Tag Archives: First World War

1917: The July Scandals

Eastern Front 1917

Russian soldiers held captive by the German military in Poland, July, 1917. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

By summer in 1917, the Provisional Government and Petrograd Soviet were stuck in gridlock in the capitol, and Russia continued to lose ground and soldiers’ lives in the Great War. Meanwhile, Bolshevik influence had grown in response to the stagnant leadership of Alexander Kerensky. On July 16, demonstrations against that stagnation began as striking workers and mutinying soldiers took to the streets of Petrograd (again), and Bolshevik involvement and scapegoating led to the arrest of Leon Trotsky and the exile of Vladimir Lenin (again). These protests, known as the July Days, were largely a response to the failed July Offensive, or the Kerensky Offensive, earlier that month, which was a setback for the Russian military (again).

The July Days are often called a turning point in the Russian Revolution, a moment when it became clear that the inertia of the Provisional Government meant bloodshed abroad and hunger at home. However, the July Days occurred amidst the political chaos of the summer of 1917, between the scandal of Kerensky’s rise to power and his decision to recommit to the War, the Bolshevik attempt to organize Soviets while maintaining party loyalty amid party in-fighting, and a coup in August against the Provisional Government known as the Kornilov Affair. The July Days were part of an ongoing political inertia that tended toward reinstating old forms of violence.

Trotsky, in his memoir, describes the events leading up to the July Days, writing that “a declaration that I had submitted concerning Kerensky’s preparation for an offensive at the front was read by the Bolshevik faction at the congress of the Soviets. We had pointed out that the offensive was an adventure that threatened the very existence of the army” (Trotsky).  The Bolsheviks’ opposition to the war would be vindicated after the Kerensky Offensive proved unsuccessful. Between July 1 and July 19, several Russian military units initially made advances toward  the western Ukrainian city Lviv, but German and Austo-Hungarian forces gradually repelled them, prompting a retreat beyond the previous Russian line. By the end of the offensive, the Russians “fell back more than a hundred kilometers” (Storey 127).

The Kerensky Offensive damaged the military’s already waning morale, and was a political disaster for Kerensky, precipitating more mutiny and disorder in the army. Russian soldiers and citizens alike turned against Kerensky during the Offensive, sparking the days-long demonstrations in July. The Bolsheviks were hesitant to support the protests, but quickly endorsed them when they began. The All-Russian Congress of Soviets had made clear in their demands that they wanted “democratization of the army” and “the earliest conclusion of a general peace without annexation, indemnity, and on the basis of self-determination,” which became an increasingly popular set of demands after the Kerensky Offensive. Furthermore, Bolshevik membership rose “from 80,000 in April to 200,000” by August (Treadgold & Ellison 102), but in the wake of the July Days, other scandals damaged the Bolsheviks as well.

The demonstrations were unsuccessful, in part because Russian military units pulled from the front were sent to quell the protests, and fired upon violent demonstrators, resulting in civilian casualties in the hundreds (again). Around this time, the Provisional Government accused Lenin of being a German spy, and the accusation was based on fairly compelling evidence. In April, Lenin had arrived in Russia with several other politically exiled Russians on a sealed train from Switzerland. The trip was funded by the German government as a military tactic, hoping that Lenin’s revolutionary leadership and anti-war agenda would convince the post-Tsar government to withdraw. The Kerensky government announced it would investigate Lenin’s German funding, and the crowds turned. Loyalists raided the leftist magazine Pravda‘s headquarters, and Lenin went into hiding when “it was revealed that he was receiving financial support from the German government” (Keegan 339). In the raid on Pravda and other Bolshevik strongholds, authorities “attempted to arrest the leaders–but caught only Anatole Lunacharsky, the mildest of them, and Trotsky” (Treadgold & Ellison 101). The Bolsheviks now had damaged reputations and no leadership in the capital.

The Kerensky government was weakened by its failed military offensive, and Kerensky’s opposition was weakened by political scandals involving Lenin’s connection to an enemy regime. By August, the unstable Provisional Government would face a coup from within its own military led by General Lavr Kornilov, and Kerensky would have to free Bolshevik political prisoners, including Trotsky, in order to sustain his almost vanished good standing with the Petrograd Soviet. But in July, 1917, the situation in Petrograd seemed frustratingly repetitive, with a heavy-handed leader responding to protests with arrests and military force, and a bloody setback on the Eastern Front. Where Russia would find itself next was not the question. The real question was whether or not Russia would go anywhere at all.


