Living in a world shaped by World War I and its aftermath

verdun cemetery

As the centennial marking the beginning of the Great War nears, we would do well to remember the sea change brought about by the 1914-18 conflict.

Beyond the more than 10 million killed, the onslaught of the Spanish influenza in 1918 which claimed an additional 50 million lives worldwide and the collapse of four major empires, World War I reshaped the world, and continues to impact us today.

The seeds for a second, much great world clash a generation later were planted in the peace treaties following the Great War; boundaries were drawn that still exist today, with countries created along arbitrary lines that served as catalysts for future tension and strife; and government control over areas such as trade and travel were forever altered and often restricted.

As Margaret MacMillan of Oxford College, the author of The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, writes in the Wall Street Journal, the conflict not only changed the course of history but sent the world down a dispiriting path that likely didn’t have to happen.

Before 1914, Russia was a backward autocracy but was changing fast. Its growth rate was as high as any of the Asian tigers in the 1960s and 1970s; it was Europe’s major exporter of food grains and, as it industrialized, was importing machinery on a massive scale. Russia also was developing the institutions of civil society, including the rule of law and representative government. Without the war, it might have evolved into a modern democratic state; instead, it got the sudden collapse of the old order and a coup d’état by the Bolsheviks. Soviet communism exacted a dreadful toll on the Russian people and indeed the world—and its remnants are still painfully visible in the corrupt, authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin.

The war also destroyed other options for Europe’s political development. The old multinational empires had their faults, to be sure, but they enabled the diverse peoples within their boundaries to live in relative harmony. Both Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans were trying to work out ways of encompassing the demands of different groups for greater autonomy. Might they have succeeded if the war had not exhausted them to the point of collapse? We will never know, but since then, the world has suffered the violence and horrors of ethnic nationalism.

The armistice of 1918 ended one gigantic conflict, but it left the door open for a whole host of smaller ones – the “wars of the pygmies,” as Winston Churchill once described them. Competing national groups tried to establish their own independence and to push their borders out at the expense of their neighbors. Poles fought Russians, Lithuanians and Czechs, while Romania invaded Hungary. And within their borders, Europeans fought each other. Thirty-seven thousand Finns (out of some 3 million) died in a civil war in the first months of 1918, while in Russia, as many as a million soldiers and many more civilians may have died by the time the Bolsheviks finally defeated their many opponents.

The war had brutalized European society, which had grown accustomed during the largely peaceful 19th century to think that peace was the normal state of affairs. After 1918, Europeans were increasingly willing to resort to other sorts of force, from political assassinations to street violence, and to seek radical solutions to their problems. The seeds of the political movements on the extremes of both the right and the left – of fascism and communism – were sown in the years before 1914, but it took World War I to fertilize them.

The war aided the rise of extremism by weakening Europe’s confidence in the existing order. Many Europeans no longer trusted the establishments that had got them into the catastrophe. The German and Austrian monarchies were also overthrown, to be succeeded by shaky republics. The new orders might have succeeded in gaining legitimacy in time, but that was the one thing that Europe and the world didn’t have. The Great Depression at the end of the 1920s swept the new regimes away and undermined even the strongest democracies.

The death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914, was, sadly, just one of a number of high-profile assassinations that had taken place in the previous few decades, including those of US President William McKinley, Czar Alexander II of Russia and King Umberto I of Italy.

But by the time Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip killed Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on a street in Sarajevo, the world was, quite simply, bound on a course for destruction.

One hundred years later we would do well to study the Great War and the world it made.

(Top: Cemetery at Verdun, France, scene of some of the worst fighting of World War I.)

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Ex-Communist official stands trial for killings

hungary revolution

While thousands of Nazis were rightly tried for their crimes following World War II, relatively few Communist thugs have ever had to face the music for their actions.

However, a former senior-level Communist Party official went on trial in Hungary this week, charged with his role in the shooting of civilians during protests surrounding the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

Prosecutors have charged 92-year-old Bela Biszku regarding his role on a committee of the Communist Party they say was involved in ordering the shootings of civilians during protests in Budapest and in the town of Salgotarjan in December 1956, according to Reuters.

