The Legacy of the First World War, Part I: A Humble Introduction

This will be the first of what I hope to be a series of posts, written over the next few months, on the much-misunderstood First World War, whose hundredth anniversary the Western world is in the midst of celebrating, or lamenting.

It is not a subject on which I am an authority of any kind—not even an aspiring one. Indeed, it is a subject that I only recently approached again after a long period of neglect. This neglect stemmed from the utter hopelessness I would feel whenever I got close to World War I as a subject of historical study: I found I was so quickly overwhelmed with competing theories and interpretations I could barely nail down the basic facts of the conflict. Yes, this is true of most history, especially the vast fields of diplomatic and military history, but there is something about the First World War that always seemed especially impenetrable or inscrutable to me. Now that I am a bit—a bit—older and more knowledgeable, perhaps I can make more sense of things. Perhaps not.

These posts will be as much for my own edification as for the benefit of whoever cares to read them. It is always helpful for a writer to organize his own thoughts by writing about things he has no real business writing about.

We have also just passed the 24th anniversary of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Some would say that, too, was a product of WWI. (If I remember correctly, the old tyrannophilic polecat George Galloway has argued that it was understandable Saddam Hussein annexed Kuwait as Iraq’s “nineteenth province,” since post-WWI European imperialism had, in his interpretation, severed Kuwait from Mesopotamia.)  Everything is linked to everything else in some way. You could say, as Mr. Shakespeare wrote, that the past is prologue, though one risks taking this view too far, straight into the strawberry fields of radical determinism. One could argue, for instance, that without the First World War there would have been no Holocaust. Does this mean, then, that the Nazi massacre of European Jewry was really the fault of David Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, and Georges Clemenceau? This is the kind of revisionism one risks indulging. (For a recent example of this, see this preening screed by Robert Fisk in The Independent. Fisk is a practitioner of the Chomskyist-Pilgerist art of stripping away the nuance of an opponent’s position, so as to make even the slightest disagreement with him proof of one’s moral worthlessness.)

A few things are quite clear, however. The First World War was an immense rupture in the history of Western civilization. In my own very humble estimation, it was the most consequential war of the twentieth century. It gets much less play nowadays, in the worlds of education and popular discourse, than the Second World War. But if the first didn’t “cause” the second in any simple, mechanistic sense, it set it up in fundamental ways. The First World War also set up the Cold War and even our post-Cold War jostling with Russia in Ukraine, the Balkans, and the Baltics.

The war was also a rupture in the history of the Middle East, the consequences of which continue to plague us. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire bequeathed us the Arab-Israeli conflict, modern Islamist terrorism, the often grotesque but necessary geopolitics of crude oil, and all the other lovely things we deal with as a matter of withering routine. This includes the vile anti-Americanism that blames the U.S. for all the region’s problems. Again, it is bad form to attribute many such complex things to one cause. But it is at least useful to sit back and question your assumptions.

So, in the coming weeks and months, I hope to take a closer look at several aspects of the war and their enduring legacies, including the rise of modern Germany, the collapse of Austria-Hungary, the role of the United States, the decline of the British Empire, the nature of realpolitik, Belgian neutrality, the Middle East, and the importance of shifting borders.

These won’t be long, tiresome dissertations, but relatively brief reflections: some meat we can all gnaw on, even if it doesn’t fill us. I will do my best to clarify what each of those things means for our contemporary world. It is, after all, a very strange world—one which seems to grow more sordid each day. (That might turn out to be the most uncontroversial statement I ever write.) In any case, history is essential to understanding the present. Some of the worst strategic blunders of the recent past (e.g. the Vietnam War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iraq War) were made, at least in part, because historical knowledge was absent from the decision-making process. I should like to do my exceedingly small part in trying to fix that.



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