - as a manifestation of the world system - a histor. Denotes a unit of order that (1) comprises larger parts of the known world and, like "Reich", an ethnically and culturally heterogeneous subject, which (2) a domain based on political power, real (often military) threats of violence and cultural hegemony with a corresponding self-perception and forms a sense of supremacy, (3) influences the dominated areas culturally, linguistically and economically and (4) asserts the claim to world domination. "World" does not stand in a geographically comprehensive sense, but is linked as a relative and variable quantity to the respective world perception resulting from the expansion of trade relations, the knowledge of other civilizations and the acquisition of new information [14.26]. “World” also means the integrated, territorial, often cross-continental greater region that is related to a center through actions, institutions and rules. But it is not this "size" in itself that is the decisive criterion; rather, the de facto power as well as the exercise of rule and administration (lat. imperium) are decisive, which are based on expansion as well as on the potential of the population and the economy [16. 610 f.]. Therefore, such large-scale and hierarchically ordered, that is, in a center exercising power and colonial peripheries distinguishable [15.108] domains based on the model of the most famous ancient world, the Imperium Romanum, with a synonymous term also as empire [3] (EngI. Empire [ 7]; [17], Spanish imperio). W. or empires with a corresponding imperial program are not a specific feature of the European. History. In the Nz. there were even empires whose "worlds" did not touch one another (e.g. the Spanish and the Chinese W.). "

Ancient "empires"

The Achaemenid Persian Empire is often considered the first “real” world empire in history; In the preceding centuries there were several large empires that dominated the surrounding territories and peoples for a short or medium term, but their size was not comparable to that of the Persian Empire. The largest empire that existed before the Persian Empire was the now relatively unknown Neo-Assyrian Empire , which at the time of its greatest expansion stretched from southern Egypt to the Persian Gulf and present-day Armenia.

Of particular importance is the empire of Alexander the Great , which stretched from Macedonia and Egypt to the Indus. The Alexander empire was only extremely short-lived, but through its successor states , the so-called diadochin empires , brought about the emergence of a unified Hellenistic cultural area in the eastern Mediterranean.

The classic example of a world empire is the Roman Empire . In its heyday it not only encompassed large parts of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, but also exerted a profound and lasting influence on civilization, culture and language on the areas it had ruled for a long time, which (also through its later connection with Christianity ) is still having an impact in many areas today. Today's linguistic and state structures can in many cases be directly associated with the Roman Empire.

Non-European "world empires"

As a result of the prevailing Eurocentric view of history, it was and is still insufficiently recognized that most world empires existed outside of the European continent until the beginning of the early modern period . Up until the end of antiquity there were at least three European world empires: the Alexander Empire , the Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman / Byzantine Empire (which is a direct successor to the Roman Empire) . After the fall of the Roman Empire in late antiquity , no world empire was able to gain a foothold on the European continent, only the imperial peripheries of other, non-European world empires extended over the peripheral areas of Europe. As a European empire, Byzantium was initially an exception here, but was also practically no longer a world empire since the Islamic expansion in the 7th century. Instead, in Europe, first the union states and then the complex system of territorial states emerged. With the start of European expansion in the 15th century, these states then created non-European world empires (colonial empires) on other continents.

But, for example, both in the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan , as well as in the Empire of the Caliphs (approx. 700 - 900 AD) and the Chinese Empire (approx. 200 BC - 1800), long-term historical effects cannot be denied either. They, too, were all historical figures that had a lasting impact on the development of their region.

Colonial empire

During the period of colonialism and imperialism , some European countries built world empires and had a lasting impact on the countries they colonized. So were Latin America from Spain and Portugal , North America , Africa , Asia by Australia and France and the UK formed linguistically and culturally. The fact that the British Empire was the greatest colonial and trading power on earth resulted in the worldwide spread of the English language , so that today English has become the universal language of the world and lingua franca.

Empire doctrine

Around 1900 it seemed to be a foregone conclusion in international scientific discourse that sooner or later the world would be dominated by a few empires. The prerequisites were a large area, a high and growing population and inexhaustible economic resources. These characteristics fully applied to the USA and Russia, to a large extent to the British Empire, but hardly at all to Germany and France. Nevertheless, possibilities were also discussed there to win a world empire. The speech of the later Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow on December 6, 1897, in which he demanded a place in the sun for Germany and introduced German world politics is well known . The doctrine of the world empire, after its first beginnings in the post-Napoleonic era, was intensively discussed by geographers, historians and economists around the turn of the century, with the chances of being able to climb into the club of the world empires always formed the intellectual background. The alternative seemed to be the downfall of one's own nation. The most intense discussions were in those states whose status seemed threatened or precarious, namely in Germany and Great Britain.

Universal monarchy

The Chinese Empire in particular saw itself as a universal monarchy, i. H. the emperor as the "son of heaven" had supremacy over all other princes of the world. A similar idea was associated with the Roman-German Empire in Europe in the Middle Ages, with reference to St. Jerome , who wrote the Bible text Dan 2, 21ff. interpreted the dream of Nebuchadnezzar to mean that there would only be four world empires: the Babylonian Empire , the Empire of the Medes and Persians , the Empire of Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire, which would last until the end of days. Under this condition, the Roman-German Empire could claim the successor to the Roman one, a continuity that Charlemagne consciously established ( Translatio Imperii ) . However, there was no corresponding real power associated with this universal claim. Only after the discovery of America can we speak of a world empire again under Charles V , in whose empire “the sun never went down”.

Post-colonial empires

Bipolar world of states in the Cold War with the Western world and the Eastern Bloc

In the world order after 1945, too, scientists like Herfried Münkler and Hans-Heinrich Nolte perceived imperial structures that show parallels to previous world empire orders. For example, the Cold War would be a conflict between an Eastern Communist world empire, the Soviet Union with its vassal states in the Eastern Bloc , and a Western capitalist one , the USA with its allies in the Western world . In this interpretation, the rule of these post-colonial empires is not tied to territories, but rather expresses itself decisively in the control of the world economy as well as an overly strong and at the same time global influence on politics, technology, migration, language and especially clearly on culture (see also Augustan threshold ). Münkler uses the term American Empire , to which the EU forms a kind of imperial sub-center.


Web links

Wiktionary: Weltreich  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. Sebastian Huhnholz: Crisis imperiality. Rome reference in the US empire discourse. Campus, Frankfurt am Main and New York 2014.
  2. Herfried Münkler: Empires. The logic of world domination - from ancient Rome to the United States. Berlin 2005.
  3. Herfried Münkler: Empires. The logic of world domination - from ancient Rome to the United States. Berlin 2005, p. 8.
  4. Hans-Joachim König: Weltreich. In: Encyclopedia of Modern Times . Volume 14. Stuttgart / Weimar 2011, here Sp. 869f.
  5. ^ Sönke Neitzel : World Power or Downfall. The doctrine of world empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Schöningh, Paderborn 2000.
  6. Hans-Heinrich Nolte (Ed.): Imperien. A comparative study , Wochenschau Verlag, Schwalbach 2008, p. 69 ff; Herfried Münkler: Empires: The logic of world domination. Rowohlt, Berlin 2007, p. 224 ff.