When the System Crashes

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

Social, Political and Economic Systems Can Collapse for a Number of Reasons.

Collapse due to War

Germany, 1618-1648


--Central Europe was a mosaic of semi-independent states called the Holy Roman Empire. Many of these states were ruled by the Austrian branch of the Hapsburg family. Another branch of the Hapsburgs ruled Spain, the Low Countries, and parts of Italy.

Cause of the War

. King Ferdinand of Bohemia, a militant Catholic, tried to pack his royal council with Catholics, and thereby angered his Protestant subjects. A Protestant mob cornered two of the council members and threw them out of a high window (the Defenestration of Prague). Both survived. Catholics claimed a miracle, Protestants claimed they landed on a manure heap. Protestant rebels then went on to seize control of Prague, the capital of Bohemia.

Bohemian Phase, 1618-1625

. Ferdinand, with the aid of Bavaria and foreign mercenaries, reinvaded Bohemia and obliterated Protestantism.

Danish Phase, 1625-1629

Protestant German rulers enlist the aid of Denmark to protect the Protestants of Bohemia. The sequence now becomes much like World War I, where a minor local conflict escalates into a general European war.

Swedish Phase, 1630-1635

In 1627, Ferdinand, who had by now been elected Holy Roman Emperor, meddled in Italian politics on half of his Spanish relatives and allies and against the French. The French-Swedish power block was a counterpoise to the Hapsburg block. The French persuaded their Swedish allies to attack. The Swedes, led by the brilliant King Gustavus Adolphus, invaded and advanced to Munich and Prague. Only after Gustavus Adolphus was killed in battle were the Swedes routed.

Franco-Swedish Phase, 1635-1648

A general war of attrition using Germany as the battleground.

Effects of the War

Paraguayan War or War of the Triple Alliance, 1865-1870

Isolation of Paraguay


The war

Effects of the war

Natural Disaster

The Great Hunger; Ireland, 1845-1849

The moment the very name of Ireland is mentioned, the English seem to bid adieu to common feeling, common prudence, and common sense, and to act with the barbarity of tyrants and the fatuity of idiots.
--Sydney Smith

British occupation of Ireland

Ireland could be and was used as a base for any enemy or rebel to attack England itself. To rule in England, it was also necessary to rule in Ireland.

First invasion, 1169 Religious split, 1500's "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity" With hostility in Ireland forming such a direct threat to the home soil of England, the English lost their perspective and acted as backwardly in Ireland as they were progressive in their other colonies. Repression and penal laws--Irish disenfranchised in their own country Need for land reform--fragmentation--absentee landlords

Over-dependence on the potato

The potato blight

The response. Prime Minister Robert Peel began relief measures, including repeal of the agricultural protection measures known as the Corn Laws (in Britain, "Corn" means wheat). He also began importing Maize (American corn). But the prevailing doctrine of Laissez Faire (French, let them be) economics prevented the government from taking the strong measures that would really have been necessary to relieve the disaster.

The Great Exodus

Effects of the famine

Collapse due to Institutional Paralysis

Germany, 1923

The setting. Germany, forced to pay billions of dollars in war reparations to the Allies, decided on a strategy of passive resistance and slowdowns to protest. When the French occupied some border areas, general strikes and stoppages broke out.

The basic problem with these tactics is they only disrupt the economy within Germany. The Allies, all outside Germany, can simply wait and watch the interest pile up on the debt.

Collapse of the Mark

With production at a standstill, inflation set in.

So far, the inflation is bad but not too different from what many other nations have experienced. From here on, things get ridiculous.

The Remedy

On November 16, the "Rentenmark" was introduced, supposedly backed by the combined assets of all Germany. In effect, it mortgaged the country. The supply was rigidly controlled and only a prescribed amount was issued.


U.S.A., 1929-1940, The Great Depression

The Crash

The Depression

The U.S. National Debt

Collapse Due to Ideological Paralysis

Chile, 1974

A controversial topic. In 1970, the Marxist Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile, though in the large field of candidates he received only 30% of the vote. Although Allende was a humane president and maintained civil liberties, his economic program resulted in near economic collapse. In 1973, a military coup deposed Allende, who was killed in the fighting. The rightist regime of Augusto Pinochet came to power and was accused of massive human rights violations.

Cambodia (Kampuchea) 1975-1980

Documented in the film The Killing Fields.

In 1975 the Communist Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. In an attempt to create a pure Marxist society, the leader Pol Pot ordered the cities evacuated and the population driven into the countryside to work in the fields. For a time, even money was abolished. Foreign contact even with the government was nearly nil. The Khmer Rouge were ousted by the Vietnamese invasion, but not before an estimated 3,000,000 people had been killed by starvation, disease, and mass execution.

Collapse due to Interacting Causes


Once called the "Switzerland of South America" for its liberal social benefits, Uruguay for a time had one of the most repressive regimes in Latin America.


"Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong." 

Concluding Remarks

"Bringing down the system," as radicals of the 1960's called it, is no picnic. Generally the disruption of services and institutions puts the heaviest burden on the poor and powerless.

Are we vulnerable?

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Created 20 May 1997, Last Update 14 December 2009

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