December 18, 2014
The guns of August
Today marks the main centenary of the First World War (when the declarations of war by the major West European colonial powers effectively turned what had been a week-long Balkan conflict into global warfare) — undoubtedly the defining event of the 20th century because neither Nazism (and the Second World War) nor the Soviet Union (and the Cold War) would have been conceivable without it and nor might the United States have ended its isolationism to become that century’s superpower. But its aftermath also makes itself felt in this century and right up until today. Thus if the bombardment of the Gaza Strip has horrified the world in recent days, the main roots of the Middle East’s chronic instability were planted during the First World War — if 1917 is most famous for the Russian Revolution, it was also the year of the Sykes-Picot agreement redrawing the Middle East map into the subsequent disarray and the Balfour Declaration urging the creation of the state of Israel. Slightly less recently when the leaks of secret US archives by Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning raised major ethical issues concerning the protection of privacy and the latest technology, what was the legal basis of Washington’s counter-offensive? The 1917 Espionage Act. Terrorism, separatist nationalism and xenophobia were among the essential ingredients leading up to the catastrophe marked by today’s centenary — all familiar enough in today’s Europe and world.
The image of the First World War is inextricably linked to the mud and blood of the trench warfare in a narrow sector of Northern France (“Flanders fields”) and yet the conflict even reached the radius of a firmly neutral Argentina with the second-biggest naval battle of the war fought in Malvinas waters. The horrendous death toll of 16 million (around one percent of the world’s population then) destroyed, perhaps forever, the previous illusions of constant human progress which had done so much to perfect the machinery of slaughter, and yet Spanish ‘flu immediately afterwards claimed far more lives — at least 25 million. The period of this bloodbath nevertheless has positive connotations for many more millions of people — it marked the real start of female emancipation for one half of humanity while also providing the national days for many countries who found freedom.
All far away and long ago but the “war to end all wars” unleashed both immediate and long-term horrors which remain with us on its centenary today.