Keegan, John. The First world War. Vintage Books, 2000.

Storey, William Kelleher. The First World War. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.

 

1917: The First Soviets

petrograd-soviet-1917

Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, 1917. Photograph by Viktor Bulla (1883-1938)

The Russian word Soviet means council or congress, a unified and organized body of persons, a congregation or polity. The first Soviet appeared in the Revolution of 1905 when urban workers organized. It diminished quickly soon after, and did not implement the socialist revolution that many early factions (Socialists, Marxists, Anarchists) had hoped for. It would take twelve years for Soviets to form again, in early 1917.

Lenin described the first Soviets as workers spontaneously developing class consciousness. In 1918, he called the Soviets the “direct organization of the working and exploited people themselves” (Lenin). He viewed them as self-organizing microstates, writing that “Soviets are the Russian form of the proletarian dictatorship [and should] be transformed into state organizations” rather than mere revolutionary organs (Lenin). From Lenin’s perspective, the Soviets could be utilized as more than workers’ organizations and instead be states.

But anything Lenin wrote about the 1917 Soviets should be taken with several pounds of salt. To begin with, Lenin and many other Bolshevik leaders were not involved in the Soviets’ formation because they were exiled from Russia at the time. Second, the Bolsheviks had a clear end in mind (a new state) whereas the early Soviets were motivated by economic relief rather than statehood.

World War One is an important context for the 1917 Soviets. In February, Tsar Nicholas II left for the Eastern Front, abandoning citizens to concentrate on a failing war that had already killed thousands of Russians. Additionally, as Mark Steinberg points out, the emergence of a “sphere of civic activities situated in a social space beyond private life and not completely under the control of the state, made enormous differences in the lives of many Russians. . . Voluntary associations proliferated. They included literacy and temperance societies, business and professional associations, workers’ mutual assistance funds, private schools, and varied cultural circles” as well as trade unions and new political parties (38). Turn-of-the-century organizations legitimized new political ideologies, including anarchism and socialism, which, coupled with increased literacy and private discourse beneath the radar of the regime, contributed to Russians’ range of organizational possibilities.

By March 8 (in the Gregorian calendar), on International Women’s Day, working-class women joined protestors and marched through Petrograd. A police officer named Ilia Mitrofanovich Gordienko recalls in a memoir that women chanted “‘Down with the war! Down with high prices! Down with hunger! Bread to the workers'” and that “Clashes with the police took place near the City Duma and in other places, but these were only minor skirmishes. . . The same thing happened the next day” (Daly & Trofimov 36). The Petrograd Police Chief, Aleskandr Pavlovich Balk, noted that on March 10, “the factories functioned less intensively than on the previous days. Workers walked off the job in groups, holding rallies as they went” and that soldiers from the Pavlovskii Guard Regiment not only protested but fired upon officers attempting to disperse them (41).

On March 12, desperate and with little left to lose, workers stormed Tauride Palace, occupying it while protests continued in the streets. Inside the Palace, striking workers and mutinous soldiers created the Provisional Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, a new Petrograd Soviet, as documented by the socialist witness Nikolai Nikolaevich Himmer:

“There was no order even in the meeting itself. There was no permanent chairman. Chkheidze, who later performed the chairman’s duties almost permanently, didn’t do much work in the Ex. Com. during its first days. He was constantly being summoned–either to the Duma Committee or the Soviet sessions or, above all, ‘to the people,’ the constantly-changing crowd standing in front of Tauride Palace. . . If anyone had the means to [restore order to the city] it was the Soviet, which was beginning to acquire control over the masses of the workers and soldiers” (46).

He later critiqued the Soviet as too disparate to function as a government, stating that it was capable only of “moral functions” (48). The act of occupying Tauride Palace was the moment of class consciousness Lenin and other orthodox Marxists obsessed over, but after that moment, the desire for restoring order became a difficult task, resulting in the negotiated creation of a Provisional Government meant to restore order in the absence of the Tsar, who would abdicate on March 15.

The spontaneous, illegal occupation of public space was the revolutionary moment of crisis that Lenin and the Bolsheviks missed. It was the moment workers and soldiers united for the primal task of surviving a system that was rapidly killing them. Like Egyptians taking Tahrir Square in 2011, the Women’s March on Versailles in 1789, and the successful slave rebellion of the Haitian Revolution, the impromptu formation of a Soviet in Tauride Palace was a purely revolutionary moment, one of Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones. It occurred before the state could monitor and contain it. It resulted in a new government that Bolshevik elites like Lenin would dissolve to implement a prescribed plan for utopia.

