1918: Good bye to all that, but not for everyone

By Sam Gordon

January 19, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — With the passing of 2018 we witness the passing of 100 years since the end of World War I. This year the Europeans, the whiter parts of the former British Empire, now Commonwealth of Nations, and the United States bade a somber farewell to the “war to end all wars.”

Since the end of hostilities much has been written about the suffering endured by men in uniform between 1914 and 1918. Collections of poetry, biographies — possibly most notably Robert Graves’s Good Bye To All That — and volumes of fiction are stacked on library shelves. Historical analysis has made its way into the printed news, radio and television.

Some even venture that Australia and New Zealand gained their national identity during the conflict. I’ll leave others, better placed than me, to deliberate on that one.

Some, but less, coverage has been devoted to the outcomes of the conflict. It saw the end of some empires, the expansion of others, and in the case of the US, following the acquisition of lands held by Native Americans, the emergence into new theaters of exploitation.

Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia that country’s solders packed up on the Western Front and headed eastward to home. That ended the imperial rule of Czar Nicolas II of the Romanov family. Then in 1918, shortly before WWI hostilities officially ended, another family, the Habsburgs, saw their Austro-Hungarian Empire disintegrate.

Apparently the Habsburgs took their name from Hawk’s Castle in present day Switzerland. Their roots stretch back to the thirteenth century and spanned over central and southern Europe and onto the Atlantic coast. In the mercantile age, through a Spanish connection, their influence even touched South America.

Wars and armies played their part but the Habsburgs were masters of soft power. They understood the usefulness of a “good marriage” — especially when it came to other royal families in Europe. Then with the end of Napoleon’s presence in a fractured and war torn Europe in 1815, the Habsburgs focused on consolidating their empire around Austria and central Europe.

Culture and civilization, Eurocentric and US hallmarks of development, played into industrialized warfare in 1914. Technology and assembly lines gave way to mechanization and trenches.

The 40-year scrabble for undeveloped Africa came to an abrupt end. After the war, Germany’s imperial ambitions evaporated with the signing of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles in France. Its more material assets were reassigned new governance.

A swath of Africa known then as German East Africa was entrusted to the imperial powers of Britain and Belgium. Today these are represented by the independent states of Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. 

The territory of German Southwest Africa fell to the Union of South Africa, which at that time was part of the British Empire. In 1990 it gained independence and is now the Republic of Namibia. Germany also lost much smaller territories in the north and south Pacific.

Many of these reassigned territories gained independence from their European rulers in the middle of the last century. The west African state of Ghana gained independence in 1957.  Kwame Nkrumah, its first president, understood that the history of colonialist exploitation did not end there and left us a new word in post World War II politics: neo-colonialism.

He did this through his book, Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism (1965). There he makes the point that capitalism, particularly when based in former colonizing countries, continued to thrive in so-called newly independent states, so contributing to their impoverishment.

Another empire to fall was that of the Ottomans. From Anatolia, the Asian peninsula that separates the Black Sea from the Mediterranean Sea and almost touches Europe, nomadic tribes established a base that became an empire around 1300. Today, that peninsula is know as Turkey, but for 600 years it was the hub of the Ottoman Empire, taking its name from its founder, using the Arabic Uthmān.

Its reach covered much of south-eastern Europe, some of central Europe, what we now call the Middle East and the north African coast. It incorporated many ethnic groups and although it was a Muslim empire it had Christian and Jewish communities, which were included in its armies.

In the new world that was growing out of the industrial and transportation age it was in an economic and military strategic position. For example, it had influence if not control over opening up Russian warm water Black Sea ports to the rest of the world and in its midst was the Suez Canal, albeit that the British had a military presence in Egypt for years.

The Ottoman Empire sided with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, as did Bulgaria over a year after the start of WWI. So besides the colonial territories of Germany and the Habsburgs, the Ottoman’s far-flung lands and people in the Middle East had to be re-appropriated. For the big guns of the Allied Powers, Britain, France, Belgium and the US — which entered the conflict in 1917, the year the Russians left — this administrative detail was undertaken at Versailles in France.

But before that particular show hit the road some behind the scenes work had to be conducted. This was no sideshow, even if the principals were mere diplomats and not heads of state. Enter the diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, acting on behalf of Britain and France, respectively.

In 1916 these two set about redefining the borders of Middle Eastern states, more often referred to then as the Near East. The region of the Ottomans had a rich sprinkling of ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity. It was home to Muslims, Jews and Christians; Kurds, Druse, Yazidis and Assyrians; and nomads and city dwellers that had lived there for centuries.

Distinguishing between these differences was below the pay grade of Sykes and Picot. They painted in broad strokes. There were to be zones of influence and zones of control, British and French. The former broad strokes of Mesopotamia, Persia and Greater Syria gave way to Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Initially the Kurds were to be granted their own country but back then Turkish nationalism won the day. A hundred years later the Kurds, with religious diversity, and a culture and language of their own, are still without a country to call their own.  In 1917 the British issued what became known as the Balfour Declaration. This supported the Zionist call for the establishment of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine.

It was around this time that the British were considering abandoning coal as the fuel that fired the boilers and steam engines of the Royal Navy. Petroleum fast became a strategic resource and its discovery in large quantities in the deserts of the Middle East soon attracted European and US companies.

As Karl Marx said in the Communist Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”

US President Donald Trump, in all certainty, has never read Marx but he does have an understanding, albeit limited and perverse, of the “instruments of production” and “with them the whole relations of society.” How else can we explain his personal attitude to oil rich Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman?

While all this was going on beyond the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea a hundred years ago, on the edge of the north Atlantic Britain was having trouble on its own shores. Irish claims for independence had again taken to arms in the Easter Rising of 1916. Brutally suppressed and defeated, the rising did in 1920 lead to the first step towards an independent Ireland.

But the price was high as history keeps demonstrating. The island of Ireland is partitioned with the politically independent Republic of Ireland to the south and the smaller Northern Ireland still a British possession.

Today, as Britain sets to exit the European Union, Britannia has got its knickers in a twist yet again: How to deal with the border between two Irelands on a single island? Britain is bound to leave the European Union but it has a troublesome land border, that of the Republic of Ireland, with the Europe it seeks to leave behind.

And the borders of the Middle East, so arbitrarily drawn by Sykes and Picot, tell us, history has no end nor does it say good bye.