The Great War & The Shaping Of The 20th Century

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Aug 14 2007


The after shocks of the earthquake we call the Great War are still
being felt today, in the 21st century

In countless ways, World War I created the fundamental elements of
20th century history. Genocide emerged as an act of war. So did the
use of poison gas on the battlefield. The international system was
totally transformed. On the political right fascism came out of the
war; on the left a communist movement emerged backed by the Soviet
Union. Reluctantly, but unavoidably, America became a world power.

The British Empire reached its high point and started to unravel.

Britain never recovered from the shock of war, and started her decline
to the ranks of the second-class powers. At the peace conference
of 1919, the German, Turkish, and Austro-Hungarian empires were
broken up. New boundaries were drawn in Europe and the Middle East,
boundaries — as in Iraq and Kuwait — which were still intact at
the end of the century.

Just as the war was ending, German Nationalists like Hitler gathered
millions who rejected the peace and blamed Jews and Communists for
their defeat. The road to the Second World War started there.

Even after Germany’s second defeat in 1945, the shadow of the Great
War was still visible. Then came the shock waves of 1989-91, ending
the "short 20th century," an era that began with the great war and
concluded with the collapse of communism and the reunification of
Germany in a robust European community. The German problem — so
central to World War I — appeared to be resolved. But other problems
have emerged that are disturbingly similar to those that plagued the
world in 1914.

WORLD TERRORISM by Jay Winter, Historian

"Terrorism was born well before the First World War. But its effects
became worldwide in 1914. The assassination of the heir to the
Austria-Hungarian throne created the diplomatic crisis that ultimately
led to the war. So it’s the provocation effect of terrorism that I
think was born in 1914.

In many ways the attack on the World Trade Center was a direct echo
of that provocation. The intention was to bring about a military
response that would in turn rebound against the power that responds.

In 1914 that was the intention, the intention was to force
Austria-Hungary into some kind of violent reaction that would
ultimately be to its detriment. And that is indeed what happened.

Whether or not the war on terrorism as a response to the World Trade
Center attack is detrimental to the United States, has yet to be
seen. But there is an idea that terrorism’s provocation was born on
the 28th of June 1914."


"There is no way to understand what happened in Serbia and Bosnia [in
the 90s] without going back to the extraordinary events on the 28th
of June, 1914 when the heir apparent to the throne [Austria-Hungary],
the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated.

A series of violent events followed that marked the civil war within
the Balkan States becoming even more violent in the Second World War.

And in turn, when the communist state of Yugoslavia unraveled in the
1990’s, some cynical politicians like Milosovich tried to go right
back to 1914. … So the sequence of violent events in the 20th
Century is like a fugue, with one instrument following another. And
in the Serbian case, each one is worse than the one before."

IMMIGRATION by Niall Ferguson, Historian

"The emergence of new members in the European Union has revived
anxieties that would have been familiar to anybody a hundred years ago
— of migration of Eastern Europeans to Western Europe — when many
Polish and Russian based Jews and other ethnic minorities were seeking
to escape from the relatively repressive regimes where they lived.

European politics are still in fact strongly influenced by
hostilities to immigration… And whatever the rhetoric of European
integration… the reality is that on issues like migration, national
governments act with their perceived interests firmly in mind."

BOSNIA & RWANDA GENOCIDE by Jay Winter, Historian

"There are two ways of looking at genocide. The first is in terms of
international warfare. And the other is in terms of domestic murder
on a grand scale. The murder of the Armenians is both in 1915. It
occurred in the context of total war, but it was also the policy of
an independent state to eliminate inhabitants of its own population.

Now this precedent of a state killing its own citizens is one that
Hitler used quite openly. And it is clearly what happens in Rwanda
as well.

What’s missing, and why it is difficult to make the contrast directly
is that the two genocides of the Armenians in 1915-16 and the European
Jews in 1941 to 1945, both were in the context of total war.