This is why Bey describes autonomous zones as temporary. Utopia, if achieved in a revolutionary context, is always temporary. Soviets coalesced spontaneously without a clear end, but most managed to redistribute food, water, and health to suffering workers and rebellious soldiers. Like the Reign of Terror in France, the gradual rule of elites in Haiti, and the authoritarianism of el-Sisi in Egypt, the eventual October Revolution (more of a Bolshevik coup) undid the revolutionary potential opened up by the Soviet in Tauride Palace and other Soviets that formed in factories and military units throughout Russia in the Spring of 1917.


Bey, Hakim. From TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, in Cultural Resistance Reader, ed. Stephen Duncombe, New York: Verso (2002), 113-118.

Daly, Jonathan, Leonid Trofimov. Russia in War and Revolution, 1914-1922. Hackett Publishing Group, 2009.

Lenin, Vladimir. The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. 1918.

Steinberg, Mark. Voices of Revolution, 1917. Yale University Press, 2001.

1917: Tsar Nicholas II, Celebrity Autocrat

nicholas-ii-huntingNicholas II was crowned Tsar at the age of twenty-six in 1894, following the sudden death of Tsar Alexander III. Nicholas inherited a relatively stable regime that he was determined to sustain without change. He grew up believing he had been born simply to preserve the institution of God-granted Russian royalty, to maintain the status quo. Alexander, thinking he would live longer, had not trained Nicholas in diplomacy or politics. Living like a king was all Nicholas knew how to do.

His central policy was autocracy. Nicholas rigidly adhered to a particular image of Russia as ordered beneath and for him, and attacked anything that contradicted his sense of that order. He placed himself in the public eye regularly, but only filtered through artificial expressions of his status. This was clear in the 1913 Romanov Tercentenary, a national celebration of the Romanov dynasty. Virginia Rounding points out that “as many as one and a half million commemorative rubles were issued on the occasion of the tercentenary,” and that Nicholas appeared on numerous stamps and in over a hundred film reels (9-10). The monarchy also granted permission “for the production of scarves bearing a portrait of the Tsar, but only with the proviso that the scarves should not be of the right size to be used as handkerchiefs” (10), because Nicholas did not want anybody blowing their noses on images of him. He viewed himself in religious terms, and treated even petty disrespect as sacrilege.

The Romanov Tercentenary was an elaborate publicity stunt scheduled after numerous disasters under Nicholas’s rein. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 ended with an absolute Japanese victory, and was considered an unprecedented humiliation for Imperial Russia. In 1905, Russia’s political and economic problems proved that Nicholas II was not the carefree celebrity he wanted the world to believe he was. That year, strikes and protests formed in the capital amid widespread unrest. Nicholas responded to protestors by ordering police to fire on them on January 22, 1905, now known as Bloody Sunday. The Revolution of 1905 put enough pressure on the Tsar to allow for modest state reforms, including the formation of the Duma as a legislative body and the Russian Constitution of 1906. Nevertheless, Nicholas continued to rule as an authoritarian, dissolving the first Duma and manipulating the second. Entering he Great War in 1914 was just one more disastrous move.

The elaborate publicity displays were what Nicholas wanted the world to see of his empire. Instead, he met countless challenges to his authority, to which he responded with oppression or dismissal, sometimes removing ministers who disagreed with him and distrusting many others. By September of 1915, he had taken complete control of the military, leaving the capitol for the front. By 1916, unrest among soldiers had grown such that in April, “orders were issued forbidding free and open exchange between enlisted men and aid workers unless specifically allowed by the military leaders”  (Sanborn 170).

Nicholas was untrained for leadership and unwilling to admit his shortcomings. He took more interest in sports and his family than in political reforms, which he viewed as a threat to his sovereign, divine authority. He had been raised to live as a ruler, but not to rule, and he began ruling at a time when many Russians grew tired of aristocrats flaunting their inherited God-given wealth and silencing anyone who pointed out the problems in the system. When he abdicated the throne on March 15, 1917, Imperial Russia was a lost cause. With his extravagance and sweeping political abuses and abrasive leadership, Nicholas II exhausted Russian statehood to the breaking point.


