This weekend marked a century since the ending of the Great War of 1914-18. It had been an unintended but bitterly-fought conflict that had convulsed the whole system of European imperial power, drawing in peoples and nations around the world. The armistice that ended fighting in Western Europe was signed on November 11th 1918. Shortly before, on October 13th, Ottoman Turkey had signed one with Britain and France, agreeing to withdraw all forces to Anatolia, and allowing the military occupation of Constantinople, the first change of control over the great city since the Byzantines lost it to Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. That occupation continued until the Treaty of Lausanne was signed with the newly formed Turkish republic in 1923.
In Britain the commemoration of the Great War has if anything grown in the public imagination in recent decades. The wearing of red paper poppies as a buttonhole, introduced in 1921 by the British Legion, has achieved the status of a national cult. No public figure would be seen without one in the several weeks leading up to November11th and this year passengers at some London underground stations found themselves deafened by loudspeaker messages urging compliance with the ritual. It is becoming increasingly strange and mildly Orwellian.
On the continent of Europe, the Great War has been allowed to shift into its proper historical perspective, having been followed by the devastation of the Second World War and, for the eastern half, the grim years of Soviet occupation. History has more balance, weighted by inescapable memories. For the British, impoverished but undefeated in 1945 as in 1918, the national myth has remained one of defiant triumph, the very myth that underlies the anxious, insular reaction of the Brexiters today. It is no less potent for being imaginary. A melancholy tribute to the fallen plays a large part in the invisible bonds that British society has created for itself.
For a great number of peoples to the east, 1918 was not a closing but an opening of history. For the Arabs living under Ottoman rule it meant the chance to determine their own political future. The structures and principles of the state under which they aspired to live were up for debate and decision, except that Britain and France had other ideas for the region. Weakened by the unsought-for conflict and increasingly anxious about new rivals in the shape of the United States and the emergent Soviet Union, they kept control of the former Ottoman lands in the Arab world. The mandates they secured from the new League of Nations would provide the basis in international law and practice for their informal empires in Syria and Lebanon, for the French and Iraq and Palestine for the British. While state-formation took place, it was partial and hedged with conditions laid down by the mandatory powers.
This autumn is thus the start of several years of centenaries, marking the stages by which the victorious powers of 1918 re-shaped the geopolitical world. In the Far East, Japan's place on the winning side led it to accelerate its expansion into China, provoking revolution and a further catastrophic war, a choice which has had profound consequences even today. In Europe the creation of small ethno-nationalist states was a more successful policy, though unable to resist either Soviet expansion or Hitler's ambitions. In the Arab world the consequences were less catastrophic than those in the Far East but the weaknesses they established in political society were to grow more potent over time. The divisions of territory, above all the introduction of a powerful and expansionary settler state in the form of Israel, added to the challenges. When military regimes took over Egypt, Syria and Iraq in the 1950s and 60s, the space for political development became fatally narrow. The alternative in the form of political Islamism, led by the tightly organised Muslim Brotherhood, was to result in disillusion and tragedy, culminating in the Islamists defeat of the liberal, modernising popular movements in the Egypt, Libya and Syria of 2011 and in the rise of Al Qaida and the so-called Islamic State.
The Arab world has much work still to do in order to define a better future for its citizens, and to play its proper part in contributing to regional stability. Its historic partners - Europe and more recently the United States - also need to apply themselves diligently to the history books and to learn how they have contributed thoughtlessly to the tensions that they perceived as threatening their interests and to see how they continue to do so. It is too much to expect busy political leaderships to learn much history. If they are not already well-read they will not have the time to make up for their deficiency.
However, the rest of us probably do have that chance. The period of centenaries now beginning is producing a rich crop of well-researched and well-written books. One is James Barr's "A Line in the Sand" on Anglo-French rivalry in the post-Ottoman Arab lands. He has now followed it by "Lords of the Desert", covering the Anglo-American rivalry for control of the Middle East over half a century ago. Reading both I was wondering why it takes fifty or a hundred years before we take a cool look at the strategic mistakes and the deluded thinking that lay behind them. Are human societies capable of learning from history? Or is it only the myth, the imaginary that counts?
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