3.4 The European Immolation and Decolonization
What was the reason behind World War I? What does Professor Sachs say was the true motivation?
What happened with the lands of the former Ottoman Empire after World War I? What was Britain’s role there?
I’ve been discussing in this module the industrial age, calling it the fifth wave of globalization. A most remarkable, unique period of human history. I have emphasized that for three-quarters of these two centuries, for the period roughly from 1800 to 1950, one could justly call this the age of Britain, or as it was sometimes called Pax Britannica, or as it was sometimes said, the sun never sets on the British Empire.
Britain really was the dominant power, the home of industrialization. The possessor of the greatest empire in the world. A truly global reach. A creator of the modern global industrial world economy. The creator of modern global finance. And seemingly, in an unassailable position as the owner of by far, the world’s most powerful navy, going into the early years of the 20th Century. But I’ve emphasized repeatedly how fast circumstances can change. And one must account the thirty year period from 1914 to 1945 as one of the greatest disasters ever to afflict humanity.
It began with World War I. And then at the end of World War I, with a peace agreement, the Treaty of Versailles, that was in the words of its proponents supposed to be the war to end all war by a just peace. But to later historians became known as the peace to end all peace, because the agreements at the end of World War I were so horrendous that Europe did not recover its economic vitality, conflicts within Europe remained intense at the political and diplomatic level. And the instability, economically, eventually was a major cause of a profound economic collapse which we now call the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and was so destabilizing politically that it brought to power the most villainous regime of modern history, perhaps of all history, the Nazi regime in Germany and Hitler, which then led to the Second World War in the late 1930s and only ending in 1945.
In other words, from 1914 to 1945, at the very center of the world economy, among the titans of industrialization, the owners of world imperialism, was the bloodiest thirty years of self-destruction imaginable. Not only were tens of millions of innocents brutally murdered during this period, but the cataclysms that followed from this thirty years of war continue to reverberate till today.
We’re one full century after the onset of World War I. And truth be told, there is no explanation of this war. There is a chronology.
Historians can do what’s called the tick-tock of this war, who said what, who responded what, how did this happen?
But for a deep motivation, almost impossible to find. We know, of course, the scenario. We know the basic chronology that the Archduke of the Habsburg Empire was killed by separatists, in a terrorist act in Sarajevo in Bosnia, which was part of the Habsburg rule The Habsburgs responded in part with the prodding of Germany to Serbia, which was viewed as the state harboring and encouraging the terrorism, to make concessions to the Habsburgs that the Serbians would not make.
When they rejected the demands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Habsburg Empire, the Austrians declared war. Russia, as a protector of Serbia, mobilized to protect Serbia against the oncoming clash with the Habsburgs.
And Germany, both fearing and antagonistic to Russia and defending Austria and among German, some German leaders, desiring war, mobilized and launched a war knowing that as Russia went to war, Russia’s allies, Britain and France would also mobilize. And so Germany was the immediate progenitor of a war that it suddenly faced on both borders. To the east, in a war with the Romanov Empire of Russia, and to the west in yet another war with France and with France’s ally, Britain.
Europe was suddenly engulfed in war. And as we know, this was truly the first industrial war with aerial bombing, with machine guns, with tanks, with submarines. The full miracle of industrialization put to the destruction of human beings. And 20 million people perished in the war. Near the third year of the war America got pulled into the war. America by this time had become the largest industrial power. The president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, thought he would make this the war to end all wars. A war of justice. A war with a decent peace. This proved to be utterly naïve and a disastrous failure. Instead of what might have been a stalemate and a return to peace, what happened with America’s entry into World War I was the completely defeat of Germany.
And with the defeat of Germany, the overthrow of the the Prussian imperial house and profound instability in Germany. What also happened because of Germany’s complete defeat were peace terms imposed by France that proved to be so harsh as to destabilize Germany, not harsh enough to utterly end Germany’s possibility of recovery.
And that ironic middle position ended up with destabilization of Germany, claims by Hitler and others that Germany had been stabbed in the back by its enemies in its defeat in World War I and the grounds for a horrendously vicious regime to come back to power in the 1930s.
