This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Blowback, Baby: World War One and the World Today

(From 2008)

Let me say this: the First World War should be required reading for everyone who wants the slightest understanding of just about every event of the past ninety years.  Here's why:

The first thing about the First World War is, of course, that it was (at least until the Iraq invasion, which, as I shall discuss, was a result of the First World War as well) the most unnecessary war in history. Back in 1914 the world was pretty much carved up between the imperialist powers. The few small countries that were suffered to exist independently, such as Liberia, Siam (Thailand now) or Nepal, were colonies in all but name, maintained as buffers or allowed liberty since it was simply too much trouble to rule them directly. There was hardly any jockeying for territorial expansion because there was hardly any territory left to expand into. The armies of the “great powers” (by this term I mean Britain, France, Russia and Italy on one side and Germany, Austro-Hungary and the bankrupt Ottoman Empire on the other, with the US and Japan Great Powers-in-waiting) were hardly capable of serious combat for a long period. Except for the German and British armed forces, they had only cosmetic changes since the time of Napoleon; even the French went into combat in 1914 dressed in blue tunics and red trousers like the soldiers of a hundred years before.

In 1914, there was a total lack of serious issues on which, it would seem, most of the world could go to war. Any jockeying for influence was of the sort that could be handled by normal negotiations, there was no real competition for resources because the world was less industrialised and there was a far lesser pressure of population, and the intricate web of alliances were thought to have kept the peace in Europe for the unprecedented period of forty years. So why should the nations go to war? Who would ever have thought it?

Actually, as I’ve mentioned earlier, the web of alliances meant that Europe was a tinderbox on the verge of being set alight. The slightest spark could set off a conflagration, and it would have required cool heads and firm diplomacy to avoid a European war. Unfortunately, not only were cool heads and firm diplomacy lacking, the rulers of the continent seemed eager, nay, anxious to jump into a conflict – for no reason that one can think of even at this late date.

So when the Serb nationalist Gavriilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, there was no serious attempt to avert war; and when the war was declared, the citizens of the nations erupted in joyous cheering. Yeah, that’s right. They behaved as if the war was the best thing that could ever have happened. The “patriotic poets” cheered on the fighting men and anyone who refused for any reason to fight was liable to be handed  a white feather by some militant female or other.

Lesson to be drawn: you absolutely cannot rely on the good sense of politicians and “statesmen” to prevent needless wars, and, of course, military alliances are more likely to begin wars than to avert them.

It’s not that I don’t want to go into details of the war, but that’s not relevant to the purposes of this article. The violence was horrific, and the weaponry got more and more complicated and murderous, but all this was a bagatelle compared with what was to come, in the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, West Asia, and the like. Far more important than the massacres of the Western Front were the results of this war. In order to understand them clearly, we could divide them into immediate and long-term results.

The immediate results: these can also be further divided into the social, technological and the political results.

Let’s take the social results first: the First World War began the end of the feudal order. It sounds trite today to say, even if one doesn’t mean it, that all men are equal; but a hundred years ago anyone who said such a thing would have been considered an anarchist or a dangerous radical. It was still a world where only the white man was a full human being, and only the upper class among the white man had the rights we’d now call human. The working class existed only to serve the rich, and had no other reason for existence. The decaying aristocracy ruled the roost all over Europe.

So when the Great War broke out, suddenly the working man found himself with a role. He had to fight, not just for, but with the aristocrat; and as war thinned the ranks of the latter, he had the unfamiliar experience of leading and organising other men. Even if he stayed back home, he was pulled off the lord of the manor’s farm or game preserve and thrust onto the factory floor with his peers  from across the country. There could not but be a social churning, and once you let the genie of egalitarianism out of the bottle, you can never really put it back again.

Then there was the effect of the war on the colonial troops. If you look at the Hollywood movie version of the war you’d think every last fighting man was a white European volunteer taken from his manor or his schoolroom or his tool shed; but a very large proportion of the soldiers were Asian or African colonial troops, who for the first time saw the world; for the first time found themselves fighting the white man at the behest of the white man; for the first time saw for themselves a reality where the white man was not necessarily the master; and found somewhat to their own surprise that there were circumstances when the white man would turn tail and run. And of course it finished off the aristocracy in all but name. The lords and barons and  their ilk mostly didn’t survive the war; those that did ended as pale shadows of their former selves.

Socially, therefore, the World War introduced a measure of egalitarianism to the society of Europe, broke down social classes, introduced the colonial soldier to the world of European warfare and taught him that the white man was not automatically superior but could be beaten (a lesson that would really come into its own in Singapore in 1942).

Technologically the improvements were obvious; really, too obvious to need going on about. In 1914 Europe was still, even after the Industrial Revolution, relatively backward technologically, largely dependent on animal transport, with limited telecommunications and electricity. The war left it with the urgent requirement for building up infrastructure, as well as technological innovations and the capacity for large scale motor transport and the beginnings of air transport. I’m not saying this wouldn’t have happened but for the war; but it is true that it would have taken much longer.

The most interesting changes, by and large, were the political. The war brought about the spectacular collapse of three empires: the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, creating many new countries and a whole slew of problems (and, for the unscrupulous, opportunities). The end of the Russian Empire was certainly the most important politically of these, because the end of the despotic and parasitic Tsarist society would have likely taken much, much longer without the war. The tsar was already hated by the Russian intelligentsia, but it was the war that made him and his regime hated by the average Russian and made the rise of Bolshevism (as it was then called) inevitable, the results of which are pretty obvious. And the collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to the taking over by the West of a large amount of territory in West Asia, the effects of which are very much with us to this day.

