Veterans’ Day is the day World War I “ended.” The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month was the start of the Armistice for a War that continues. The War to end all Wars became the War that keeps spawning problems yet most of my students know nothing about this debacle. The odd thing is that many things happening now make no sense without knowing that the echoes of the Great War continue.
Because World War I came as mass education and media made middlebrow education possible, we all have tended to over focus on discrete events and have failed to see how World War I (just 100 years ago) continues to shape us. World War II probably should be seen as Round II of the same conflict . . .and the Cold War as Round III.
We are now facing Round IV, which may see the rise and revenge of some former colonial powers.
Vlad Putin and Russia are directly the result of the Russian defeat and desolation in World War I.
The Russian nation was pushing through a period of extreme change. If that change had continued, the growing middle class, the rapid increase in literacy, and the slow growth of democratic structures under the Constitution of 1905 would have made Russia an amazingly different place. Defeat in World War I ended this dream. Russia plunged into Revolution, disease killed millions, and the nation ended up being ruled by one bloodthirsty tyrant after another. Atheism stripped the Russian nation of her soul. The Soviet Union made World War II possible by helping Germany rearm and then aiding Hitler’s conquest of Poland. When Hitler stabbed his fellow monster in the back, Stalin sacrificed millions more lives to defeat the Nazi invasion.
The Soviets lost the Cold War with the West, dreams of global Revolution, and have never found a stable system.
Thank World War I for the present strong man and a nation rapidly depopulating.
Great Britain began the swift decline from a global power to ward of the United States.
The British Empire bled to death in France. Colonial troops performed well and learned they could fight as well as any Tommy. Freedom movements in nations like India knew that a struggling Great Britain no longer had the time, treasure, or enough troops to sustain a sprawling global force. Eventually, the United States would take over the job of keeping the sea lanes safe as the British navy faded into history. A former colonial state such as India is rapidly becoming more important to global peace and industry than Great Britain.
Since World War I, Great Britain has struggled with self-identity and as Brexit shows, continues to do so. The United States has been left an anomaly: an unconquerable nation. Eventually, we reach an even more unusual position: we could have conquered the world at the end of World War II, but chose not to do so. We are in relative decline, but no nation can touch us yet and we could still end life on this planet.
European colonialism generally began to retreat and new (often artificial) weak “independent” nations grew up.
Europeans had spread over the entire globe (including North America) conquering, transforming, and exploiting vast regions. World War I meant that this could not continue. There never was a very good reason for a nation like Germany to have African colonies and vanity was the best bad reason.
Colonialism was a plague on the Earth and the end was a good thing, but recovery from the awkward and uneven decline in colonial powers has shaped the world. In places like Singapore, great leaders created amazing nations, but in other places the corruption and artificial nature of some states have doomed entire people groups to decades of poverty. India, less than a lifetime from the colonial experience, is a world power, but still burdened with the legacy of the British Raj.
The collapse of Austro-Hungary and the continued power vacuum in the Balkans.
Before World War I, the Balkan region, controlled by no power, but coveted by three, was stereotyped as a “powder keg.” The nations there were weak. Russia felt she had a role to protect the Orthodox there and the Ottomans coveted old colonial states. Islamic peoples in the Balkans were also a concern to the Turks. Austro-Hungary dreamed of solving her imperial decline by new imperial conquests in the region.
Everyone had a very bad war. Austro-Hungary was destroyed, leaving more weak states in the rubble. The Ottoman Empire fell. Russia could not protect the Orthodox after the godless Revolution and the petty states of the region could not protect themselves.
Over expansion of the EU into places like Greece could be seen as a way to compensate for this never-solved problem.The Balkans remain the powder key of Europe as Turkey revives Islamist dreams and Russia hedges toward a role as protector of Christendom. Austria continues with fitful rightest dreams and the states of the region are still weak.
Before World War I, in Crimea (!), France and Great Britain could keep Russia out of Turkey and the Balkans. Who will check any coming conflict between these two regional powers now?
Germany remains an unbalanced power in the heart of Europe.
Germany was harmed more by the peace than by the War. Her territory had (mostly) been untouched, but the revolutions, unrest, and weak economy that followed, destroyed faith in republican government. She turned to the Nazis and the Nazis seized their chance and transformed Germany. That transformation was undone in the total war waged against the Nazis in World War II. Only with the fall of the Soviet Union did Germany reunite and begin to reassert herself.
She is no longer a militaristic culture, having burned out that fire, but she is still disproportionately powerful. If Great Britain continues Brexit, France cannot check Germany alone. Will tensions mount between France and Germany?
The Fall of the Ottoman Empire left the Middle East in dangerous flux.
The attempt to colonize the Middle East by the European powers after World War I was worse than a mere failure. It left states with odd boundaries. Tensions grew where few had existed before that time and governments grew to be monstrous. A family took control of Arabia and the House of Saud gained the all important city of Mecca as a result. This vile government began to warp Islam towards a dangerous sect far more hostile to modernity than was necessary.
Egypt has yet to recover from the colonial period. Iraq is an artificial state that may be dying right now. Iran, ancient Persia, dreams of regional power, but religious differences makes that unlikely.
What of the Turks? Are they again wondering if the Turkish people should rule regions not filled with majority Turks? A weakened Syria and Lebanon, two artificial states that are wobbling, leaves a chance.
And, of course, there is Israel, a state that would not exist if the events of World War I had not set an improbable series of events in motion. British rule in Palestine, and the British rulers of the time, made a Jewish state possible. The Holocaust made it necessary.
Today on the eleventh hour of this eleventh day, just short of one hundred years from the first Armistice Day, let us pray. Pray for peace. Pray we learn that history keeps going and that we are paying for the deeds of a generation no longer alive. Pray for leaders who will not use territorial expansion to suave ego as Wilhelm II did. Pray for a decrease in arms, but a strong naval power to keep the sea lanes safe. Pray for the Middle East and the Balkans.
They say that in the dying days of old Russia, a man saw a girl lost in the snow. She came to him and asked the way home. He asked where she lived, but she could not tell the man. She did not know. He was deeply troubled by this, but as he tried to decide what to do, the girl went away. He lost sight of her in the swirling storm. When he told his flatmate of his encounter, she said simply: “You should have brought her home. She was Russia.”*
As a child myself, I read this story and have never forgotten that Russia, in fact, all of Europe, got lost in 1914 and by 1917 did not know the way home. Her confusion, the plague of her scientism, loss of faith, and colonialism spread her confusion globally. The world has been looking since the Armistice, but most nations have yet to find a way back.
God, help us find the way home.
*I believe I read this story as a boy in The Russian Revolution by Alan Morehead. I hope I have the details right, because the book is no longer in my library.