Three Recent Events in Small States That Shaped Our World

Updated: Mar 12

Most think of them as insignificant, but some events that took place in these small states have altered the course of our world.

1942, Malta

Air Shelter in Malta. Frank Vincentz, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Do you know which place was most bombed during World War II? It wasn't Berlin, London or Tokyo. Malta holds the record for the heaviest, sustained bombing attack: some 154 days and nights by 6,700 tons of bombs. Throughout the war, Malta was under air raids for 2,357 hours, 15,000 tons of explosives were dropped, and 10,761 buildings were destroyed in the former British territory.

Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939 officially kickstarted World War II. On June 10, 1940, Italy officially joined Germany and the Axis power, and declared war on France and the United Kingdom. With that, war also broke out in North Africa, between neighbouring Libya, an Italian colony, and Egypt, a British colony.

Key Players in North African Campaign, including the small state of Malta
Libya and Egypt. Two key players in North Africa (Jackaranga, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

With the North African Campaign starting, one strategic location came into light. Malta, a series of three islands located less than 200km from Sicily, and in between Italy and Libya, was a British colony and a key naval base. This means that Italian ships transporting supplies to North Africa were subject to attacks by the British.

Malta located in between Italy and Libya (Dennis Bratland, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

So on the second day after Italy declared war, June 11, 1940, 55 Italian bombers and 21 fighters flew over Malta, dropping a total of 142 bombs on the island. At this point, Malta had limited defence capability, as war in other parts of Europe significantly drained the resource of the British Royal Navy.

Luckily for those on the islands, the Italians lacked a willingness to directly invade Malta. Instead, it continued to bomb Malta and imposed a blockade on the islands. Malta, reliant on the British to bring them food, fuel and military supplies, became isolated as the Italians deployed 54,000 mines around the islands to prevent it from being supplied. The British Navy attempted to supply Malta through a series of convoys, but the long journey from British territories made these convoys extremely vulnerable.

Italy's failure to seize the islands attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe, the fearsome German air force which arrived to support the Italians. From January to April, 1941, Luftwaffe dropped 2,500 tons of high explosives on Malta, and destroyed more than 2000 civilian buildings. Nearly 60,000 Maltese were forced to leave the cities and hid in the countryside. The German mission was only abandoned in April when the air force was diverted towards the Balkans and the Soviet. Although the Luftwaffe were gone (for now), Malta remained under siege by the Italians.

By December 1941, with the Axis not doing well in North Africa, the German aircrafts returned to Malta as it attempted to take control of the Mediterranean. Malta was bombed more often than London in April and May, 1942, even as the Battle of Britain was going on. Yet, those on the island held on.

Tiny nation Malta during world war 2 damaged by bomb
Bomb-damaged Valletta, Malta in April 1942

By June 1942, Malta had been under siege for two years. Nine months had gone by since the last convoy arrived, and supplies, in particular, aviation fuel, was almost out. Two previous British convoys to replenish the islands, Harpoon and Vigorous, suffered enormous damages. Malta was at a breaking point - it would be forced to surrender if fuel and food did not arrive before September.

Facing such dire situation, the largest convoy, Operation Pedestal, was commissioned. Fourteen merchant ships set off from Britain to Malta. In this convoy, SS Ohio was the prized asset as it was the large oil tanker that will keep the fighter jets in Malta flying.

On August 9, 1942, the ships left under the heavy fog of Gibraltar. They soon came across heavy attacks from the Axis. It took one day for the German torpedoes took out one of the four aircraft carriers, HMS Eagle, along with its 260 men.

The next day, the Germans and the Italians flew over 100 planes to attack the convoy. SS Ohio was soon identified, hit and caught fire. Even with a number of anti-aircraft guns, SS Ohio was hit multiple times. The ship eventually came to a halt because its engine wouldn't start. The solution? It had to be towed by other ships towards Malta.

Two destroyers ultimately towed Ohio towards the Port. Four transport ships completed its mission before SS Ohio finally arrived on August 15, at 9:30am. It was welcomed by great crowds and even a band. The crew had no time to spare though. They immediately worked to discharge the oil. As the oil begin to empty out, SS Ohio started to sink. The ship sunk to the bottom of the ocean soon after, but its oil helped Malta to stay afloat.

With the North Africa campaign reaching a crucial stage by October, 1942. German Air Support made one last push for Malta, but this led to over 46 German aircrafts destroyed and 18 damaged. The defence was too strong. Instead, the Germans turned their attention towards North Africa.

With a decisive British victory in Egypt in November, 1942, German and Italian forces were forced to retreat towards Tunisia, where they were cornered by the Allies. To save their effort in North Africa, the Italians and Germans were forced to abandon their blockade on Malta.

What would have happened if Malta had fallen? Italy and Germany could have gained control of Central Mediterranean, giving them a free path to reinforce Libya and an edge against the Brits in the North African campaign. The Allies may never have been able to start the Italian Campaign, which ultimately resulted in the fall of the Fascist Italian Regime and Benito Mussolini. Till today, analysts argue that the inability to capture Malta was one of the biggest reasons for the Axis power to fall ultimately.

