by Julien Sassel

Like every year, the month of November sees the flowering of Remembrance Poppies in the United Kingdom and many parts of the Commonwealth, and Bleuets in France, to commemorate those who fought and fell during the First World War. However, this year marked the 100th anniversary prompting a series of commemorations, peaking in Paris on 11 November with a ceremony that gathered more than 70 heads of State and government. This conflict, by its characteristics and its outcome, had a significant impact on contemporary Europe. As it has become frequent in today’s public debate to make analogies between ongoing trends and the past century first half, it may be wise to recall some elements of the conflict. 

War is always an option 

In 1914, there was a widespread belief that war was not possible. Following a trend of globalisation, most observers estimated that the major global economies (most of them being European) were too interlocked and therefore, a generalised conflict between the main European powers was not only unlikely but also irrational. However, a series of tension and crisis had already erupted, potentially disrupting the balance in international affairs that had prevailed since the Vienna Congress of 1815. Among these crisis, one can consider the increasing competition between powers over colonial affairs: the scramble for Africa had led to the Moroccan crises between France and Germany, and the British and French expansion were on a collision course and the conflict was narrowly avoided in Fashoda. The rivalry between Germany and the United Kingdom took the form of a naval race, with both sides building an increasing number of more advanced battleships. Finally, in Europe, nationalisms called for border revisions: France wished to take back Alsace and Lorraine, Italy considered its unification uncomplete as long as Austria would not surrender part of its territories, and all eyes were on the coming demise of the Ottoman Empire. 

Of course, one should not consider an automatic link between such elements and the advent of a war. Nevertheless, many of the abovementioned elements persists in many parts of the world, and we are witnessing an increasing competition between several powers in various policy domains. 

The butterfly effect 

While no available source can confirm it, if there is any, it is reasonable to think that in 1914, most Western Europeans could not place Sarajevo on a map, and the same people did not consider that an assassination in this city could trigger a global war and lead them to fight in trenches for four years. Yet a complex clockwork of alliances and counter-alliances complemented by secret protocols made of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination the casus belli of the First World War. 

As such, it would be illusory to believe that our most direct security cannot be threatened by conflicts and disputes taking place on the other side of our planet, especially when they involve great powers. Examples such as the increasing Chinese assertiveness in the contested South China Sea, the Iranian-Saudi rivalry over the Middle East or the Russian annexation of Crimea remind us that different forms of conflicts are taking place around the world. Ignoring them will not safeguard us from their wider effects and their possible repercussions on our countries and daily lives. Instead, one should maintain a constant awareness and, where possible, try to defuse tensions and seek the application of agreements. This is why an actor such as the European Union should get involved and encourage de-escalation in many countries: not as a direct stakeholder but rather as an important international actor that may be affected by the worsening of a conflictual situation. 

Managing frustrations 

In 1914, crowds cheerfully welcomed the declaration of war, looking forward to finally defeating their neighbours. Four years later, they were welcoming the armistice, literally an end to the armed confrontation (as indicates the German word of Waffenstilstand), not a surrender, conditional or unconditional, as it would be in 1945. Indeed, there was no clear tactical winner on the Western front, even if there was one on the Italian, Balkan and Middle eastern fronts. Nonetheless, the Treaty of Versailles designated Germany and its allies as sole responsible of the war and enforced reparations that put the country on its knees, creating frustration against the Versailles Diktat. The Treaty of Trianon amputated the former Kingdom of Hungary from a large number of territories, leaving many ethnic Hungarians outside of Hungary and feeding a narrative which still prevails in such region. In the same way, many Italians considered that their efforts had not been rewarded, creating the concept of mutilated victory (vittoria mutilata) that would be widely used by Fascists to put forth their agenda. 

As Niccolo Macchiavelli indicated in The Prince, one can assert its authority by fear or by love. The peace treaties ending the First World War created resentment among the vanquished without making them fear the victors, paving way for revenge. In 1945, the allies would not repeat the mistake, putting Germany down, but also helping it to reconstruct itself thanks to the Marshall Plan. As we see in Syria and Iraq the military end of Daesh, it would be dangerous to helplessly leave the populations which previously supported the establishment of Daesh. An inclusive reconstruction is needed, tackling part of the roots causes among the local population. In this, the EU, as the largest donor in development and humanitarian aid, must affirm its role.

18 December 2018
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This text was published in Bullseye issue 74