It was the war to end all wars. But here a top his­to­rian ar­gues why the del­i­cate bal­ance of power in Eu­rope could be lost once more – and tip the con­ti­nent into bloody tur­moil

Scottish Daily Mail - - News - by Do­minic Sand­brook

Deep in the heart of the Com­piegne For­est, in north-eastern France, there stands a hand­some two­s­torey build­ing. In­side is a hum­ble rail­way wagon, ap­par­ently per­fectly pre­served, the let­ters iden­ti­fy­ing it as a din­ing car still picked out in gold.

This af­ter­noon, in that clear­ing in Com­piegne, Em­manuel Macron and An­gela Merkel will stand in si­lence to re­mem­ber what hap­pened al­most ex­actly a cen­tury ago.

It was there, just af­ter five on the morn­ing of Novem­ber 11, 1918, that the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of France and Ger­many signed the Armistice that marked the end of World War I.

Six hours later, at 11 o’clock, the guns fell silent, leav­ing more than a mil­lion Bri­tons, and per­haps 20 mil­lion men, women and chil­dren of all na­tion­al­i­ties, dead in what was at the time the great­est cat­a­clysm in world his­tory.

A cen­tury on, it is hard to read the sto­ries of the men who fell dur­ing more than four years of slaugh­ter with­out a lump in your throat.

A hun­dred years ago, with the hor­rors still burn­ing in their minds, peo­ple some­times called it ‘the war to end all wars’. They meant it lit­er­ally: a state­ment of ring­ing ide­al­ism, a dream of a bet­ter world.

Their hopes did not last long. Even on the first an­niver­sary of the Armistice, in 1919, it was grimly ob­vi­ous that the Great War had not ended all wars at all.

For, although the guns had fallen silent, they did not stay silent for long.

Far from ush­er­ing in a new age of peace, the end of World War I was fol­lowed by vi­cious civil wars in Ire­land and Hun­gary, an in­ter­minable se­ries of wars in Cen­tral and Eastern Eu­rope and the deaths of at least ten mil­lion peo­ple in the Rus­sian Civil War.

Even for the British Army, the Armistice was only a comma, not a full stop. In the next two years, thou­sands of men saw ac­tion in Rus­sia, Afghanistan, Turkey, Kuwait, Ire­land and Iraq, bat­tle­grounds that might have been ripped from to­day’s news head­lines.

Right from the start, there­fore, there was a tragic irony in the act of re­mem­brance. Even as mil­lions bowed their heads, the world was slid­ing to­wards a sec­ond world war that would prove even more hor­rific than the first.

Even to­day, the end of World War I is hardly a cause for un­com­pli­cated cel­e­bra­tion. A cen­tury on, we are still liv­ing with its af­ter­shocks, es­pe­cially in the blood-drenched shat­ter zones where the de­feated em­pires of Ger­many, Aus­tria-Hun­gary and Turkey gave way to a mo­saic of bit­terly com­pet­i­tive new na­tion states.

Syria’s civil war, for ex­am­ple, re­flects eth­nic and re­li­gious ten­sions that date back to Syria’s cre­ation by the Al­lies af­ter the col­lapse of the Ot­toman Em­pire in 1918.

Sim­i­larly, the con­flict be­tween Is­rael and the pales­tini­ans, which has poi­soned world pol­i­tics for so long, can be traced back to Bri­tain’s at­tempt to win a pro­pa­ganda vic­tory by promis­ing a Jewish home­land in Ot­toman pales­tine.

And, although Re­mem­brance Day ser­mons of­ten urge us to make sure that it ‘never hap­pens again’, the fact is that it is hap­pen­ing again — right now, to­day, in the rav­aged cities of eastern Ukraine, the apoc­a­lyp­tic night­mares of Syria and ye­men and the in­ter­minable blood­baths of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In­deed, as fright­en­ing as this may sound, a ma­jor con­ti­nen­tal war will al­most cer­tainly hap­pen again one day, not least be­cause it would be naive to pre­tend that the forces that fu­elled the war in 1914 have van­ished for ever.

per­haps the most ob­vi­ous is the role of Ger­many. As it hap­pens, I am not one of those his­to­ri­ans who think the Ger­mans de­serve all the blame for the out­break of war in 1914.

yet if there was one thing that desta­bilised the bal­ance of power in Eu­rope be­fore 1914, it was the emer­gence of Ger­many as a sin­gle en­tity, an eco­nomic and mil­i­tary leviathan that was sim­ply too big for its own con­ti­nent.

Does that sound fa­mil­iar? It should. For in many re­spects, the story of Eu­rope dur­ing the past decade has been the strug­gle to man­age Ger­many’s im­mense eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal power.

