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One hundred years after the First World War, boundaries established after the armistice at the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" still shape many of today's conflicts. From ISIS's invasion of Mosul to Boko Haram's kidnapping of schoolgirls, GlobalPost co-founder Charles Sennott journeys from Iraq to Nigeria to the Balkans to Northern Ireland and the Holy Land to see how WWI's history lives on, the lessons learned — and far too often not learned.
Commentary: Many of the crises we face today follow from what was done — and not done — after ‘the eleventh hour’ ended World War I.
H.G. Wells called it “The War That Will End War,” which it certainly wasn’t. Woodrow Wilson said it would “make the world safe for democracy,” which it didn’t. And what Wells called the “Petty Peace that followed” failed to bring a new world order that could preserve peace.
The Great War, which began 100 years ago, ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 and was the most geopolitically destructive event of the 20th century.
This generation has its own sea of troubles, conflicts, and crises with multiple attempts at resolution around the world. The second round of talks on ending the war in Syria ended in deadlock last week in Geneva, and the talks on Iran’s nuclear program are resuming this week in Vienna. It is a time of active diplomacy, but not necessarily effective diplomacy.
And there are many lessons to be learned from studying the history of World War I. Indeed, many of the conflicts and crises we face today follow from what was done — and not done — after ‘the eleventh hour’ ended the great cataclysm of World War I from 1914-1918.
What if the Paris Peace Conference that followed the war had dealt with the remains of the Ottoman Empire differently, not giving Syria to the French and Palestine and Iraq to the British? What if Zionism and Arab nationalism had been handled differently before they came to such loggerheads?
What if Britain and Russia had not divided up Iran into their own spheres of influence? And what if colonized peoples in Africa and Asia had begun preparing for independence in 1919, rather than letting colonialism rattle on through numerous wars to its death throes through the 20th century?
As historian Margaret MacMillian put it: World War I “toppled governments, humbled the mighty and upturned whole societies. In Russia the revolutions of 1917 replaced Tsarism with what no one yet knew. At the end of the war Austria-Hungary vanished, leaving a hole at the center of Europe. The Ottoman Empire, with its vast holdings in the Middle East and its bit of Europe, was almost done. Imperial Germany was now a republic. Old nations, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia- came out of history to live again, and new nations, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia — struggled to be born.”
Economic power inexorably fled the continent forever and shifted across the Atlantic to the United States.
World War II may have confronted greater evils, killed more people, and brought far greater destruction over vaster territories. But with few exceptions national boundaries stayed the same when it was over. The Allies made sure that the losers regained their economic health, rather than imposing crippling reparations as was done after the Great War. Japan even got to keep its emperor.
By contrast World War I swept away kings and ancient empires and challenged the very foundations of Western civilization.
The years leading up to World War I had seen great rivalry over who would feast most on the dying Ottoman Empire and the weaker states of North Africa. The crises over Bosnia and Morocco brought rising tensions between Russian, British, French, German, and Austro-Hungarian interests. Italy went to war to wrest Libya from the Ottomans in 1911. The newly hatched chicks of the dying Ottoman hen, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Albania, fought two Balkan wars over their shares in 1911 and 1913.
Otto von Bismarck had predicted that the next war would start over “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans,” and when the heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated in Sarajevo, and Austria set about to crush Serbia, the great German chancellor was proven right.
A system of military alliances bound the great powers together, and like so many climbers tied together, they all fell into the crevasse.
Domestically the pre-World War I years were not the bright, sun-lit uplands as portrayed in films. Industrialization was causing ever-increasing labor strife that led many countries to fear revolution.
Another factor was the nationalism that had risen in the 19th century coupled with the new power of public opinion. Nationalism made ruling the polyglot empires of Austria-Hungary and Russia difficult to rule. Different language groups and ethnicities all wanted their independence and freedoms. Even Great Britain, in the