Rounding, Virgina. Alix and Nicky, St, Martin’s Press, 2011.

Sanborn, Joshua. Imperial Apocalypse, Oxford University Press, 2014.

 

1917: Rasputin and the Great War

anna_theodora_krarup_portrait_of_rasputin_1916

Portrait of Rasputin by Anna Theodora Karup, December 1916.

“Dear friend, I will say again a menacing cloud is over Russia lots of sorrow and grief it is dark and there is no lightning to be seen. A sea of tears immeasurable and as to blood? What can I say? There are no words the horror of it is indescribable. . . they will conquer Germany and what about Russia? If one thinks verily there has not been a greater sufferer since the beginning of time she is all drowned in blood. Terrible is the destruction and without end the grief.” -Grigorii Rasputin, in a letter to Tsar Nicholas II, summer, 1914

In late December in 1916, the Russian mystic Grigorii Rasputin was assassinated, two and a half years into the Great War, two and a half months before the Russian Revolution took shape. Aristocrats in the Empire, notably Prince Felix Yusupov, who had grown to hate the holy man invited him to dinner in Moika Palace in Petrograd, now Saint Petersburg. For years, the Tsar had placed Rasputin closer to his family, or Rasputin inserted himself into the family by influence. In 1907, the Romanovs invited Rasputin to visit the royal family and heal Alexei, heir to the throne and ill with inherited hemophilia. Regardless of who pulled whose strings, he became a strange, alien force in the regime’s inner circles, a peasant-turned-occultist who joined the royal family.

Rasputin was an independent religious leader claiming metaphysical power and an extensive knowledge of the Bible, but he ignored the moral norms of Christianity through his abuse of alcohol and frequent sexual affairs. He was not a priest, but served the role of priest to a family that was just as much a facade as he was. He may have been a sophist or a lunatic, serving an incompetent autocrat to preserve the Romanov lineage, however doomed it was.

He could also be seen as a Shakespearean fool, the peasant-turned-entertainer who speaks candid truths to the audience and characters. Rasputin was a pacifist opposed to the Great War, though his graphic prophecy was not enough to prevent Russia from entering the conflict. His description of the war, noted above, was apocalyptic, and predicted the horror Russia would suffer as a result. Here, then, was a man willing to help the Tsar despite knowing the violence he could allow.

Russia lost approximately 1,997,500 soldiers in the First World War, with France trailing behind at 1,400,000, colonies and all. The brutal winters of the war years devastated armies and limited supplies for the Russian population. Military historian John Keegan points out that the “nature of these titanic battles on the Eastern Front is difficult to represent at a human or individual level. The Russian army, 80 per cent peasant when a majority of Russian peasants were still illiterate, left no literature to compare with that of the Western Front” (161). The majority of those who survived the Eastern Front, in other words, could not record their experiences.

However, a few written texts are telling. A Russian nurse named Lydia Zakharova, for instance, described a trench on the Eastern Front one winter as a “city of the dead, its inhabitants frozen in the most unlikely positions, as if a raging, deadly hurricane had just swept past them” (Storey 116). She adds, almost numbly, that “there is a limit, by the way, beyond which the human mind can perceive no more horrors, as a saturated sponge can soak up no more water” (117). Rasputin did not live to see the totality of the violence he predicted in 1914, but millions of Russian peasants experienced it.

Tsar Nicholas II shares much of the blame for the failures of the Great War. In 1914, he took personal control of the military, deeming himself a kind of commander-in-chief. Like many European leaders, Nicholas naively thought the war would end by Christmas of 1914. Instead it continued year after year after year.

Finally, in early 1917, starved of food and hope, bled of its population, and openly mocked by the Tsar’s aggressive displays of wealth and indifference, Russians began to protest. The Russian Revolution began only as a series of strikes. People were hungry; they couldn’t work anymore; they stopped until they got food. The Tsar, whose brutality was clear in 1905 when he ordered police to shoot protestors in Russia’s Bloody Sunday, ordered soldiers to fire into the crowds of strikers.

However, those who were meant to guard Petrograd consisted of wounded veterans or very young recruits. Healthy, loyal, and experienced soldiers were stationed on the Eastern Front, and those left behind revolted too and chose to protect the protestors. First, the holy fool protested, then soon after the workers, soldiers, guards, and even a few aristocrats realized that 1917 was an apocalypse year for Imperial Russia.