1962, Cuba

How close did we come to full on nuclear war? Well, about 145km.

Cuban Missile. Martin Trolle Mikkelsen, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

At the start of the 20th century, Cuba gained its independence from Spain for the first time in almost four millenniums. However, an independent Cuba simply became a big playground for the Americans, who had sent in their troops to help drive the Spanish away. By the 1950s, even though Cuba's economy developed, unemployment and political repression was rife. Cubans were yearning for a change, and they cheered on Fidel Castro, when he swept into Havana in 1959, after a guerrilla war that lasted over three years.

The American government was quick to recognize and support the new Castro government, but Castro's government began moving towards communism. This included the nationalization of all American assets in Cuba in August 1960. Fearing the spread of communism to its doorstep, the US froze all Cuban assets, severed diplomatic ties and enacted an embargo on the islands.

Further, the American government backed a group of Cuban militants to invade Cuba, in what is now known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. With anxiety over a full US invasion, and with the trade embargo, Castro increasingly leaned on the Soviet Union.

Cuba, on the doorstep of the US, was a perfect ally for the Soviet Union. The Soviets were, of course, in the midst of the Cold War with the Americans. Although both sides had been building up their nuclear arsenals, the Soviet Union was at a significant disadvantage because their intercontinental ballistic missiles were underdeveloped. The US had also installed nuclear weapons in Turkey, on the doorstep of the Soviet Union. In other words, it was much harder for the Soviet to hit the US, then vice versa.

With Cuba in its orbit, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev came up with a "brilliant" plan. He would install nuclear weapons on Cuba. In Khrushchev's plan, this would even the playing field between the two powers. This also provides a shield to Cuba, viewed as a key asset, especially to the communist leaders in Latin America. In the worst case, Khrushchev thought, this could be used to trade for West Berlin, which had remained in the hands of the capitalists.

By July 1962, the plan was approved by both the Soviet and Cuban leaderships. Work began quietly, but as early as August, CIA was getting suspicious and a warning was delivered to the US President, John F. Kennedy. By October 15, the US, through its spy plane surveillance, confirmed what they had fear. Nuclear missiles were spotted in Cuba. For the next thirteen days, the World would on the edge of a nuclear war that would potentially wipe out a third of humanity.

EXCOMM meeting. Cuban Missile Crisis.
EXCOMM Meeting. The men charged with handling the crisis. (Public domain)

US President John F. Kennedy had a big dilemma on his hand. In DC, top government officials who were aware of the situation were split on what to do. Plans to attack Cuba were quickly drafted up, along with plans to impose a blockade on Cuba to prevent further missiles from arriving. By October 21, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) decided on a blockade, even though concerns remained. What if we missed the chance, and the Russians quickly rushed ahead and completed some of the missiles during the blockade?

On October 22 at 7pm, a week after CIA's discovery, John F. Kennedy addressed the nation. He told the World about the missile build-up and he described his administration's plan:

To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba, from whatever nation or port, will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers.

As the world looked on, fearing an end to mankind, neither sides looked ready to back down. Khrushchev remained that the missiles were for defensive purposes, and the missile construction work carried on. Soviet submarines moved into the Caribbean, readying to break up the US Navy blockade which was now in place. Soviet freighters carrying military supplies stopped and looked on, just like the rest of the world.

Cuban missile crisis. 800 women strikers for peace on 47 St near the UN Bldg
Women on strike calling for peace (Public domain)

October 26. Eleven days after the start of the crisis. Worrying that the US would invade soon, Castro sent a telegram to Khrushchev, calling for the Soviet leader to do a pre-emptive strike. Meanwhile, the CIA delivered a memo claiming that three of the four missile sites at San Cristobal and the two sites at Sagua la Grande appeared to be fully operational. At this point, Kennedy had actually informed ExComm that he believed only an invasion of Cuba would remove the missiles.

At 6pm EDT, the telegram machine at the US State Department started receiving a message. It was a long one that took a few minutes to come through, and it took a few minutes more to translate and transcribe it. Chairman Khrushchev had a message to President Kennedy,

"I propose: We, for our part, will declare that our ships, bound for Cuba, will not carry any kind of armaments. You would declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its forces and will not support any sort of forces which might intend to carry out an invasion of Cuba. Then the necessity for the presence of our military specialists in Cuba would disappear."

While ExComm was still debating its options, a second, tougher condition came from Khrushchev. Remove US' missiles in Italy and Turkey, and the missiles in Cuba will be removed. Less than one hour later, a U-2F aircraft, piloted by US Air Force Major Rudolf Anderson, was shot down by a missile coming from Cuba. Military leaders urged Kennedy to launch air strike against Cuba's air defence. It was time for John F. Kennedy to make a big decision - to invade or to negotiate.

“There was the feeling that the noose was tightening on all of us, on Americans, on mankind, and that the bridges to escape were crumbling.” - Robert Kennedy

Additional meetings were held at EXCOMM, in which a plan was made to respond favourably to Khrushchev's first letter, but ignore his second one. Military preparation would continue, but secretly, J.F. Kennedy's brother, Robert Kennedy, reached out to the Soviet, agreeing not to invade Cuba and to remove the missiles in Turkey voluntarily, at a later date.

