The centenary to end all centenaries

On Sunday, the world marked the centenary of World War I. At exactly 11.11 am on 11 November 1918, the guns fell silent all over the Western Front. The ‘War To End All Wars’ was over. True, the peace following the war carried within it the seeds of World War II. Yet at the time, the reality looming over all the survivors (after all, with 20 million killed, there had been bloodletting on an unprecedented scale) was that the war was over. It was a time, at least for the victors, to think of demobilisation, and a return to ‘A Home Fit for Heroes’.

Apart from the bloodletting, some of the world’s most long-lasting empires had toppled. The last remnant of the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburg dynasty which presided over the Dual Monarchy of Austro-Hungary, was swept away, as was the Empire set up over Germany in Paris after France had been defeated in 1870, by the Hohenzollern King of Prussia, and the Romanov Emperors of Russia, who had been swept aside almost two years before the end of the war, in March 1917, by revolution. But not only was an older dynasty, the Ottoman, swept away from Turkey and the Middle East, but the world also lost a truly ancient title, one which predated the others which had been ended, as well as those which had survived, except that of the Emperor of Japan: the Khalifa.

The Khalifa had been a historical enemy of the Hapsburgs for centuries, and a little later of the Romanovs. However, when World War I actually started, the Ottomans were allies of the Hapsburgs in the Triple Alliance, while remaining enemies of the Romanovs, who were in the Triple Entente. However, while World War I saw not just the adjustment of borders, it did not cause a wholesale division of the conquered territories. Except in the case of Ottoman Turkey. Shorn of the Middle East and Africa, it was able to form the Republic of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal. That Republic signed the last peace treaty of World War I, that of Sèvres in 1924. The first had been that of Versailles, which is now thought to have laid the basis for World War II.

After all of that suffering, after the horror of the trenches dug across the Western Front in Belgium and France, Wold War I turned more into a prelude to World War II. It has been argued that the allies had no choice but to impose harsh conditions on Germany, because they faced their own domestic opinions, but the result was the failure to meet these conditions even by the harshest of measures, leading to the Great Depression and to German hyperinflation (in one symbolic incident, someone had to carry notes in a basket, to buy bread; someone else stole the basket, throwing away the virtually valueless notes). That in turn led to the rise of fascism, especially Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany. This led to World War II.

One of the underemphasised aspects of World War I was the liberation of the colonies. There was no immediate move towards decolonisation. Indeed, except for Ireland, which escaped from British clutches, it is difficult to think of a colony getting independence. However, that was when the Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) first won independence. Russia, or rather the USSR, reabsorbed them after World War II. The greatest colony of them all, India, saw an uptick in independence activity.

There was the notorious massacre at Jalianwala Bagh, in Amritsar, and there was the Khilafat Movement. Initially a movement by Muslims to prevent the Ottoman Caliphate from being abolished, it became part of the Congress Party’s independence movement. Independence would only take place after World War II, but the seeds had been sown.

Indeed, this was the story for most of the colonised world, which meant Africa and Asia principally. One reason is said to be the use by Britain and France of colonial troops on the Western Front. In racist terms, brown or black men killed white men (Germans) for the very first time. Be that as it may, a lot of liberation movements were founded in the post-War period, often enough with ex-servicemen participating. Though the wave of decolonisation only occurred after World War II, in the cases of France and Holland in the Far East as a result of loss of control after the defeat of the mother country, it was World War I that blazed the trail.

It was symbolic that the French President and German Chancellor went on the eve of the centenary to visit the railway car, of the French commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, where the German delegation came to sign the armistice that led to the end of the war. At that clearing in Compiègne is another railway carriage, the one in which in 1940, Adolf Hitler received the French surrender. It should not be forgotten that the French victory in World War I was followed by a resounding defeat in World War II.

The most significant fall was of the Romanovs in Russia. One of the most fateful, perhaps the most fateful, events emanating from World War I was the replacement of the Tsars by the USSR. It has itself collapsed, but it should be remembered that after World War I, anti-colonial movements everywhere looked to it for guidance on the road to socialism. Communists saw World War I as one of the final throes of capitalism before world revolution, and the Russian revolution was supposed to be the harbinger of workers’ revolutions throughout Europe. It is little emphasised that there were some revolutions, notably in Germany and Hungary, but none succeeded, and World War I continued as a civil war in Russia, with France and Britain sending troops to help the Whites, who wanted to restore the Tsarist regime.

It was especially in the Far East that the Communists achieved their greatest successes, particularly in places where the Japanese were driven out, like China, North Vietnam and North Korea. However, all these successes occurred after World War II.

Perhaps the lesson, a century on, is that the world hasn’t changed that much. True, the colonies are now independent, but that independence has been largely contained, with ex-colonies (like India) merely aspiring at best to Great-Power status. Only China seems to have progressed to that level. Russia was in 1918 not a world power, though it mattered in Europe. It played a role on the world stage as the USSR, but that is now over.

However, the greatest horror World War I could show was mustard gas. Chemical warfare is not finished, as has been seen in Syria, but it is by no means the worst can be done. Now the battlefield may well be nuclear. Nuclear weapons are no longer something monopolised by the victors of World War II, but also in the hands of countries that only came into existence after Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened.

However, now there is another similarity with a twist. Nationalism amounting to racialism is on the rise the world over, though this time, it led, and symbolised, by US President Donald Trump, rather than German Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Trump, whose grandparents were German migrants, comes from the same genepool.


The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.


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