November 11, this year was the centenary of Armistice Day when the First World War officially ended after just over four years of conflict involving all the global military powers of the age.
Beyond its notorious legacy as arguably the bloodiest conflict in human history, the war and its aftermath reshaped much of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and our geo-political world order.
If the nineteenth century was the zenith of European Empire building and consolidation, the twentieth is when it all began to unravel.
Although it was not until some 72 years later, in the late twentieth century, when we witnessed the denouement with the collapse of the Soviet Empire at the end of the Cold War, and the disintegration of former Yugoslavia.
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Prior to WW I, much of the Uralic-speaking Baltics and Poland were part of the 1871 German Empire created under the Hohenzollern dynasty and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.
The German Empire, however, stretched from the Marshall Islands, German Samoa and the Bismarck Archipelago in the Pacific Ocean to the East, Jiaozhou Bay in China to the North, Burundi, Rwanda and South West Africa (Namibia) and parts of present-day Tanzania and Mozambique to the South, to German Kamerun (Cameroon) and Togoland in West Africa. Being German was not defined solely by one’s ethnicity.
Similarly, the largest empire in Europe at the time, Austro-Hungary, encompassed German Austria, Hungary, the predominantly Slavic nations of Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic, Slovakia) and Yugoslavia (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia) and and Muslim Bosnia Herzegonvia.
The writ of what remained of the Ottoman Empire ran from present day Turkey across much of the Arab Middle of East (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt), parts of Persia (Iran), Palestine and the Ottoman vassal states in the western parts of the Arabian Peninsula, including Medina and Mecca.
All these constellations were to be redrawn after November 11, 1918 at the Paris (Versailles) Peace Conference. New nations such as Israel emerged; others such as the Weimar Republic were short-lived, but even the reconstituted Germany after WW II lost much of the territory of 1871.
A large part of West Prussia (and some of East Prussia) and Gandsk (where Lech Walesa was to take a stand against the Communist regime years later) went to Poland. Other parts of East Prussia, including Kaliningrad became part of Soviet Russia, and Germany renounced any claims on Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltics.
As part of the Versailles Treaty, Alsace-Lorraine was handed back to France and the German-speaking regions of Eupen-Malmedy went to Belgium. And so it went.
Remaking the Middle-East
The current national boundaries of the Middle-East today were drawn up towards the end and after the Great War. Before that, the likes of Syria, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon did not exist as independent states.
As the Ottoman Empire crumbled, the dominant European empires and Russia were keen to expand their sphere of influence to much of its former territories in Arabia.
After the West’s failure in the Gallipoli Campaign and the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian interest in Ottoman Constantinople (present day Istanbul) waned.
Britain and France, however, continued to eye Ottoman Arabia and appointed two experienced diplomats – Mark Sykes and François Georges Picot – to agree the future of borders of the region then known in British circles at least as Greater Syria.
The resulting Sykes-Picot Agreement allocated much of present-day Syria and the Levant to France and the Brits took control over Palestine and Iraq.
The Americans did not view this division of the spoils of Ottoman Arabia as satisfactory or permanent and not wanting to be excluded, President Woodrow Wilson appointed a commission headed by Charles King (then President of Oberlin College) and an American businessman Charles Crane to assess the readiness of the region for self-determination.
The commission concluded that the Middle East was not ready for independence then and recommended the establishment of mandates (under the League of Nations) as part of a process of transition.
The vanquished dispossessed
Similar mandates were established elsewhere when defeated European empires were divested of their colonies: German Rwanda-Burundi went to Belgium; Tanganyika to the British; German Kamerun and Togoland were split between the British and the French; and Namibia went to the British. Much of the German territories in the Pacific islands were passed on to the UK and those in the South Pacific, to Japan.
In 100 years, we witnessed the agglomeration of nation states that were the dominant global empires, gradually disintegrate, through a process of ‘ethnicisation’ (my word) into new, nation-states defined along ethnic and / or linguistic lines.
The process of ever-granular fragmentation of national identity does not appear to have abated in Catalan and Basque Spain, Central Africa, Ireland, Sri Lanka and many other places around the world.
A new world order
One of the other legacies of the Great War was the emergence of a new international order, spearheaded by then American President Woodrow Wilson.
His principles for peace for the Versailles negotiations, captured in his famous Fourteen Points Statement, provided the foundation for a new internationalism that still dominates the global world order.
Today, many of Wilson’s ideas may sound unremarkable, but it is a measure of how much they have influenced twentieth and twenty-first centuries thoughts that we take ideas such as open diplomacy, self-determination, open navigation and free movement on the seas, eradication of trade and economic barriers, arms reduction and an end to territorial and colonial claims on foreign lands for granted.
The process of breaking up empires and decolonisation was accelerated after WW II with Indian independence. This time, France and Britain, among the victors of both world wars, saw their empires shrink, with an ascendant America that did not seek to wield influence through occupation.
But by far, Wilson’s greatest legacy after the war was the establishment of the League of Nations – the first international organisation dedicated to the pursuit of global peace. Although ironically, it was Wilson’s own inability to persuade congress to approve American membership of the league that contributed to its ultimate demise.
Still, it provided a blue print and template for the United Nations that emerged after 1945.
The Great War may have been the first truly global conflict.
Despite its horrors, out of the ashes of the smouldering pyres of its killing fields and bombed-out trenches, emerged new global institutions and a world order that may not be not perfect, but gave us rules-based systems that have kept a semblance of international order and relative peace.
That is certainly true of Europe and its centuries of bloody conflict prior to WW I.
The writer is a Telecom Executive based in the Middle-East and occasionally writes about history and politics.