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We Reap the Whirlwind

The French novelist, Gabriel Chevallier describes the events one hundred years ago this week when hostilities began in Europe in what we now call the First World War:

All across Europe, right up to the borders of Asia, armies are on the move, impatient to take on the enemy, certain of the justice of their cause and confident of victory.

Who is afraid? No one! Not yet. . .

Twenty million men, whom fifty million women have covered in flowers and kisses, hasten towards glory, bellowing out their national anthems.

The people are fired up and raring to go. The war is coming along very nicely. The statesmen of Europe can be proud.
(Fear, 1930)

Of course, as it turned out, most were hastening toward carnage rather than glory. While numbers remain in dispute, according to one estimate, of the 65 million soldiers mobilized during the Great War, 8.5 million were killed, 21 million wounded, and 7.7 million imprisoned or missing. My own great uncle Edgar lies in the Somme American Cemetery amid the rows of crosses, killed in action in the waning autumn days of the War laying tape at night in “no man’s land” for one more useless assault in the morning.

The statesmen of Europe and the United States have more than this carnage to answer for, which is why this centennial observance is as much about the present day as it is about the past. During the years of the First World War and its immediate aftermath, colonial ambition and economic self-interest were as much on the minds of presidents and prime ministers as the fate of their soldiers. Innocents still pay the price. Long before there was an Israel or a Hamas, even little Gaza was part of the game.

In 1916 British and French diplomats divided the old Ottoman Empire in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, carving out spheres of influence over Arab lands. In 1917 the British issued the Balfour Declaration, named for the foreign secretary, which committed Great Britain to the eventual establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In 1919 the Treaty of Versailles turned over all former German overseas colonies to the League of Nations while national boundaries in central Europe were redrawn. And in 1920, the Treaty of Trianon completed the dissolution of the old Hapsburg Empire, dispersing ethnic minorities into numerous countries. The trophies were all neatly distributed. Actual residents of these parceled out territories were never consulted. The statesmen can be proud.

Woodrow Wilson with his messianic vision of a world dominated by American democratic benevolence and economic privilege arrived at Versailles heralding a policy of self-determination. But even Wilson had no intention of extending that to Asia and Africa. A poignant footnote to the gamesmanship of the victorious powers is the story of a young Vietnamese nationalist, later to be called Ho Chi Minh, who arrived in Versailles to present the U.S. president with a petition for Vietnamese independence from French Indochina. Had had been inspired by, among other things, The Declaration of Independence. The young man’s petition was ignored in deference to the French, with results that continue to haunt Americans to this day.

And the end result of all of this? Fictitious states created across the Middle East without regard to ethnic, cultural, and religious difference. A Jewish homeland eventually imposed on an Arab population. Convoluted boundaries all across central Europe and the Balkans leaving minority ethnic populations subject to hostile rule. Homogeneous ethnic groups, like the Kurds, denied a nation state. The conflicts spread across the pages of today’s newspapers confound our sensibilities. We ask, naively, how did this happen? But the seeds for this bitter harvest were sown one hundred years ago by statesmen who believed the world’s people were their possessions. And still, they are so proud.

The war casualties we memorialize this week did not end in 1918 or 1945. They continue today. Chevallier anticipates the grim harvest in the century ahead as his novel draws to a close on November 11, 1918: “It is a moment that brings us back to 1914. Life rises up again like the dawn. The future opens before us like a magnificent avenue. But it is an avenue bordered by tombs and cypresses. A bitter taste mars our joy, and our youth has greatly aged.”

John H. Thomas
July 31, 2014

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