The danger that never dies: It was the war to end all wars but here DOMINIC SANDBROOK argues why the delicate balance of power in Europe could be lost once more… and tip the continent into bloody turmoil
Deep in the heart of the Compiegne Forest, in north-eastern France, there stands a handsome two-storey 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.
British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron visit the Thiepval cemetery as part of ceremonies to mark the centenary of the 1918 Armistice
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.
French President Emmanuel Macron (C) sits next to French historian Antoine Prost (L) as he attends a round table with historians on the Great War in Peronne on November 9, 2018 – Macron is currently on a six-day tour to visit the most iconic landmarks of the First World War (WWI) ahead of the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the 11 November 1918 armistice
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.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) speaks to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Istanbul last month
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.
US President Donald J. Trump responds to a question from the news media as he walks to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, before departing for Paris for a ceremony commemorating 100 years since the end of World War I on 11 November
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 cyber-warfare 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?
British Prime Minister Theresa May, right, and French President Emmanuel Macron, left, walk together after laying wreaths at the World War I Thiepval Memorial in Thiepval, France, Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. The memorial commemorates more than 72,000 men of British and South African forces who died in the Somme
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 far-Right 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 mid-term 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.
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May (L), Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel (R), and Liz Sweet, Director of External Relations at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, walk through the St Symphorien Military Cemetery in Mons, Belgium. Where wreaths were placed at the graves of John Parr, the first British soldier to be killed in WWI in 1914, and George Ellison, the last British soldier to be killed before Armistice in 1918
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 two-thirds of its territory and half its population in the post-war 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.
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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 far-Right Marine Le Pen.
In a blackly ironic twist, she is especially popular in precisely that north-eastern corner of France where the war was fought. Indeed, the two departements she won in 2017, Aisne and Pas-de-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 re-run of World War I. History never repeats itself exactly.
Theresa May (C) after wreaths were placed at the graves of John Parr, the first British soldier to be killed in WWI in 1914, and George Ellison, the last British soldier to be killed before Armistice in 1918
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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and French President Emmanuel Macron hold hands after a conference as part of a summit called to attempt to find a lasting political solution to the civil war in Syria
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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