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The most famous empires I know had downfall periods of decades, even centuries, and many of them were only conquered after that huge downfall period. The Roman Empire, for example, stopped expanding in the third century AD (correct me if I'm wrong) but needed some two more centuries to finally be considered as gone (the western Empire, at least).

The only empire rapidly destroyed while still expanding that I can think of was the Inca Empire in South America. Their downfall was caused by diseases, superior European military technology at the time and internal struggles caused by a succession conflict some years before the Spanish arrival (exploited by Pizarro). That seems to me to be a quite unique set of characteristics, and I wish to know if any other Empire disappeared in a similar fashion before or after the American ones.

(The term 'destroyed' might be a bit vague: what I mean by it is not the complete and utter disappearance of an Empire in a blink of an eye, but still a rather abrupt downfall, something lasting maybe 15-20 years (opposed to the hundreds of years some Empires needed to disappear). Also, 'destroyed', in this question, is used as a substitute for 'conquered militarily'. So the Macedonian Empire and the Frankish Empire after Louis the Pious don't count.)

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    Well, Alexander's empire was still expanding until he died... then you could say it was destroyed by being partitioned amongst his generals. So thats just one example – Notaras Oct 13 '16 at 0:14
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    He was planning to invade Carthage and take over North Africa once he arrived home – Notaras Oct 13 '16 at 0:29
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    In some sense Nazi Germany was expanding and got destroyed while - indeed, for - doing so. – Denis de Bernardy Oct 13 '16 at 5:19
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    @DenisdeBernardy On the same account Napoleon's Empire could be accounted. – MakorDal Oct 13 '16 at 7:54
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    @JúlioZampietro Are you sure "nice" is the right word for it? Like in "how nice that Alexander was going to kill and maim another bunch of people to satisfy his pathological craving for glory". There always is that angle too... – Felix Goldberg Oct 13 '16 at 8:38
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The term 'destroyed' might be a bit vague: what I mean by it is not the complete and utter disappearance of an Empire in a blink of an eye, but still a rather abrupt downfall, something lasting maybe 15-20 years (opposed to the hundreds of years some Empires needed to disappear).

I'm going to take "rapid" to mean "could an adult experience their empire rising to its peak, riding that peak, and collapsing"? About 50 years. That's very fast by historical terms.

Next, let's nail down "empire". A thing doesn't have to be called an "empire" to be an empire.

an aggregate of nations or people ruled over by an emperor or other powerful sovereign or government, usually a territory of greater extent than a kingdom

With that in mind, here are the 20th century empires.

The Soviet Empire

The Soviet Empire rose out of the ashes of the Russian Empire (which still exists) gobbling up the Baltic States, most of Eastern Europe in WWII, and edging into Mongolia in the 60s. Some of which was directly incorporated as republics, some left as semi-independent puppet states of the Warsaw Pact.

While it's expansion was effectively halted in the 60s, it was still playing world power in Afghanistan right up to when it fell apart.

In 1989 border controls between the East and West rapidly fell apart and the flood gates were opened. Just two years later would see the Warsaw Pact end and the Soviet Union dissolve into independent countries, and shrunken, but still powerful, Russian Empire.

Yes, a 20 year old in 1944 could be alive to see the empire fall 50 years later in 1992.

The French Colonial Empire

Like many European empires, their expansion period basically ended after WWI in 1919.

It collapsed quickly, starting about 1940 with its defeat in WWII, and ending in 1962 with the independence of Algeria, and it was in a lot of trouble before 1962. So I'd say it qualifies as a quick fall.

1919 to 1962 qualifies.

The British Empire (does not qualify)

Similar to the French, they reached their peak after WWI in 1919 at 4.7 million km2 and immediately began to fall apart. First the Irish Free State and Egypt in 192 and Iraq in 1932.

1931 saw the Statute of Westminster which made certain Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Irish Free State, New Foundland, and South Africa) independent nations within a Commonwealth. Despite the British sovereign being in technical control, it's arguable whether they still count as imperial subjects. They could pass their own laws and nullify British ones.