The case is important because it may enable Hungary to begin to face up to its communist past, something no former Soviet satellite state has done.

Biszku was one of Hungary’s most powerful leaders in communist times, and he is the first former Communist official to stand trial in the nation.

Biszku, who has previously denied all accusations against him, responded to the judge in a firm voice Tuesday, stating, “I do not wish to testify.”

The 1956 Hungarian Uprising was a spontaneous nationwide revolt against the Soviet-backed government of the People’s Republic of Hungary, lasting more than two weeks, from Oct. 23 through Nov. 10.

The event marked the first major threat to Soviet control since the USSR drove Nazis forces from Eastern Europe at the end of World War II more than a decade earlier.

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Italian author, survivor of Russian Front, dies

italian prisoners of war on the eastern front

From the standpoint of the average soldier, there have been some pretty miserable military alliances over the past century.

The Australians and New Zealanders who ended up at Gallipoli in World War I at the behest of the British; Newfoundlanders cut down at the Somme, also fighting for the British; and most Arab soldiers who found themselves going up against Israelis between 1948 and 1973, would all have likely wondered what their nations had got them into.

But probably no group of Allies was more poorly served in the 20th century than those of Nazi Germany.

Hitler, who was only too happy to feed his own divisions into the seemingly endless maw of death that was World War II in his attempt to take over Europe, had absolutely no compunctions about frittering away the troops of collaborating nations.

Hundreds of thousands of Italian, Hungarian and Romanian soldiers, for example, perished in miserable conditions on the Eastern Front alongside their German partners.

One of the more striking accounts of this lesser-known aspect of the war was written by Eugenio Corti, an Italian officer who died earlier this month at 93.

Corti is best known for The Red Horse, a 1,000-page novel based on his experience during and after World War II. First published in 1983, it has gone through 25 editions.

But in his 1947 work Few Returned: Twenty-Eight Days on the Russian Front, Winter 1943-1943, Corti vividly described the utter hopeless of a soldier’s life on the Russian Front during the war.

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Hungary begs off pursuing war criminal

Just when thinks government officials can’t possibly be any more tone-deaf when it comes to dealing with sensitive issues, along comes another dim-witted bureaucrat or two eager and able to lower the bar.

In Hungary, prosecutors said Monday that investigating a 97-year-old Nazi war criminal found alive and well in Budapest was “problematic” because the events took place so long ago and in a different country.

Laszlo Csatary has spent the past 15 years living undisturbed since he was deported from Canada for his actions during World War II, which included helping organize the shipping of nearly 16,000 Jews to Auschwitz in 1944.

A probe into Csatary began in September after information was received from the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center, which ranks him number one on their wanted list, the public prosecutors’ office said.

The crime is alledged to have taken place in Kosice, which was then in Hungary but is now in Slovakia.

Prosecutors in Hungary said the investigation “therefore has to explore an event remote in both time and place,” with “significant part” of the probe dedicated to finding possible witnesses, some of whom may live abroad, according to Agence France-Presse.

“It took place 68 years ago in an area that now falls under the jurisdiction of another country – which also with regard to the related international conventions raises several investigative and legal problems,” a statement said.

“Finding the answers to the aforementioned questions is a precondition to clarifying the facts and determining further investigative actions.”

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Serbian restitution law may imperil EU bid

Serbia’s new restitution law may threaten the Balkan country’s prospects for membership in the European Union, an official with neighboring Hungary said Thursday.

The law discriminates against Hungarians and other minorities and poses a “serious problem” to Serbian efforts to join the EU, Hungary foreign minister Janos Martonyi said.

The Serbian law relies on the unacceptable principle of collective guilt because it prevents Serbian Hungarians and others who were drafted into occupying armies like Hungary’s and Germany’s during World War II – and their descendants – from getting their property back, according to an Associated Press report.

The legislation defines Mar. 9, 1945, as the date when confiscation of private property and businesses began in Serbia, together with Feb. 15, 1968, when a second wave of confiscation was launched, according to IPS News.

“This is not an issue between Hungary and Serbia, but a European issue,” Martonyi told reporters.

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