In what way, and why, could a European war be so persistently and consistently be referred to as the First World War for a hundred years?
The First World War ended with a series of peace meetings and conferences in Paris, which were essentially concluded only between European powers. Hence, the question arises, in what way, and why, could a European war be so persistently and consistently referred to as the First World War for a hundred years? Was the First World War really a World War? Or was it the “First Great European War” of the 20th century? Let’s look back at the post-war treaties at a glance — there were the Treaty of Versailles between “victor”, “Allied and Associated Powers” and “vanquished” Germany (Saturday, June 28, 1919); the Treaty of St Germain with Austria (Wednesday, September 10, 1919); Treaty of Neuilly with Bulgaria (Thursday, November 27, 1919). In 1920, the Treaty of Trianon with Hungary (Friday, June 4) and the fifth and final Treaty with Turkey was signed at Lausanne (Tuesday, July 24, 1923). Beside these five treaties in Europe, a series of treaties was signed to restore on a firm footing the status quo in the ‘Far East’ Pacific Ocean at Washington DC between 1921 and1922. History recognises all these treaties, along with a host of minor ones and agreements, as peace settlement of the First World War.
But who were the “vanquished” belligerents? Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey — all European powers. And, who were the “victors?” England, France and their “Allied and Associated Powers.” How then can the 1914-1918 war, most of which was fought on European soil, be referred to anything other than the “First Great European War,” a few non-European combat theatres, like northern China, in which Russia and Japan were involved, and across Mesopotamia notwithstanding?
Well, the reason for referring to it as “World War”, to this author, emanates from the fact that when the White Christian European nations were at each other’s throats in the heartland of the European continent, the nations, nationalities and even nationalists beyond Europe, who were fighting for freedom — from Africa to Asia and British estates of Australia and New Zealand and other island territories of/in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean — were dragged into the war of Europe without being part thereof. Simply because the “belligerents” were the colonial masters of non-European countries across the globe. Hence, a European War became “World War,” notwithstanding the fact that it’s a misnomer.
Indeed, it’s the post-war “territorial settlement”, which enhanced the importance and, hence, “upgraded” the First Great European War as First World War in history books. How and why? The overarching legacy of the Paris Peace Conference affected and/or “settled” Europe, the Near East, Africa and the far East.
In Europe, all the five “vanquished” lost territories. Germany ceded Alsace and Lorraine to France; Eupen and Malmedy to Belgium; port of Memel to Lithuania; Posen and part of West Prussia to Poland, thereby resulting in an overall German loss of 25,000 (plus) square miles territories and seven million inhabitants.
Vanquished Austria lost Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, which became part of Czechoslovakia. Slovenia went to Serbia and Croatia formed part of the new state of Yugoslavia.
Hungary lost Slovakia to Czechoslovakia; Croatia to Yugoslavia and Transylvania to Romania. The fourth European state, Bulgaria’s biggest loss, however, came when Macedonia was detached from it.
Turkey, the fifth European state, somehow had the rare luck of a “vanquished” to sign the Treaty at Lausanne (Switzerland, a neutral territory) in 1923. Fortunately, it was owing to statesman-like Turkish nationalist leader Mustafa Kemal, who didn’t regret the defeat and dissolution of his country’s Ottoman Empire and sagaciously renounced all claim to (past) “territories containing Arab majorities.”
Luck also favoured two extinguished (east) European states, Poland and Yugoslavia. From being subjects of the Austro-Hungarian empire of Habsburgs, Poland regained sovereignty after 124 years, being partitioned by/between empires of Austria, Prussia and Russia thrice in 1772, 1793 and 1795. Yugoslavia, too, came alive as a sovereign state in 1919, only to be dismembered into seven smaller sovereign states in the 1990s.
Post-war 1919, however, emerged the most complicated issues in the Arab world. An insulting verdict by the Covenant of League of Nations (predecessor of UN) read: “Those territories, ceded by the defeated powers, which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under strenuous conditions of the modern world”, should be placed under the tutelage of “advanced nations,” and that “this tutelage should be exercised by them as mandatories on behalf of League of Nations.”
In one stroke began post-European War’s gross injustice, beyond Europe, inflicted by none other than the so-called saviour of the world: The League of Nations, as it legalised occupation of non-White countries by the White “advanced nations.” Regrettably, the League unabashedly justified wars initiated by the Europeans as “advanced nations” and those who were victims of the belligerents’ bloodshed, branded as “peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.” How insulting the colonial West-dominated League of Nations could be towards the non-White world?
In retrospect, the League of Nations appeared to be in cahoots with European powers, which had captured the world even before the start of the Great European War, thereby giving their historians and politicians to refer to it as First World War. Thus, whereas in 1875, less than one-tenth of Africa had been turned into European colonies, by 1895, only one-tenth remained unappropriated. It was one of the harshest realities, rather ironies, of history that most of the world, by the late 19th century, belonged to a handful of so-called great European powers, which was achieved through “trade, missionaries, adventure, settlement, loot, arrogance, conquests and war between rival imperial powers.”
The US, despite being one of the last to join the European bloodshed in April 1917, was more interested in the Pacific Ocean. Hence, the Washington Conference of 1921-1922, in which Japan’s rising Navy was targetted by the Anglo-American lobby. The nine nations participating in the conference pledged “to refrain from taking advantage of conditions in China to seek special rights and privileges which would abridge the rights of subjects and citizens of friendly states.” Yet, in reality, they turned a blind eye to the Japanese aggression of the Chinese territory.
So far as India was concerned, “peace” of 1919 brought nothing but death of thousands of Indian soldiers, thereby resulting in “blood, sweat, toil and tears”, and resources were sucked out by the British to fight their war with White neighbours across English Channel. In India, however, it was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of unarmed citizens and a political morsel thrown by Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms at the Indians. The legacy of 1919 survives to this day.
(The writer, an alumnus of National Defence College of India, is author of China in India. Views are personal.)