It was expected to be the war to end all wars. Instead, it created new rivalries and strife that would erupt into another global conflict just two decades later.
This weekend’s gathering of world leaders in Paris for the centennial of the World War I armistice serves not only to remember the millions of dead and the enormous destruction it wrought, but also to rehash the hard lessons learned from that conflict.
World War I changed the political map of Europe and changed the concept of world order forever. It toppled centuries-old monarchies and established new states out of the ashes of the dead empires.
Self-determination, in theory and practice
Immediately after the war ended, said Georgetown University history professor Aviel Roshwald, it looked as if a new era had dawned in which nations could claim their fates and determine their futures.
“In the immediate term of 1918-19, it looked as though the advocates of self-determination of the smaller peoples of Europe had won, as the big multinational empires like the Hapsburg empire, the Romanov empire, in the Middle East the Ottoman empire, either collapsed, were conquered or both, and gave way to new entities,” he said.
“But each of those emergent or enlarged new nation-states that emerged from the rubble of empires was born in conditions of international chaos, economic disruption born of war, and their ostensible victories already carried in them the makings of future conflicts and future defeats.”
Though victorious, the newly minted countries were far from peaceful or stable. Their very sovereignty was being challenged from the start by the ethnic minorities they incorporated inside their new borders. It was a hard lesson in the shortcomings of self-determination, Roshwald said.
“Self-determination does not offer a solution to ethnic problems; it’s a formula that raises questions that can only be solved — all too often have been solved — through massive violence,” he said.
Historian John Lampe, global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, said that when then-President Woodrow Wilson proposed his Fourteen Points that would inspire the creation of the League of Nations, self-determination is not what he had in mind, especially not in the way it has been interpreted through the years.
“It’s a phrase that’s been much used,” Lampe said. “If self-determination means a constitutional government, a chance for all of the citizens to vote, that’s one thing, that’s fine. If it means self-determination for our ethnic group alone, then obviously it’s not a recipe for success.”
Alienation of ethnic minorities
Postwar Europe proved this well. As the victors claimed their territories and doled out punishments on the defeated nations, waves of ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses followed, deepening hostilities and polarizing the affected populations.
“The result was an almost immediate alienation of the large ethnic minorities that each of these states incorporated within their territories,” said Roshwald. “Had there been a greater willingness to grant meaningful autonomy to regionally based minorities, perhaps some of these conflicts could have been defused.”
The historian said these postwar traumatic events allowed for radical ideologies to take hold and dictate world events for ensuing decades.
Without the violent disruption of World War I, he said, “the kind of radicalization and polarization that we associate with communism — and of course at the other end of the spectrum with Nazism and fascism — it’s hard to imagine those emerging from the fringes of the political spectrum to become central factors in European and global history the way they did.”
LIke many other historians, Lampe sees a direct link between the abuses and recriminations that followed World War I and the even deadlier war that followed.
“This Second World War … is very much a settling of scores from the First World War that Hitler can play on,” Lampe said. “Also, the Bolshevik party would not have come to power in Russia without the First World War and the strains imposed there.”
Need for tolerance, respect, dialogue
Roshwald says the concept of self-determination for nations poses more questions than it solves in today’s world of mixed populations and shifting identities. And when it results in redrawn borders, it often produces more upheaval.
“In all too many cases, changes of borders create new sources of recrimination and irredentist claims in later years,” he said.
The historians said the lessons learned from the two world wars are enshrined today in powerful trans-Atlantic organizations designed to facilitate cooperation and dialogue among Western powers.
WATCH: John Lampe: Learning the Lessons of World War II
Such connections have enabled Germany and France — bitter enemies in the two world wars — to sit today as allies at the helm of the European Union.
The lessons include a greater understanding of the need for tolerance, the rule of law, compromise and dialogue, along with respect for the rights of others. The world can only hope those lessons are not forgotten.