You had four empires collapsing. The Prussian Empire brought to an end through its defeat. The Romanov Empire stretched to the limit by war and then overthrown in revolution, first in early 1917, and then by the Bolsheviks in the November Revolution in 1917, bringing to power the Bolsheviks, and eventually leading to the Soviet Communist state. You had the Habsburg Empire which was a multinational empire throughout the Balkan region. And you had the Turkish Empire, the Ottoman Empire with the, it’s capital in Istanbul but with territories not only in what is today’s Turkey, but also of course in the Middle East and in parts of North Africa that also came crashing down because the Ottomans sided with the Habsburgs and with the German state and all were defeated in the end. In the peace that followed, so-called peace, the victorious powers not only imposed harsh conditions, but Britain and France saw their way to further imperial possessions.
For example, carving up the former Ottoman lands into what are today’s Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and creating a new state under British tutelage, Saudi Arabia. We are still fighting the wars caused by the artificial and cynical creation of imperial dominated new states after the end of the Ottoman rule. And the artificiality of those states, the cynicism of Britain aiming to capture the oil in Mosul and in what is now Iraq and the oil politics that continued from Britain until today is part of the unrest that we still absolutely suffer from in the Middle East.
So the war solved nothing except the dislocation of all of the political organization of Europe, the former Ottoman lands, the Middle East and Russia itself and all the way into central Asia.
The economies did not recover. As the great economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in his famous polemic, The Economic Consequences of The Peace, published as a protest of the Treaty of Versailles, the instability of this harsh peace would prevent an economic recovery.
The prevailing gold standard that had been put back in place in the years after World War I could not sustain its role as the financial base for these economies. The depression widened, the banks failed. At the end of January 1933, with Germany having 25% unemployment, in moratorium on its debt servicing, the aged President Hindenburg appointed a new chancellor, Adolf Hitler, and that set Germany and tragically the world back to a path of war as Germany remilitarized and Hitler with his evil and crazy idea that Germany had to capture lands in the east in order to feed itself, envious of the imperial possessions that its European rivals had, feeling that Germany needed its own empire, that it would grab by killing the Jews and the Slavs and capturing lands to the east, was a motivating idea of Hitler on the way to World War II.
World War II broke out formally in Europe on September 1, 1939 with the invasion by both Germany and the Soviet Union of Poland.
And of course a full onslaught and the Holocaust of the Jews and others ensued during those six years. War by the fascist regime of Japan took place with Japan’s invasion of China. And then Japanese militarism throughout Asia and its attack on the United States. The world was in flames. In one of the most remarkable statements by Winston Churchill fighting against fascism, Churchill called on the New World to come save the Old World from the fascist onslaught. And Franklin Roosevelt, the president of the United States heeded that call. But in the statecraft that followed the industrial power of the United States came to the rescue, while the Soviet Union was fighting and losing millions on the battlefield, America’s industrial might soared.
And America took specific actions to essentially say, when we win this war at the end, it will be America that will be running the show, no longer the British Empire or the French Empire or others. This brings us to the end of this phase the history of this fifth wave and that is that by the end of World War II, of course fascism had been defeated. The U.S. was by far the most powerful economy in the world.
It had been attacked in the homeland only one time, on December 7, 1941 in Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor. But for the rest of the war, America was not directly attacked in its home base. Rather its industry built to proportions never seen before, while Europe was in a process of destruction, as was so much of Asia, as well.
This meant that at the end of World War II there was one economy, the United States, which perhaps at that point represented even 45% or 50% of worldwide industrial production, just one country with roughly 5% of the world’s population, but half of the industrial production in the world.
It was the sole owner for a very brief period of time of the new atomic bomb, which America had used twice in the war against Japan in the summer of 1945. Britain was so gravely weakened that it could not hold onto empire and within just a couple of years of the end of World War II, under the strong call for independence in India, Britain ceded the “crown jewel” of the British Empire, India, which became India and Pakistan and the British Empire was on a path of rapid dissolution so that Britain would go from worldwide empire in a short period of time back to United Kingdom.
And this was a remarkable and rapid unraveling. The U.S. stood supreme. The U.S. did many wise things at the end of World War II, the most important of which was to champion a new United Nations, succeeding after the failed League of Nations, which failed in part because the United States itself had not joined the League of Nations after World War I, but would become the creator and sponsor of the United Nations after World War II. We entered therefore, a 50-year period of American global preeminence and that is my subject in the next chapter.