Immediately post WWII saw the independence of India, Palestine, and Pakistan. Malaysia in 1957. And most of Africa by 1968 with Zimbabwe lasting until in 1980. The 1980s saw Canada, New Zealand, and Australia sever their constitutional links to Britain.

The last hurrah for the British Empire would be the Falkland War of 1982. While it ended in British victory, it was costly and illustrated the folly of trying to maintain an empire in the modern world.

1919 to 1982 is a bit of a stretch. And the way it sort of dribbled along for 60 years... I don't think the British Empire qualifies.

Nazi Empire

Inheriting the ashes of the German Empire after WWI it quite obviously qualifies. Beginning in 1938 with the annexation of Austria, explosively expanding and reaching its height in 1942, and collapsing down to nothing in 1945.

Japanese Empire

Japan's modern expansion began with the annexation of Korea in 1910 and continued in China and the South Pacific until finally stopped about 1942. By 1945 she was completely stripped of her empire and occupied by a foreign army.

No, it doesn't matter if you still call yourself "Emperor". An emperor with no empire, no "aggregate of nations or people" to rule over, is just a king.

American Empire (does not qualify)

While it can be argued that The American Empire starts as soon as colonial settlers arrive and start annexing native lands, it wasn't really as an aggregate of nations. The US didn't rule over an aggregate of nations, they annexed their lands, wiped out their people, and replaced them with their own.

The American Empire begins at the end of the Spanish-American war in 1898. The US gained Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Phillipines, Guam, and a smattering of Caribbean and Pacific islands. It has no intention of turning these into states. The US suddenly and awkwardly finds itself in control of an overseas empire.

The US would continue to intervene in Caribbean, Central and South American, and Pacific nations through WWI and the 1930s with some excuse or another. If you elected a government the US didn't like, the US might invade. If you threatened US business interest, the US might invade. For example, Haiti was occupied from 1914 to 1934.

Most of the US' colonies and protectorates would be made independent post WWII with the exception of Puerto Rico and some small islands. Like the British, the American Empire would undergo a morphing from direct rule to a sort of quasi-Empire of mutual interest. Sometimes bullying, sometimes protecting.

One can argue it still has not fallen, nor stopped expanding, nor was ever an empire. So I don't count the American Empire.

  • I have difficulties following the argument for a stark difference between the British and French Empires. The overall dynamics is very similar, the British Empire lost most of its territories after WWII just like the French, Zimbabwe notwithstanding. Meanwhile, the Falklands is not so much a colony as an oversea territory, and France still has many of those (some of them actually more problematic than the Falklands, like New Caledonia). – Relaxed Oct 19 '16 at 6:41
  • And France was (is?) still very much engaged in imperial meddling in Africa even as its former colonies became formally independent. In light of this, I don't think a few territories here and there or the Statute of Westminster really make much of a difference. – Relaxed Oct 19 '16 at 6:42
  • @Relaxed There's no hard line when an empire falls. I argue France's empire fell while Britain's morphed. The French suffered humiliating defeats in Vietnam and Algeria and the quick collapse of the French Community in 1962 marks a clear end. In contrast the British had a significantly less violent transition. I chose the 80s for the end of their empire not just for the Falklands War, but also the breaking of Constitutional ties with its major remaining former colonies, and peacefully handing over Hong Kong. But I'm not a French & British colonial scholar, maybe you can write a better answer. – Schwern Oct 19 '16 at 7:21
  • The French community did not really “collapse”, it was created specifically to prepare independence in the French African colonies, which was very much wished by France itself (Algeria is a completely different story). If there is an empire that morphed, it's the French one, as France maintained a post-colonial control over its former colonies that went way beyond anything the British have done. Only one sub-saharan African country did not want to go along with all this, Guinea. – Relaxed Oct 19 '16 at 7:48
  • Either way, by the end of the 1960s, both had relinquished direct control on most of their former territories in Asia and Africa (which, to my mind, is what the colonial empires were really about; whether the former “white dominions” were actually under imperial control is, as you wrote yourself, arguable and largely a side story). But I don't think any of this warrants a separate answer, it would make more sense to edit yours to nuance your claims and note that both the French and British empires had a broadly similar history during the 20th century. – Relaxed Oct 19 '16 at 7:56
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There was many. The notable ones are Nazi Germany and Mongol empire. Nazis were still trying to expand by invading other countries but got destroyed in the process. Everyone knows pretty much about it so I will focus on the fall of Mongol empire which was the largest empire of the world at its peak expansion.

