Monday, 4 August 2014

August 4, 1914-August 4, 2014

Today marks 100 years since the outbreak of World War I, often described by historians as the beginning of the “short century” lasting until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-90. The “short” 20th followed the “long” 19th century, usually measured from the French Revolution of 1789 to include the entire 1800s right up to 1914.

Pretty much everyone taking note of this anniversary has made reference to certain eerie parallels that, if we were not an immovably insouciant race, would make us rush to reinstitute the custom of burnt offerings to the gods. Here’s a list.

The first and most obvious hint of 1914-redux is the shooting war in the Ukraine accompanied by attempts to redraw the boundaries of Europe and resurgent nationalism everywhere you look. It’s not all that far from Serbia where the fireworks began a century ago although the two countries do not share a border.

As in the run-up to WW One, rival power blocs are maneuvering to gain advantage, undermine the enemy allies and bully the weaker countries. Each minor player has powerful friends, and everyone seems to think they can push the situation further, provoke retaliations, pump up chauvinistic anger, and spread around deadly weapons while keeping things from spinning out of control. The Hapsburg emperors thought that, too. The U.S. insistence on making things as hostile and volatile as possible is perhaps best reflected in Hillary Clinton’s post-Crimean annexation insistence that Vlad Putin is sort of like Adolf Hitler—obviously calculated to provoke, infuriate and make negotiations impossible.

If the “short century” was a continuum leading through the first war through the temporary peace and straight into the second, then there’s another apt parallel with the disastrous 1930 Smoot-Hawley Act, which aggravated the Depression by raising tariffs just when choking off world trade was the last thing anyone needed. Today, we have the austerity priests ruling Europe and most of the U.S., administering the holy sacrament of mass misery to purify half the continent’s youth through bracing doses of idleness and penury. Not surprisingly, many of them are attracted to ultra-nationalist and neonazi movements—how about that! What could go wrong?

In the pre-WWII period, a vicious war was underway in China as the Japanese fascists drove into Manchuria and famously slaughtered tens of thousands at Nanking. We have an arguably similar ongoing debacle in Iraq, provoked by the Bush-Cheney criminal clique and now completely out of their or anyone’s control.

Lawrence Weschler suggests in Truthdig that even the appalling events in Gaza could be connected to unfinished business of the last war in the same way that Versailles Treaty to end war no. 1 left the European continent no real settlement and did much to lead it back to war no. 2.

Few even then though could have predicted just how unprecedentedly horrendous the resultant Nazi German regime would prove, or how calamitous for Europe’s Jews. And there is little doubt that following the Second World War, the case had become well nigh irrefutable that the surviving Jewish remnant indeed finally did deserve a state of its own. But—and here is the crux of the matter, at least in terms of how history thereafter would play out—why not the state of Bavaria, for example, or the Ruhr Valley, or Vienna and its surrounds? All sorts of massive movements and relocations of population were taking place in the years immediately after the war. Wouldn’t a more just settlement of Jewish claims have taken territory from those who had inflicted the most horrific suffering and violence upon them, and who would as a result have had the least justifiable cause for complaint?
The fact of the matter is that Europe—all of Europe—had no appetite for such an outcome. Even after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was still rampant in the higher counsels of governance across the continent (as it had been, for that matter, throughout the war in the relevant reaches of FDR’s State Department). Far easier to foist the problem onto the Arabs of Palestine. . . .

The point I am trying to make here is that the settlement forced upon the local Arabs of Palestine in the years following the end of the Second World War was in many ways every bit as blatantly unjust and corrosive as that forced upon the Germans at the end of the First World War. . . . And, more to the point, every bit as fraught with ongoing consequence.

European governments might have been shocked at the Nazi crimes, but they did little to resolve the issue of preserving European Jewish life and culture for the survivors of the Shoah. Instead, they pushed the trauma onto the shoulders of the Arabs of Palestine and have had to live with the results ever since. As have we.

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