Of course, An­gela Merkel has never es­poused Kaiser Wil­helm II’s mil­i­taris­tic am­bi­tions. But, at a time when the far-Right AfD are polling in dou­ble fig­ures there, and would be the ob­vi­ous ben­e­fi­cia­ries from an eco­nomic down­turn, it is hard not to worry about Ger­many’s fu­ture path. And even if the far Right never comes to power, the Ger­man prob­lem will not go away. Such is its eco­nomic hege­mony that the gov­ern­ments of Greece, Spain and por­tu­gal have sac­ri­ficed the pros­per­ity of their own peo­ple in or­der to stay in­side the Ger­man-dom­i­nated Eu­ro­pean project, stok­ing re­sent­ments for what could be decades to come. But power in­evitably pro­vokes a re­ac­tion.

you can see it not just in the anti-Ger­man graf­fiti on the streets of Athens, but in the rhetoric of dem­a­gogues such as Hun­gary’s Vik­tor Or­ban, who is never hap­pier than when he is de­nounc­ing Brus­sels and Ber­lin.

It is no co­in­ci­dence that Mr Or­ban looks for sup­port to Ger­many’s great ri­val in 1914, the brood­ing, re­sent­ful gi­ant of Rus­sia.

In­deed, for an­other ex­am­ple of the con­ti­nu­ities be­tween the 1910s and the 2010s, just look at Rus­sia’s am­bi­tions in Eastern Eu­rope, from its at­tempts to desta­bilise pro-West­ern forces in Mon­tene­gro and Mace­do­nia to its cy­ber­war­fare cam­paigns in Latvia and Es­to­nia. Be­cause we re­main so fix­ated on the West­ern Front, we of­ten for­get the in­cen­di­ary role the Rus­sians played in the out­break of World War I. For it was they who ig­nited the su­per­power con­flict when they in­sisted on back­ing Ser­bia af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of Aus­tria-Hun­gary’s Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand.

Why did the Rus­sians do it? Why sup­port a ter­ror­ist state so far from their own borders, even when they knew it might pro­voke a global con­fla­gra­tion?

THE an­swer is that they were des­per­ate to pro­mote their in­ter­ests in the Balkans, feared the ad­vance of their wealth­ier West­ern ri­vals and were de­ter­mined to pro­tect what they saw as their own sphere of in­flu­ence. Does that, too, sound fa­mil­iar?

Vladimir putin’s bi­og­ra­phers even call him the ‘new Tsar’, pur­su­ing an overtly im­pe­ri­al­ist pol­icy, based on the pro­jec­tion of raw, un­com­pro­mis­ing power, that re­calls Rus­sia be­fore 1914.

We know where that men­tal­ity leads: from con­fronta­tion to con­fronta­tion, end­ing in the char­nel house of the trenches. But Mr putin is not just an im­pe­ri­al­ist.

He has tapped the uniquely in­flam­ma­tory power of na­tion­al­ism, which was driven

by the rise in lit­er­acy in the decades be­fore 1914, and is fu­elled by so­cial me­dia such as Face­book and Twit­ter to­day.

Even a few years ago, com­men­ta­tors were talk­ing of na­tion­al­ism as some­thing that be­longed to his­tory.

Na­tional iden­tity was sup­posed to be a thing of the past, su­per­seded by a new mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. And the na­tion state was sup­posed to be on the way out, ren­dered ob­so­lete by supra­na­tional en­ti­ties like the EU. Few peo­ple would make such claims to­day. Far from un­der­min­ing ex­ist­ing iden­ti­ties, glob­al­i­sa­tion and im­mi­gra­tion have driven peo­ple back to the tribal loy­al­ties of old.

The past two weeks alone have pro­duced two con­spic­u­ous ex­am­ples: first in Brazil, where the far­Right Jair Bol­sonaro won power on a plat­form that might have been bor­rowed from the World War I vet­eran Ben­ito Mus­solini; and then in the United States, where Don­ald Trump’s un­re­pen­tantly na­tion­al­ist ap­peal — ‘Amer­ica First’ — at­tracted tens of mil­lions of vot­ers in the midterm elec­tions.

But the most glar­ing ex­am­ples have come in pre­cisely the places most af­fected by World War I, where a sense of fes­ter­ing re­sent­ment, vic­tim­hood and be­trayal has been passed down the gen­er­a­tions.

