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Why Bother about World War I

Stockholm/Rome, Dec 5 2018 (IPS) - Why do we still need to be concerned about a war that ended a hundred years ago? Sure, it caused the death of at least 37 million people, but why bother about that now? Anyhow France´s president Emmanuel Macron believed it was worthwhile to commemorate the end of World War I and seventy world leaders were invited to attend the centennial ceremony by Paris´s Arc de Triomphe.

In pouring rain Macron delivered a speech in which he reminded the gathered leaders that “old demons” were once again emerging all over the world, threatening peace and global co-operation. A common theme for these forces is Nationalism. We all know what that is all about – an intense form of loyalty to one’s country, or to what is often labelled as “our people”, exaggerating the value and importance of our own nation, placing its interests above those of other countries.

In his speech Macron declared that: “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism, which in fact is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying ´our interests first; who cares about the others?´, we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great, and what makes it essential — its moral values.” Upholding moral values requires listening to others, efforts to co-operate and understand one another. We have to accept that the fate of all humans is intertwined and “giving into the fascination for withdrawal, isolationism, violence and domination would be a grave error” for which future generations will hold us all accountable.

Listening to this speech was the US President Donald Trump, a leader who once tweeted about Kim Jong Un: “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” and who is supporting Saudi Arabia´s devastating war in Yemen. Present was also Russia´s president, Vladimir Putin, whose regime supports a long-winding war in the Ukrainian Donetsk Oblast and bombed civilian targets in Syria. Trump, who like Putin proudly has ¬declared himself a nationalist, sat stony-faced during Macron´s speech, but smiled broadly as he exchanged a handshake with Putin, who flashed him a thumbs-up sign.

Like any other statesman Trump also gives speeches, maybe not as eloquent as Macrons´, but nevertheless quite forceful:

      You know what a globalist is, right? You know what a globalist is? A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much. And you know what? We can’t have that.

Why bother about all this? What is the use of remembering World War I? The reasons to this overwhelming affliction were manifold; political, territorial and economic. However, the main cause of the disaster was the growth of nationalism and imperialism, fuelled by a breakdown of the European power balance. The crumbling of the Austro-Hungary and Ottoman Empires. The unification of Italy and Germany, combined with a grave intoxication of nationalism, which appeared to have poisoned every European nation.

A case in point was England, with an anthem that declared Rule, Brittania, Britons never, never will be slaves and where the press constantly warned about German, Russian or French aggression, as well as the Yellow Peril and the danger of losing admirable hereditary genetic characteristics due to the influx of and mixing with “inferior races”. Such “invasion literature” depicted the Germans as cold, cruel and calculating. Russians were described as uncultured barbarians. The French were above all leisure-seeking nonentities, while the Chinese were murderous, opium-smoking savages and Africans childish and underdeveloped.

Germans sang Deutschland, Deutschland über alles. Über alles in der Welt, Germany, Germany above all. Above all in the world and celebrated German culture as humanity´s most perfect creation, protected and backed up by a splendid Prussian war machine. In Russia, more than 80 ethnic groups were forced to speak Russian, worship the tsar and practice the Russian Orthodox religion. Africa, the Middle East and Asia were being “carved up” and economically exploited by European powers, while people of almost every ethnic European group were convinced that they, their nation, or the one they aspired to create, occupied or would be destined to obtain a position of cultural, economic and military supremacy. With provocative remarks and high-flown rhetoric, politicians, diplomats, authors and journalists contributed to this divisive and eventually destructive mind set.

The result? Millions of dead, wounded, bereaved, bewildered and starving people all over the world. Did humanity learn anything? Twenty years after the armistice a great part of the world was plunged into the abyss of another devastating war, even worse than the first one. And now? Have we learned anything? What are we doing now? We are once again listening to the siren song of nationalists. Please – let us take warning from what has happened before and pay attention to other tunes:

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Gone to graveyards, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
                                     (Pete Seeger & Joe Hickerson)

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.

 
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  • Red Robbo

    “What do we all seek? New outlets for an ever-increasing commerce and for industries which, producing far more than they can consume or sell, are constantly hampered by an increasing competition. And then? Why! New areas for trade are cleared by cannon shot. Even the Bourse (the Stock Exchange) for reasons of interest, can cause armies to enter into campaign. (Marshal Foch, United Services Magazine, London, December 1918.)