Not such a Great War after all

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By : Mahir Ali

Back in 2008, in the wake of Russia’s conflict with Georgia over South Ossetia, Moscow’s ambassador to Nato, discerning a certain echo in the pattern of events, expressed the hope that Georgian President Mikhel Saakashvili wouldn’t turn out to be “the new Gavrilo Princip.”

He was referring to the young Serbian nationalist who assassinated the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo 100 years ago this week, triggering a chain of events that led shortly afterward to bloodshed on an unprecedented scale across the European continent and beyond.

More recently, during the initial standoff over Ukraine, the events of 1914, when a relatively minor dispute spiraled into a gargantuan confrontation, were again cited as a cautionary tale. Two decades earlier, during the siege of Sarajevo, it was commonly observed that the 20th Century was drawing to an end precisely where it had effectively begun — in the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a territory coveted, in 1994 as 80 years earlier, by Belgrade.

And just last week another reference to the World War I sneaked into contemporary reportage when the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) declared that its latest successes in capturing territory on the border between Iraq and Syria had obliterated the Sykes-Picot lines — a reference to the Anglo-French accord of 1916 on dividing the spoils of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire in the Middle East.

A century later, historians are still divided on the precise causes of the conflict that engulfed Europe. Would Austria-Hungary have gone as far as it did without being egged on by Germany? Did Russia mobilize its forces too quickly? Would Germany have reconsidered its belligerence had it known in advance that Britain would plunge into the war?

The consequences are somewhat clearer, albeit not without areas of contention. The industrial scale of the mass slaughter that ensued — mainly in France and Belgium, but also in Turkey, which had joined forces with Germany, and in Ottoman outposts such as Mesopotamia — can in part be accounted for by recent innovations such as aerial and chemical warfare and new-fangled hardware such as tanks and machineguns.

Much of the combat, though, was rather more old-fashioned. At the start of the war, some of troops still carried lances on horseback. And a popular anti-war slogan famously categorized the bayonet as “a weapon with a proletarian at both ends.”

Communist propaganda on the eastern front, among the ill-equipped and poorly fed Russian troops, was instrumental in facilitating the October Revolution, with the Bolshevik determination to sue for peace a key distinction between them and the government that had assumed power earlier in 1917 following the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. Germany did its bit by allowing a sealed train to deliver a bunch of exiled revolutionaries to St. Petersburg.

More broadly, given that the belligerent powers were driven to a considerable extent by rivalry over colonial conquests, that the outcome of the war sealed the fate of more than one empire. And it is widely, albeit by no means universally, held that the punitive Treaty of Versailles imposed on a defeated Germany in 1919 more or less guaranteed that “the war to end all wars” turned out to be nothing of the kind, with Europe reverting to bloodshed barely two decades later.

Some historians, meanwhile, consider the resurgence of fundamentalist Muslims to be among the key consequences of the war. One of them, Philip Jenkins, notes: “Armed Islamic resistance movements challenged most of the colonial powers in the postwar years … That wave of armed upsurges would be instantly recognizable to American strategists today…

“Between 1919 and 1925, Britain’s newly founded Royal Air Force saw action against Muslim rebels and enemy regimes in Somalia, Afghanistan, Waziristan and Iraq. Throughout the 1920s, the Basmachi revolt fielded tens of thousands of guerrillas against the Soviet Union, fighting on behalf of an autonomous Shariah state and operating across most of Soviet Central Asia.”

Such reminders reinforce the sense of unfinished business, and not only in the Muslim world — witness the continued tensions in the Balkans and the tendencies toward spikiness on Russia’s borders.

There is, of course, nothing particularly novel in the notion of the present being fashioned by the past. The tragedy is that history’s lessons all too often go unheeded. And some of the current controversies over how best to commemorate the centenary of the World War I illustrate humankind’s reluctance to recognize that there are always more desirable alternatives to an orgy of slaughter.

This fairly simple idea was perhaps most potently articulated by one of that war’s best known victims, Lt. Wilfred Owen, who died in combat a week before Armistice Day relating the effects of a chlorine gas attack on one particular comrade, he writes: “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/ Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,/ Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/ Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,/ My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/ To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est/ Pro patria mori.”

That “old lie”, taken from an ode by Horace, roughly translates as: It is a sweet and wonderful thing to die for one’s country.

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