The two genocide’s of the 1990’s in Bosnia and Serbia as well as in
Rwanda, are not in the context of international war. But the first
two — the First World War and the Second World War — provided the
precedent for the elimination of neighbors, and for doing so in such
a way as to make it impossible to live side by side in the future."

U.S. MONEY POWER by Niall Ferguson, Historian

"1914-18 was one of the great watersheds in financial history. The
United States emerged for the first time as the rival to Great
Britain as a financial super power. Possibly even in some respects,
the United States overtook Britain. … It’s the point at which the
United States firmly ceases to be a debtor and becomes a creditor
nation — the world’s banker.

The fascinating thing, of course, is that that’s no longer true. We
live in a time when the United States has ceased to be a creditor. It
ceased to be a creditor in the 1980’s and became a world debtor. It’s
reverted to its pre-First World War situation of being an importer
rather than an exporter of capital. So the legacy of the Great War
in that respect seems largely to have expired and been expunged by
fundamental economic changes."

EUROPEAN UNION by Niall Ferguson, Historian

"The idea of European economic integration and even the creation of
a European Federation were in fact much discussed during the Great War.

… The European Union we know today would not have surprised
anybody who was seriously interested in the future of Europe in
1917. … The idea that it would have to begin with a Franco-German
pooling of economic interests, particularly in the Rhine rural area,
the pooling of ore and coal, iron and steel interests, was in fact
first floated immediately after the First World War by French policy
makers and industrialists. … But it took a Second World War to show
that this was the only viable way forward for Western Europe."

BAGHDAD 2003 – Making the world safe for democracy by Jay Winter,

"Baghdad 2003 has some shadows of the Great War… The first shadow
is the belief that the victors carry democracy with them. This is an
American idea from 1917-18. Woodrow Wilson believed that democracy
was inherently peaceful and dictatorships, the kind that ruled in
Germany in 1914, were inherently hostile and bellicose. By insisting
that Germany change regimes, there was a better chance of guarding
the peace of the world than if Germany had remained a quasi-military

The notion that you can create democracy and therefore peace is Woodrow
Wilson’s. And George W. Bush is a Wilsonian. … one that harks back
to a period in which armed force brings democracy to those who are
suffering under dictatorship."

The Language of Mass Death by Jay Winter, Historian

"The language used to describe a totally unprecedented vision of mass
death is found in the Great War. Nobody had any idea what was going
to happen once war between industrialized countries broke out. … So
the impossibility of understanding what was happening and the ways
in which to refer to it in 1914-18 — and for years after — produced
all kinds of poems, novels, memoirs … September 11th is relatively
close to us. It probably is going to take years for people to work
out what it is that actually happened. … Traumatic memories can’t
be configured right away. … 10 years, 15 years, 20 years down the
line, some great works of imaginative literature and art will come
to tell us the meaning of these [9/11] events."

Future Use of Military Force by Niall Ferguson, Historian

"The world hasn’t moved that far from the age of the Great War because,
fundamentally, national interest is still paramount. But what has
changed is that European politicians have radically thought through
the way that they pursue the national interest.

And the biggest change … is of course that military power is of far
less significance in European politics than it was a century ago on the
eve of the Great War. European politicians are exceedingly reluctant
to use military power. …that is one reason why these former empires
like the French and Germans dislike the sight of other people —
namely the United States — using military power as self confidently
as the United States has done since September 11th."

What did we learn?

by Jay Winter, Historian

"I think we learned a great deal from the Great War. The first point is
that as soon as international warfare is launched, nobody can predict
the outcome. The second thing is that international war breeds civil
war, and civil war is uglier than international war because there
are no limits. We also learned that the technology of warfare expands
much more rapidly than the capacity of political leaders to control it.

And I think the final thing that the First World War taught us is
that the easy access of individuals to democratic procedures is very
fragile. Warfare suspends democracy. How high a price is victory?

That’s a question we owe to the First World War. And the question is
still with us today."