On October 28, at 9am EST, Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev would appear on Radio Moscow. He announced,

"The Soviet government, in addition to previously issued instructions on the cessation of further work at the building sites for the weapons, has issued a new order on the dismantling of the weapons which you describe as 'offensive' and their crating and return to the Soviet Union."

With Kennedy accepting the offer later in the day, the world pulled back from a nuclear war. By end of the year 1962, nuclear weapons were removed from Cuba, and in 1963, the missiles were removed from Turkey. Despite Fidel Castro's pressure on Khrushchev, calmer heads prevailed at the end of the day. Or else perhaps none of us would have lived to see today.

Watch: Thirteen Days, A Dramatized Version of the Cuban Missile Crisis

1985, Luxembourg

How did a tiny country of 600,000 people changed the world in one of its smallest commune? Schengen has a population of 4,223, and is a small wine-making village in far south-eastern Luxembourg. The Schengen Area, on the other hand, now covers 26 countries and almost 420 million people. The agreement signed in the small Luxembourgish town has changed Europe forever.

Schengen, Luxembourg. © Raimond Spekking

After Belgium gained independence in 1839, the independence of Luxembourg was established under the Treaty of London. However, it also ceded 2/3 of its territory and half of its population to the newly formed Belgium. This relegated Luxembourg to a tiny country that borders major powers, including Belgium, France and Germany. Luxembourg knew from an early time that its prosperity relies on access to these much bigger neighbours. Its policy reflected as much.

As early as 1842, Luxembourg joined Zollverein, or the German Customs Union, which was one of the first economic unions in the world. During World War I, from 1914 to 1918, Luxembourg was occupied by the German army. Upon liberation, Britain and France pushed to remove Luxembourg from the German sphere of influence, which ultimately saw Luxembourg withdrawing itself from the Zollverein in 1918.

Having lost its most significant trade partner, Luxembourg had to look elsewhere. At a 1919 referendum, a question was posted to the Luxembourgish on whether an economic union should be formed with France or with Belgium. An overwhelming majority (73%) chose France, not least due to the history between Belgium and Luxembourg. However, talks between Luxembourg and France ultimately broke down in 1920. This led to the Luxembourg government turning towards Belgium, and concluding a monetary union between Belgium and Luxembourg by 1921.

During World War II, Luxembourg, Belgium and Netherlands were all occupied by German forces. The three government-in-exiles, all based in London, concluded that the three countries must work more closely together, should they regain their sovereignties. This led to the Benelux Customs Union in 1948, after the end of the war.

Separately, with Western Europe facing a new threat from the Soviet Union after World War II, integration efforts began to pick up. Benelux was a key participant in the European integration project, including the Western Union (1948), European Coal and Steel Community (1951) and the European Economic Community (1957). In particular, the EEC was established with the principle that "freedom of movement for workers shall be secured within the Community by the end of the transitional period". This transitional period was original defined as 12 years.

For Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg, this was a simple decision. The countries were already working so closely together that by 1960, they implemented the free movement of workers, capital, services and goods in the Benelux region. This meant that, for the first time in Europe, border control was completely torn down.

However, when Denmark, Ireland and Great Britain joined the European Community in 1973, pulling down the wider borders became more complicated due to differences in opinions. The twelve year transitional period was long over by now, but border controls were still in place everywhere except across Benelux.

In 1984, the call for the abolition of all police and customs formalities for people crossing intra-community frontiers was re-iterated in the European Council Meeting, which took place at Fontainebleau.

There, Germany and France, two major forces behind closer European integration, took a small but meaningful step. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand negotiated to gradually dismantle border controls between the two countries. The Saarbrücken Agreement, signed in July 1984, allowed cars that have been given green stickers to be subject to spot checks only, thereby largely reducing border crossing time.

Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands was quick to join this agreement in October, 1984, and it was decided that the five countries would hold a small signing party to celebrate this historical event.

So what's the best place for signing this agreement? Try finding the intersection between Benelux, France and Germany on Google Maps, and you would come to the small village of Schengen in Luxembourg. So on June 14, 1985, the five member states of the European Community signed the Schengen Agreement, on board a cruise ship that was moored on The Moselle, a river that flows through France, Luxembourg and Germany.

Five years later, in 1990, a second agreement, the Schengen Convention was signed at Schengen, which laid out the details on the measures of abolishing border control. Finally, on March 26, 1995, borders between the five states were abolished. Later on, under the Treaty of Amsterdam, signed in October 1997 to establish the European Union, Schengen Area became part of the legal system of the EU.

Today, about 1.7 million people commute to work across an internal European border each day, and 1.3 billion crossings are made in total. Goods crossing internal borders in the area are valued at €2.8 trillion each year. According to a study by the Bertelsmann Foundation, if the Schengen area did not exist, cumulative impact for EU member states, to 2025, could be in the range of 500 billion Euros.

On the contrary, the idea of free movement of people became the catalyst to the birth of Nationalist parties across Europe, including in France, Germany and most notably, in the UK. Perhaps in an alternate universe without this free movement of people, Brexit would not have happened?