Meanwhile, in Germany, defeat in the war not only overthrew the Kaiser and brought in the Weimar republic; it created massive social and economic chaos and created the perfect conditions for the rise to power of one Adolf Hitler, a small time agitator and ex-soldier.

The nineteenth century had been a time of the triumph of imperialism and feudalism. The First World War began the process of bringing that to an end. Socially, technologically and politically, when the gassed young men screamed in their trenches and died in their thousands in frontal attacks on massed machine guns, the nineteenth century was finally over.

The long term results: The years after the end of the First World War continued developing, with hiccups along the way, the social and technological consequences of the war; but far more significant for us now were the political consequences. Let’s take them one by one:

Russia: the collapse of the Tsarist monarchy and the destruction of the Tsarist army made civil war virtually inevitable in Russia. And because the Tsarist army had been virtually wiped out, the Bolsheviks came out victorious in the Civil War, despite all the Whites could do. The victory of the Bolsheviks had consequences far beyond the frontiers of Russia – the rebirth of China, the rise of socialism in South and Central America and in Indo-China, the Cold War and its effects including NATO and the current efforts by it to “contain” Russia – the war in Georgia included – can all be traced back to the rise of Bolshevism; and Bolshevism’s rise was one of the primary after-effects of the First World War.

Germany: Defeated militarily but not destroyed, ruined economically by the punitive Versailles Treaty, the Germans descended into turmoil. Hyperinflation and civil strife created perfect conditions for a fascist takeover. There were masses of disaffected, unemployed former soldiers wandering the streets, prime material for fascist gangs like the Sturmabteilung which Hitler used to launch an abortive coup in Munich and which ultimately helped him come to power. Without the First World War, there would have been no Nazi party, no gas chambers, no Second World War. Without the Second World War, there would have been no permanent US presence in Europe, no NATO, and the imperialist countries would not have had to disinvest from their colonial empires in an effort to keep themselves solvent. There would have been, for instance, no independent India and no myth of a victorious Indian non-violent freedom movement. Many of these newly decolonised nations, as a matter of fact, got their independence handed to them on a plate when they were still (especially in Africa) far too tribalised and divided to make use of it. And because the imperialists ignored ethnic boundaries in their colonies, drawing lines on the map more or less at random, this independence has led to civil war, famine, and massacres beyond imagining.

France and Britain: Like their First World War allies and Second World War adversaries, Italy and Japan, the two west European nations did pretty well in terms of colonies out of the First War. The German and Turkish colonial empires were carved up and distributed among them, allowing Japan a firm foothold on the Asian landmass which it would use to launch an aggressive anti-Chinese war in 1931. That war would directly help in the rise of the Chinese Communist Party and the rebirth of China as a truly independent nation, not one ruled by warlords and foreigners. On the other hand, the French in particular had paid an immensely heavy price in terms of blood for their victory. It had also infused in them a defensive military doctrine (the Maginot Line) because of which they felt that they were safe behind a line of blockhouses, fortresses and trenches. In 1940, when the Nazi Panzers swept past the Maginot Line and into France, the French government admitted that there were no reserves – the troops who might have served as reserves had all been killed in the First War. 

And, of course, as I said before, without the First War there would have been no Second War. And without the Second War these imperialist powers wouldn’t have been impoverished to the extent that they had to quit their colonial empires, acquired over a couple of centuries, in the span of a couple of decades.

The Ottoman Empire/ West Asia: This is probably the most significant long-term after-effect of the First War. The end of the Ottoman Empire opened up a lot of territory for occupation: the whole of West Asia, in fact, except for what is now Saudi Arabia. The Allies lost no time in betraying the Arabs who had been promised independence in return for rebelling against the Turks, and colonised them instead in order to exploit their oil reserves. The artificial nation of Kuwait was carved out of Iraq under a puppet Emir so that its considerable oil reserves could be preserved for western exploitation. That would have its own blowback in 1990 when Saddam Hussein decided to re-take the territory for Iraq. And that would lead to the 2003 Iraq invasion and the ongoing war, which has its own part to play in the economic collapse the world over today.

Palestine, where Jews and Arabs had co-existed for long, was declared (by the Balfour Declaration of 1917) to be a homeland for the Jews, and Jewish immigration was encouraged there. After the gas chambers (which of course never would have existed but for the First World War) the immigration received a boost, but it had been going on all through the 1920s and 30s. Suddenly the Palestinians found themselves a non-people: pushed off their own ancestral land, confined to ghettoes, their plight became a provocation for other Muslims such as a certain Osama bin Laden. And the actions of bin Laden and his al Qaeda group gave the US imperium (of which more anon) the excuse to invade and capture Afghanistan, which in turn has had the effect of rejuvenating the Taliban militia and which has also done its fair share to increase the spectre of terrorism today...apart from its own role in the economic crisis I mentioned.

The United States: The US was already well on the way to becoming an imperial power by the First World War, with regular interventions in Central America and a colony in the Philippines after a so-called “liberation war” that swiftly became a war against the natives (sounds familiar, does it?). But the US was not a European power and it’s probably right to say that it would have stayed a trading and industrial power rather than a military one (its armed forces were pitiful by European standards back in 1914) except for the First World War. And because of the fact that economic advancement requires access to energy, along with the British and French, the Americans also began shoving their oar into the newly “liberated” territories of the world. Because of its ideological antipathy to Bolshevism, which itself was a child of the First War, the US was led after the Second War into forming NATO and till today thinks of Russia as an adversary which must be contained if it cannot be crushed. Without the First World War there would have been no US imperium.

Terrorism, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Georgia, not to mention Sudan and Somalia, world economic crisis, the ruination of the environment in a search for energy – rather a lot to come out of the assassination of a Habsburg prince in Sarajevo ninety-four years ago.
Blowback, baby.

And that is why I study the First World War.

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