World Wars I and II

The Root of Evil

"Nationalism has been the great curse of humanity. In no other shape has the Demon of Ignorance assumed more hideous proportions; to no other obsession do we yield ourselves more readily. A vice of the blood, of the plasma rather, it runs riot in the race, and rages today as of yore in spite of the precepts of religion and the practice of democracy."
Sir William Osler (1849-1919), a Canadian physician who was a cofounder of the Johns Hopkins school of Medicine.

Nationalism and the concept of nation state developed late in the 18th century. Before that people tended to associate themselves with towns or provinces and were subjects of some king or emperor with whom need not have a strong connection.

"The political development of nationalism and the push for popular sovereignty culminated with the ethnic/national revolutions of Europe, for instance the Greek War of Independence (1821). Since that time, nationalism has become one of the most significant political and social forces in history, perhaps most notably as a major influence or postulate of World War I and especially World War II" (Wikipedia)

One problem with nationalism is that nationality is associated not only with a state but also with religion and certainly with race. Until the 1960's a "good" American was a WASP, White, Anglo-saxon, Protestant. The election of the first catholic president and the civil laws passed under Johnson have relaxed that definition. However, the old ideas persist in many parts of the world. For example, a "good" Greek must be a Christian Orthodox. This narrow definition of ethnicity has led to many and tragic ethnic cleansings.

The rise of nationalism may be another reason for anti-Semitism than that discussed in the section on "Drop in Demand for Unskilled Labor." A "good" Frenchman was a Roman Catholic and that left the Jews out. In that environment it was natural for the idea of Zionism to arise. If Jews could not be members of existing nation states, they should have their own state. In the Ottoman Empire a "good" Ottoman was a Sunni Muslim. It is an interesting coincidence that the first massacre of Armenians in modern times took place in 1894-1896 (the Hamidian massacres), around the time of the Dreyfus trial in France. Thus nationalism may the culprit in the persecution of Christians in the Ottoman Empire.

A digression: This may be the place to look ahead and discuss the expulsion of Greeks from Asia Minor following the defeat of the Greek army in 1922 and the finalization of the process with the "population exchange" of 1924. A lot has been written about that expulsion and how it could have been averted, but it seems to me that Greeks had no place in a nationalistic Turkey. A strong argument in favor of that view that while Greeks were allowed to remain in Istanbul, almost all of them left on their own within 40 years.

At the start of the 20th century nationalism motivated unrest in the Austrian-Hungarian empire and the Ottoman empire. Many states (including England, France, and Germany) adhered to the nation state concept and that territory mattered even if the industrial revolution had reduced its significance. There had been no war among the major powers in Europe since 1870, but the 40+ years of peace were about to end.

The Spark

On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were shot dead in Sarajevo, by Gavrilo Princip, one of a group of six Bosnian Serb assassins coordinated by Danilo Ilic.

Historical Summary

Modern weaponry made for more killings. At the end there were over 10 million soldiers dead (on both sides) and over 7 million soldiers "missing", almost certainly dead. Also close to 7 million civilians died, so the death toll exceeds 20 million. Germany, newly consolidated under Prussia seemed sure that the war would lead to a victory but they ended up losing. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire was dissolved with parts of it given to Serbia (Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes until it rename itself Yugoslavia). A new state of Czechoslovakia was formed, Poland was re-created out of parts of Russia and Germany, and Romania was enlarged. The Ottoman empire was also dissolved with the major part reborn as Turkey and the Arab states were divided between France and England. It is hard to see how this could have justified 20 million lives.

A very big unintended result was the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the establishment of the Soviet Union. Other countries felt threatened by the Soviet Union as encouraging their local communists.

Worst, many borders were unstable, for example that between Germany and Czechoslovakia because the latter state included a significant German minority. Germany was also made to pay reparations and that created both economic hardship (super-inflation) and resentment. Hitler's ultra-nationalism found a receptive audience and he came to power in 1933.

World War II broke out in 1939, a direct consequence of decisions made at the end of World War I. Its death toll was 60 million or about 1 in 40 people worldwide. (Soviet Union 1 in 8, Poland 1 in 6, U.S. 1 in 40.)

Jews were hit particularly hard with some communities losing over 90% of their population (6 million died in the Holocaust). The founding of the state of Israel was the inevitable outcome of the ethnic cleansing suffered by the Jews and the nationalistic ideology that defined ethnicity in a narrow way. If Jews could not be accepted as citizens of any country, they had to have their own.

The aftermath of World War II saw smaller wars such as Korea and Vietnam caused (ultimately) by the Soviet Union so they too can be blamed on World War I.

Finally, the 1978 reforms in China by Den Xioaping and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 led to a general understanding that wars are obsolete in the industrial age. But that was the case 100 years earlier!

The Nuclear Age

Relativity theory was formulated by Einstein in 1905. It included the famous equation E = mc2 that implies the mass-energy equivalence. This led ultimately to atom bomb that was dropped over Hiroshima in 1945. The destructive power of the new weapon contributed to the sobering of world leaders. In a war between nuclear powers there will be no winners.

Why Leaders did not see ahead and plunged into World War I?

Is it right to blame it on individuals rather than a mind set? Nationalism, the belief that territory mattered had too strong a hold among the public and the elite. Leaders were worried about losing face and took reckless actions. The historian Max Hastings (CATASTROPHE 1914) has made the argument that the 1914 war was no accident and he writes: “The case still seems overwhelmingly strong that Germany bore principal blame. ... Even if it did not conspire to bring war about, it declined to exercise its power to prevent the outbreak by restraining Austria. Even if Berlin did not seek to contrive a general European conflagration, it was willing for one, because it believed that it could win.”

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