Barraged and numbed by our 24/7 news cycle, it’s easy to forget that world events don’t just disappear once they fall off the daily headlines. In fact, their repercussions can be felt years, decades and even centuries later. My fascination with history is based on my respect for the cause and effect of historical themes, especially when they roar out of the past and smite us today.
One hundred years ago, on November 11, 1918, World War I, the “Great War,” came to an end. To modern Americans, it only registers as grainy black and white photographs and short clips of primitive movies, mainly showing herky-jerky Doughboys going over the top. Few today realize that this catastrophe not only derailed the promise of the 20th century but has done a fairly decent job of ruining the 21st as well. Historian Niall Ferguson is correct when he labels World War I as “Nothing less than the greatest error of modern history.” The forces set in motion by the Great War still haunt us today.
What was the spark that ignited this inferno? In June, 1914, an Austrian Archduke nobody liked was shot to death in a Balkans city most Americans had never heard of by an assassin whose name few Westerners could pronounce. On such vagaries is history shaped. His death pushed the European powers, already spoiling for a fight, to declare war that following August, a war they believed would be a jolly little affair and over before the autumn leaves fell.
As we know, that dream vanished in the bloody trenches of France and Belgium where thousands of men could die within hours to gain a few yards of mud. But the war was truly a global conflagration and while the Western Front grabs most of the attention, the crisises facing us today were formed more on the battlefields of the Middle East and Russia.
Until 1914, the core of the Middle East was under the autocratic control of the Ottoman Empire. Whatever wasn’t ruled by the Turks was under the suzerainty or influence of France, Britain, Russia and Italy, mostly in North Africa. The only independent areas were a chunk of Persia and the desert wastes of the Saudi Arabian interior. What today is Israel/Palestine was the Ottoman’s Province of Syria. Americans officials, outside of the oil industry, ignored the Middle East as irrelevant to their interests.
All these prewar maps and assumptions would disappear within years. By 1918, the Ottoman Empire had ceased to exist; carved up by the British and French. The notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 established the artificial nations of Trans-Jordan (later Jordan) and Iraq under Britain’s influence and Lebanon and Syrian supervised by the French. As they had done in Africa, the two colonial powers ignored centuries-old tribal, clan and family animosities to create a fragile umbrella that was bound to shatter. The British went a step further by promising a homeland for the Jews in Palestine and nationhood for the Arabs on the Saudi Peninsula. In their naïve minds, if everyone in the region got what they wanted, all would end amicably and peacefully.
Only it didn’t. Over the last half century, the world has been cursed by the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict with its multiple wars, the Lebanese Civil War, Saddam Hussein, the Iranian Revolution, ISIS and the current bloody massacre in Syria. The United States, driven by its lust for oil, reaped the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq War.
In Europe, the repercussions of the Great War can still boggle the imagination. If there had been no war, the Versailles Treaty which galvanized and propelled Adolph Hitler’s rise to power, would never have been written. Without Hitler’s thirst for revenge, Nazism would have remained nascent. The non-appearance of Hitler and the Nazis would have erased the Holocaust and World War II. No World War II meant no nuclear weapons and the threat of the Cold War. A non-existent Cold War would have further defused the Middle East and not set Osama bin Laden on his fatal trajectory.
In Russia, the absence of the First World War would have prevented the Bolsheviks from seizing control. The Czar might still have fallen, but into the hands of those less pathological than Lenin and Stalin. With Communism stillborn, China would not have become “Red,” thus eliminating the Domino Theory which made America’s Vietnam War possible.
All told, had World War I never occurred, the world we inhabit today would look profoundly different. Would it be a peaceful paradise? Most likely not. Human nature is a mighty beast and it would find other ways to manifest itself. Other crisises would have arisen, but perhaps the scope of them would have been mitigated. In the end, one can only wonder.
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