Today marks the centennial of the armistice agreement that ended World War 1. At the time, the victorious allies called it “The Great War” or “The War to End All Wars.” That was not to be. The conflict did, however, turn out to be a significant milestone in the intensity, technology, and diplomacy of war. It also marked a turning point in the history of western European/American global domination and associated struggles for self-determination in Africa and Asia.
The term “uncentennial” is used to describe important events that do not receive the appropriate commemoration and contemplation. If the 100th anniversary of an important historical event is ignored, – can it make an impact? Can its lessons influence and improve current struggles for democracy, peace, and equality? Can they remind us of the potential pitfalls of militarism and imperialism?
The winning side in the war included the British, French, and Russia – part of the “Triple Entente.” And the United States, a late entry to the war. The losers were Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. They constituted the “Triple Alliance, or quartet when including the Ottoman empire.” The United States, in part due to a lack of public support for the war, didn’t send troops until 1917. And Russia effectively left the war because of their workers’ revolution and civil war. The Ottoman empire was already in decline. Its alliance with Germany would increase the speed of its dismemberment
The Ottoman empire extended from southeast Europe to western Asia and the middle east. The present day countries of Algeria, Egypt, israel, Iraq, and Syria were part of the empire. Hungary, Greece, parts of the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Albania, Armenia, and Bosnia were among the European segment of the empire.
Austria-Hungary included present day Slokavia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and parts of Italy, Poland, Romania, Montenegro, Moldovia, and the Ukraine.
Most mainstream historians identify four major causes to the war. Sadly, all are current elements of the international scene. These contributing factors included hyper-nationalism, militarism, foreign alliances, and imperialism.
Germany was Europe’s industrial and intellectual giant. But they envied Britain’s global empire and its navy. The Ottomans were fighting to maintain their territorial possessions in eastern Europe. Everyone wanted more. Britain had more colonial possessions than everyone. Still, they wanted the Middle East, part of the Ottoman empire.
These competing imperial agendas led to rearmament and increased military spending on all sides. Increased military budgets led to the creation of new technologies of war. Earlier wars emphasized close combat. The 20th century development of air power, poison gas, and armored tanks greatly increased the ability to kill. Too many weapons have historically and inevitably led to some nation’s sneak attack, miscalculation, or provocation.
Nationalism was a reaction to empire and colonial domination. The Saudis wanted their own nation and independence from the Ottoman empire. Balkans nations also sought independence from Constantinople. The nationalist impulse was tied to notions of racial superiority. Britain, with the largest empire, tried to justify their domination of Asia and Africa as being part of “the white man’s burden.”
With nationalism challenging empire, with competing imperial interests colliding, with arms races speeding up, conflict was inevitable. Multi-nation alliances were another causal factor. These alliances tied the militaries of one country to the fates of their partners, often against their own preferences. Thus, within a 10 day period in the summer of 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Germany and France declared war on each other, Germany declared war on Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany, Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia, and Serbia declared war on Germany. The World War had begun.
Frederick William Victor Albert was one of British Queen Victoria’s many grandchildren.
He called himself the Kaiser (emperor) of Germany and King of Prussia. His cousins would sit on the thrones of Russia, Greece, Italy, and Britain. Of course, the family ties were ignored as the monarchs took opposing sides in the war.
On October 3, 1918, after 4 years of combat, the Kaiser telegraphed American President Woodrow Wilson. He wanted a ceasefire and a negotiated end to the war. The Armistice of Compiègne France took effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month
of 1918. On June 28, 1919 the Treaty of Versailles finally ended the war. The harsh treaty terms would become a factor in the 1939 World War II.
From that day, November 11 was celebrated as Armistice day. Today it is called Veterans’ Day and commemorated with a parade down New York’s Fifth Avenue.
What historic lessons of WWI are forgotten or ignored today? Just about all of them, sadly. Militarism is a bi-partisan urge, with American politicians regularly approving war budgets that are higher than the requests of our military. President Trump is floating trial balloons that would allow him to scrap the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear forces Treaty. This Reagan-era agreement prevents the proliferation, or expansion, of the arms race.
Our post world war II alliance structure is as dangerous as that of a century ago. It is also in transition, as the President has moved away from Western Europe, our oldest ally. Even our current alliances could lead us into war. Our ties with Isreal may force a war, even if our ally is the aggressor against iran, a very real possibility. Our hundreds of millions of dollars in “defensive” aid to the Ukraine, Russia’s former colony, could also lead to a Russia conflict. Our aid to Kurdish separatists, who support our intervention in the Syrian war could alienate Turkey, the lone Muslim nation in NATO. We are tied up in too many, sometimes contradictory alliances that may push us into war.
And of course, Trump is single-handedly reviving and mainstreaming the white nationalist movement in America. Using coded and openly racist rhetoric, he has inspired the Nazis, Ku Kluxers, and alt-rightists. To paraphrase Florida candidate for Governor Andrew Gilliam, I’m not saying he’s a racist, but all the racists think he’s a racist.
The white nationalism/racism movement has concentrated on immigrant and refugee-bashing so far. This was another feature related to the great war. Today’s elderly white male senators want to stop the caravans, and to build a wall to block refugees. Most of them are members of families that are one or two generations removed from the millions of European refugees trying to escape the great war. How quickly they forget.
In closing, and as a measure of the insights provided by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., note how his famous “Three Evils” speech can also accurately diagnose the events causing the World War. His opposition to Racism, Poverty, and Militarism precisely describe the causes of war. His inclusion of poverty corrects the historical record as to the source of conflict, both then and now.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Part two of this article will describe the war’s impacts on the African-American community and on the colonial “subjects” of the European powers.