The first time Mongols were pushed back in their invasions was in the battle of Jinut when Muslim armies defeated them when they were trying to conquer the whole Africa. It was still expanding then. But that's not the real reason it was destroyed. The primary reason of its fall is because the golden horde revolted.

Mongol empire had four khanates and the ruler of one of these khanates (golden horde) converted to Islam and thereby rebelled against the unity of the mighty Mogol empire. Barke Khan was the ruler of golden horde and he allied himself with the Mumluk armies to fight the ikhanate which was ruled by holagu khan. The barke - hulagu wars eventually led to the demise of the whole empire.

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    Battle of Jinut? Don't you mean battle of Ain Jalut? – NSNoob Oct 13 '16 at 11:15
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    Not to mention, Ain Jalut was indeed fought by Mamluks of Egypt, to check the advance of Mongols in Muslim world and in preemptive defense of Muslim Maghreb but there is no indication that Mongols had designs on Africa or ever attacked Africa AFAIK – NSNoob Oct 13 '16 at 11:19
  • And Golden Horde wasn't the only Khagnate to convert to Islam. With time, Ilkhanate and Chagatai Khagnate also converted to Islam. The conversion however wasn't rebellion against Khagan of Mongols as the Khan of Golden Horde was still nominally sworn to the Khagan even though sack of Baghdad soured the relations between Golden Horde and Illkhanate – NSNoob Oct 13 '16 at 11:20
  • Think these examples are spot on. Carthage I would add to the list. "On paper" Carthage really had one up Rome...especially during the 2nd Punic War when Rome truly suffered under staggering privation....but that survival and the ultimate"reconquista" collapsed the Carthaginian Empire in dramatic fashion...ultimately leading to Carthage allegedly having its fields salted and then upon still refusing to surrender the City's total annihilation. The Japanese Empire really collapsed in a bad way too. The attack on Pearl Harbor was perhaps the worst decision made by any State ever in History. – Doctor Zhivago Oct 13 '16 at 21:15
  • Mongol empire was not "destroyed". It just fell apart by itself. While still expanding. The rulers of the parts just stopped obeying the Great Khan (Khubilai). – Alex Oct 14 '16 at 0:36
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The Khwarezmian Empire was a dynamic and expanding empire in Central Asia, and they were completely destroyed by the Mongols.

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The German Empire at the end of the Great War immediately comes to mind. It was expanding on the eastern front, having conquered Poland, Bielarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, Lativa, Estonia (all from the Russian Empire) and Romania. Although it wasn't clear what exactly they were going to do (plain annexation or puppet states) and how they were going to share them between Germany and Austria-Hungary, it was clear the German empire was the great victor of the eastern front, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria having done only modest contributions.

According to a book I read on the subject some of the higher generals were still debating whether Germany should have been expanded to the Black Sea or even to the Caspian (!) sea.

On the other hand, the empire collapsed on the western front because of a complex combination of :

  • Small but significant ground losses on the western front (industrial northern France was no longer under control, leading to a major decrease of economical power).
  • Tire and starvation of the army after 4 years and a half of constant hassle
  • Lack of food supplies due to naval blockade
  • Germany in WWI was pretty clear about their Eastern goals: knock them out of the war to protect Austria-Hungary and so they can focus on their real enemy France. They weren't even supposed to be fighting the Russians, it was more a comedy of errors. Wilhelm II and Nicholas II were cousins even calling each other WIlly and Nicky. – Schwern Oct 14 '16 at 22:10
  • @Schwern Err no, the original Schliffen plan was actually the exact oposite: Quickly KO France in order to be able to focus on their real enemy, Russia. Neededless to say, they couldn't manage to do it and changed their plans in late 1914. – Bregalad Oct 16 '16 at 8:23
  • You're right, I'm thinking about pre-WWI before Russia and France allied. – Schwern Oct 17 '16 at 2:48

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