This is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. It changed the world and human consciousness. Its legacy still echoes in our daily lives. The war may have started in 1914, but did it end four years later as is claimed?
This war taught human beings what total annihilation for inhumane causes means; it devoured not just lives, but nations and civilizations alike, body and soul. It paved the way for national fanaticism and a communal frenzy that hatched the totalitarian ideologies that fueled World War II less than three decades later.
World War I polarized the world into camps that hated and were suspicious of each other. Hate and suspicion led to defensive collective ideologies and offensive hegemonic strategies. Together, they created carnage, killing 16 million people, many of whom were non-combatant civilians. Long after, American strategists called this situation “collateral damage,” surmising that human loss was instrumental to more important strategic gains. This is the political heritage of World War I.
Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) were used for the first time. Science and technology were given to the service of unlimited destruction and measured as successful by the number of casualties. Human loss accompanied the loss of humanity. Chivalry in warfare gave way to ambushing the anonymous enemy.
Tens of thousands died in a matter of one day in the stretched-out battles of the war, carried out on different continents. Russians, Austrians and Turks lost their empires, bringing great human suffering.
Psychological scars of the war and the resulting deprivations left their mark on the souls of individuals and nations alike. In future generations, some tried to revive the good old days; some sought revenge or reparation. The mourning and grief of some of them led to a kind of reactive nationalism that brought no comfort to either them or their “foes.” Their wrath turned into terrorism, which haunts the world to this day.
The secret deals born out of greed and open treaties that had no regard for local realities and popular needs divided people, shattered cultures and made indigenous peoples subservient to foreign masters and their local tyrannical partners, some of whom rule to this day.
One of the empires that perished with World War I was the Ottoman Empire. It divided into nation-states with no real nationality. Artificial states tried to make their artificial nations, which bore no real loyalty to their rulers. Slow growth, injustice and authoritarianism prevented the burgeoning of democratic culture. Top-down political secularism, without socio-cultural secularization from below, alienated people from their indigenous culture. Political secularism, an elitist project, arrested the process of religion's adaptation to new societal conditions and created the notion that forced modernization was Westernization, which only brought advantages to the ruling oligarchies rather than the people.
In opposition to tyranny, injustice and misplaced secularism, people sought refuge in religion in the absence of legitimate venues for political expression and opposition. Religion became politicized and politics became religious, further confounding sate-society relations. In the absence of a legitimate religious authority like the caliphate, sects (Shiite and Sunni) drifted further away from each other and doctrinal interpretations became the everyday affairs of ever-radicalizing groups advocating death and destruction.
Due to limited space, I will not dwell on the two other empires that perished in World War I -- Austria-Hungary and Tsarist Russia. But they have shared the same predicament: fragmentation and carnage as a result of seeking political control has taken millions of lives during and even after the two world wars of the 20th century.
As long as imperial greed and stronger countries' desire to control weaker ones is not restricted, and as long as the weaker countries' feeling of defeat and humiliation is not eliminated, normalization and moderation will not take hold in many countries where popular regimes, constitutional democracies and homegrown governments are still missing. The winners of the wars have dismally failed in this respect.
This legacy of World War I has to be buried by cultivating rule of law and responsible and transparent governments. Only then will the war cease to be. This is the common responsibility of humankind if we want it to survive.
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