It is no co­in­ci­dence, I think, that the EU’s most ag­gres­sively xeno­pho­bic leader, the dem­a­gogic Vik­tor Or­ban, came to power in Hun­gary, a coun­try that was oc­cu­pied and hu­mil­i­ated by its neigh­bours af­ter 1918 and lost more than two­thirds of its ter­ri­tory and half its pop­u­la­tion in the post­war set­tle­ment.

Nor is it a co­in­ci­dence that the au­thor­i­tar­ian Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan rose to power in Turkey, a coun­try that lost a huge transcon­ti­nen­tal em­pire dur­ing the war, was oc­cu­pied by the Al­lies and al­most dis­mem­bered by the Greeks.

Per­haps the most dis­turb­ing ex­am­ple, though, comes in the very place where the cen­te­nary of the Armistice will be com­mem­o­rated this af­ter­noon: France.

De­spite its rhetor­i­cal com­mit­ment to Eu­ro­pean unity, France is a coun­try where the fires of na­tion­al­ism still burn brightly.

And although lib­er­als took so­lace from Mr Macron’s vic­tory in last year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the plain fact is that more than one in three French men and women voted for the far­Right Ma­rine Le Pen.

In a blackly ironic twist, she is es­pe­cially pop­u­lar in pre­cisely that north­eastern cor­ner of Lest we for­get: The sun sets over the tombs of sol­diers who fell dur­ing World War I in Ablain-Saint-Nazaire France where the war was fought. In­deed, the two de­parte­ments she won in 2017, Aisne and Pas­de-Calais, saw some of the bit­ter­est fight­ing of the war, in­clud­ing the bat­tles of Ar­ras, Loos and Vimy Ridge.

This week, na­tion­wide opin­ion polls ac­tu­ally put her Na­tional Rally ahead of Mr Macron’s party for the first time — a star­tling and dis­turb­ing de­vel­op­ment.

Per­haps the French pres­i­dent should spend less time com­mem­o­rat­ing the bat­tles of the past, then, and more time wor­ry­ing about the bat­tles of the fu­ture.

For if France fol­lows coun­tries such as Italy and Hun­gary in em­brac­ing the pol­i­tics of na­tion­al­ism, a con­flict in Eu­rope will no longer look so fan­tas­ti­cal.

None of this, of course, means that we could see a re­run of World War I. His­tory never re­peats it­self ex­actly.

The world has moved on, and a re­turn to the days of great al­liances and su­per­power blocs seems un­likely.

But we would be de­luded to imag­ine, as so many paci­fists and peace cam­paign­ers did in the Twen­ties and Thir­ties, that we have left war be­hind for ever.

NO mat­ter how of­ten the EU elite tell them­selves they have ban­ished con­flict for good, there will be an­other Eu­ro­pean war one day. His­tory does not stop, and hu­man­ity does not change. It will hap­pen: the only ques­tions are where and when.

On a week­end of som­bre re­flec­tion, that may seem a pes­simistic thought. But it was not pes­simism that killed 20 mil­lion peo­ple in World War I.

It was op­ti­mism: the be­lief that the gen­er­als could man­age the war swiftly and ef­fi­ciently; the fan­tasy that the boys would be home by Christ­mas; the politi­cians’ delu­sion that they could shat­ter Eu­rope’s frag­ile po­lit­i­cal and so­cial or­der and some­how re­assem­ble the frag­ments af­ter­wards.

This, I think, is the real les­son of World War I.

It is easy to stand in si­lence for a few min­utes, brush­ing away a tear in mem­ory of the boys who went over the top.

What is more un­set­tling is to recog­nise the fragility of the world we know and love.

As they learned a cen­tury ago, fixed points can be de­stroyed in a mo­ment; as­sump­tions swept away overnight; em­per­ors, gov­ern­ments, even en­tire coun­tries smashed to pieces.

Yet even in 1918, when they knew how low hu­man­ity could sink, peo­ple still de­luded them­selves that they could ban­ish the de­mons that lurk within us all.

Af­ter the Armistice, the French put the Com­piegne wagon in a mu­seum in Paris.

It be­came a sym­bol of their de­fin­i­tive vic­tory over their Ger­man ri­vals, a totem of peace. And what hap­pened to it?

In 1940, hav­ing crushed the French in the re­match, Hitler or­dered that it be re­turned to the for­est in Com­piegne for their sur­ren­der. Then it was taken to Ber­lin and dis­played as a tro­phy of re­venge, and in 1945 the SS de­stroyed it with dy­na­mite.

That car­riage in the mu­seum at Com­piegne is a replica. What it sym­bol­ises is not a last­ing peace, but the re­cur­rence of con­flict.

So much, then, for peace and vic­tory.

And so much, alas, for the war to end all wars.

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