Rasputin’s place in regime seems like an ill-fitting cog in a machine, but that might be a limited perspective because almost nobody in the regime was fit for rule. The Tsar was incompetent and disinterested, his children were sick with inherited hemophilia, his ministers were torn between the possibility of a democratic Russia or the Tsar’s brutal autocracy. The monarchy was a network of ill-fitting parts. Rasputin, for all his mysteries, might have had the last good idea for Russia’s future: don’t go to war, it will be the end. Instead, Nicholas ignored the dissenting fool and plunged Russia into the sea of tears immeasurable Rasputin predicted.


Keegan, John. The First world War. Vintage Books, 2000.

Storey, William Kelleher. The First World War. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.

After Gallipoli

ANZAC Soldiers on the Gallipoli Peninsula

ANZAC Soldiers on the Gallipoli Peninsula

Today marks an important moment in the First World War: the final evacuation of British and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corpse) troops from the Gallipoli Peninsula, ending a disastrous months-long Allied campaign to gain control of a narrow a sea route to Russia, the Dardanelles, and to push troops through Anatolia (Turkey) to the Ottoman capitol Constantinople and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war.

Allied Strategy for the Gallipoli Campaign. Keagan, John, The First World War.

Allied Strategy for the Gallipoli Campaign. Keegan, John, The First World War.

First Lord of the Admirality Winston Churchill schemed the invasion. Allied ships would sail through the Dardanelles accompanied by minesweepers and land thousands of troops onto the Gallipoli Peninsula, where they would secure the area and push on to Constantinople. The initial landing was on April 25, 1915, involving many soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland.

The Allies were unprepared for the harsh environment on Gallipoli and the ferocity of Ottoman Turkish soldiers, led by the now famous commander Mustafa Kemal, who directed his troops in successfully defending the Peninsula. The Allied troops became entrenched on Gallipoli for a grueling eight months. Kemal proved his military prowess; Churchill’s plan, on the other hand, proved to be a quagmire. On this day one hundred years ago, the Gallipoli Campaign came to a close. The Ottomans had defeated the British Empire for the time being.

That victory was arguably the last great moment in Ottoman history, and the first in a long time. Earlier in 1915, Ottoman troops committed acts of genocide against Armenian civilians. The Ottoman Empire had been in decline for decades amid encroaching Russian and European empires, and would later suffer British and French diplomats carving it into colonial mandates after the end of World War One. Winston Churchill was involved in that process; he even said that he created the country of Jordan “with the stroke of a pen one Sunday afternoon.” When the War finally ended in 1918, the British and French saw the defeated Ottoman Empire as property to divide among them: Britain took Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq, while France seized Lebanon and Syria, divided artificially. Those artificial borders continue to create problems today in these countries, pitting groups together or dividing cultures along superficial lines.

The Ottoman Empire had practiced its own form of imperialism, and ruled over its Arab territories from its imperial center in Anatolia, just as the British Empire ruled India and South Africa from England. Just as the British and French are guilty of reprehensible war crimes to maintain imperial power, the Ottomans were guilty of the same, such as the Armenian Genocide. Despite the emphasis on self-determination that dominated discussions at the Treaty of Versailles, Arab, Kurdish, Armenian, and other groups were simply shifted from Ottoman rule to British and French rule with as much regard as plunder shifted between pirates.

The Allies also wanted to divide Anatolia, but the Young Turks, led by Mustafa Kemal, fought a war for Independence from 1919 to 1922, and formed a stable, secular, but complex democracy. The Greek minority in Anatolia fought its own smaller rebellion, leading to the eventual forced migration of thousands of Greeks from Anatolia and Turks from Greece in 1923. Kemal had nevertheless defended his homeland from the British, and would not allow the Allies to make property of it.

New nations were formed from the defeated Ottoman Empire, but Turkey may have been the only one to form itself on at least some of its citizens’ own terms. The rest were carved artificially by Churchill and his ilk, Similarly, many Irish soldiers returned to a British-controlled Ireland torn by rebellion in the 1916 Easter Uprising. April 25 is commemorated as Anzac Day in New Zealand and Australia. The Battle of Gallipoli brought British loyal subjects to the edge of the Ottoman imperial center; it was a devastating failure for the otherwise almost obnoxiously successful British, who continued to claim colony after colony across the globe. For the crumbling Ottoman Empire, it was one final act of defiance against the empires surrounding it. Two of the most complex figures of the twentieth century emerged from the battle with profoundly different scars: Mustafa Kemal won, and Winston Churchill lost. Both men went on to be war heroes and war criminal simultaneously, and their role in history will likely always be contentious. At least, both played crucial roles in the destruction and recreation of nations.

