Exactly a hundred years ago – July 28th 1914 – World War I started. Austria-Hungary reckoned that it could be a short war against Serbia. In reality, it finished on November 11th 1918 and the world would never be the same after that: the whole XX century and most of the situations we are still facing today have clear and incontrovertible roots in World War I.
Two centuries of changes and turmoil in Europe
We need to go back to the XVIII century, when several elements were starting unsettling Europe. Governments (regardless of whether they were authoritarian monarchies or evolving democracies) were very far from being consistent in their intentions and internal and foreign policies. The best example to describe the amount of confusion and change is France, where the Revolution started in 1789 (ending up dethroning and beheading king Louis XVI), then allowed Napoleon Bonaparte to reinstate monarchy (actually the First French Empire), then chose to go back to a Republic and then back again to a monarchy with Napoleon III – all of this in less than fifty years!
The following two centuries – and especially the XIX century – were a period of profound change and expansion, and everybody wanted a spot in the sunlight: from an ethnic minority in a multinational empire – like the Austro-Hungarian one – to the newly created States that missed the opportunity to build a colonial empire – like Italy. The race for this spot was ruthless – theorised by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck as Realpolitik. It generated a complex web of treaties, mutating alliances and short-term wars, with every country frequently changing approaches, policies, strategies and alliances.
The embryo of World War II
We all remember from our history classes how the 1919 Treaty of Versailles was penalising Germany (even more than Austria-Hungary) and how it fuelled the birth of Nazism and generated the boundary conditions for World War II.
What is much less emphasised is that the practices by which those mistakes were made were never dismissed. One above all: organising a conference about a territory and not considering the people living in these territories (yes: not even inviting them!), like what happened at the 1938 Munich Conference – deciding about Czechoslovakia without the Czechs; it contributed to the tension increase to World War II; it continued even during World War II with the Yalta Conference.
Again at Yalta!
The Yalta Conference itself, the approach to the situation that was coming up towards the end of World War II and the solutions that came out follow the same patterns of what was happening at the beginning of the XX century. The countries were almost the same ones. And the result almost the same ones: a war, that hasn’t been fought directly on battlefields with own troops (because of the nuclear threat) but indirectly through the spheres of influence (e.g. Cuba, Chile, Viet-Nam and Palestine).
The Palestine conflict as a by-product of World War I
In 1915, the geopolitical game of spheres of influence was starting to shape the world, with some countries attempting to plan what the world might look like if they would win the war – and what needed to be done to get there….
What we now call the Middle East was just one of these checkerboards where a chess game was played on the skin of the people living in these areas. This post contains the details on how the French and the British started the game there in 1915, and never resolved it.
What we face now is just a century-old exacerbation of a relatively small problem….
The League of Nations and the United Nations
To be honest, after World War I, the international community tried to put in place a supra-national entity that would resolve peacefully the conflicts between nations, the League of Nations. But it didn’t prevent World War II. And it should be enough to learn the lesson that this doesn’t work.
Instead, a more powerful organisation came out of World War II, the United Nations Organisation. It hasn’t prevented any war so far and, in some circumstances, has authorised the engagement of armies in peace keeping tasks.
Yes: the UN is more effective than the LoN was – but only because it can’t be less effective! The point is that the UN requires a reform that reduces disparities between member States – otherwise the lesson from World War I will remain unlearnt….
A way forward?
Spanish philosopher George Santayana once wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Especially the mistakes, I would add…. And the examples around that are plenty!
That’s why the future of a nation is in its history, maybe the future of the whole mankind?
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