By January 9, 1916, about 265,000 Allied soldiers and 300,000 Ottoman soldiers died on Gallipoli. Many of the them were probably unconcerned with the survival or strengthening of empires. They were concerned, most likely, with fighting for something they were told, and genuinely believed, was bigger than them: nationhood. Many Irish joined the war thinking the British would reward them with independence. Australians and New Zealanders had an emerging sense of national identity separate from but loyal to the British. The Turks fought on their homeland against invading Europeans. Thousands died trying to make a nation of their world. Indeed, nations formed, but maybe those who fought created their own kind of temporarily autonomous nationhood of spaceless unity. Amid the destruction of empires, it may be tricky to honor that unity on both sides of Gallipoli equally, but we should strive to anyway. Nationhood is what we make of it, and despite what Churchill seems to have believed, sovereignty means more than a pen stroke.

-jk

John Keegan. The First world War. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

The War to Start All Wars

August 4, 1914

Political cartoon by Walter Trier (1890-1951).

Political cartoon by Walter Trier (1890-1951).

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of two major events in the First World War, Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium to gain strategic access to France, and Britain’s declaration of war with Germany.

France was allied with Russia in 1914 through the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892. Germany had declared war with Russia on August 1, 1914, to retaliate against Russia’s military organization and its allegiance with Serbia, which was in conflict with Austro-Hungary, Germany’s ally as part of the Triple Alliance of 1882 between Austro-Hungary, Germany, and Italy.

The conflict began with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Throne, on July 28, 1914 in Sarajevo. The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was one of six Slavic nationalists whose plot was intended to cut ties between Austro-Hungary and Serbia in order to create Yugoslavia as an independent, pan-Slavic state incorporating Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, and other south-Slavic regions.

As the conflict escalated from a reactionary political crisis to a military conflict between powerful alliances, other nations entered the war, including Bulgaria, Italy, Japan, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States.

WWI

An estimated 9 million people died in the First World War. It brought to light outdated imperial agendas and alliances, introduced horrendous new military technologies including the tank and chemical weapons, and put on hiatus intellectual movements pushing for women’s rights, minority rights, and worker’s rights. Multiple nations are responsible for atrocities, including the German treatment of Belgian civilians and the Ottoman implementation of the Armenian Genocide.

Empires collapsed during the war. Irish and Russian political revolutionaries took up arms during the war, partially motivated by the appalling death toll by 1916 and 1917. As a result of subsequent events, England partitioned Ireland, the USSR replaced the Russian Empire, and the Ottoman empire dissolved along with the centuries-old Caliphate.

In a desperate effort to prevent another such war, the League of Nations was formed. So too was the Treaty of Versailles, which placed astronomical debt on Germany and fueled radical parties left and right. The aftermath of the War led to numerous other conflicts: civil wars, partitions, decolonization, and the Second World War. As a result of World War Two, superpower nations entered the Cold War, accompanied by the Space Race, Arms Race, nuclear proliferation, and military intervention in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Arab World.

The War influenced Modernism and ultimately obliterated popular perceptions of war as romantic. It changed art, literature, music, popular culture, and even cinema with the adaptation of Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

The First World War was a humanitarian calamity; almost all conflicts today can be traced to the War. The exact causes are still contested. Some point to imperial allegiances; others point to an interest, especially by Britain, to suppress political activism from suffragists and socialists. Others point to a moment of panic among imperial leaders. Regardless of the causes, it repeatedly defined and redefined the twentieth century. Today, as Russia enters Ukraine, as Israel assaults Gaza, as complex networks of allegiances overlap and the U.S. flails when asked about whom it considers its allies, the conditions for a world conflict are strikingly similar.

The Great War mutilated the twentieth century, but it is not yet clear if it will do the same to the twenty-first. If political leaders panic in a moment of crisis and declare war within a month, world conflict may continue. Alternatively, we could all take a moment and consider the dangers of reactionary retaliation and ask ourselves if we want another century of war and genocide, if we want to see 9 million more dead for a war that can so easily be avoided. I hope that commemorations such as this one in London will motivate nations to pause before considering military action. One day, I hope military action will no longer be perceived as an easy option, because for the victims and survivors, there’s nothing easy about it.

-jk