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The War that Shaped Our World

Don Rose 25 October 2018 No Comment

Shortly after next month’s elections we celebrate the centennial of the signing of the armistice ending World War I.   On November 11, 1918 the “Central Powers”–Germany, Bulgaria, Austro-Hungary and the Turkish-ruled Ottoman Empire–surrendered to the allies led by France, Great Britain, Italy and the US.

   That war and the Paris Peace Conference that followed are the most consequential, defining events of the 20th Century, shaping the geopolitical world we live in today–its triumphs and ongoing problems.


The “Great War” began in 1914 with a minor Balkan power struggle and quickly metastasized to involve almost every European nation from Russia to Great Britain and eventually China and us.   It was the first to feature air power and the plague of poison gas.

   Our entry in 1917 is considered the turning point of the allied victory, launching us on the path to becoming a superpower. Our ally Tsarist Russia succumbed to the Communist Revolution that would make the Soviets the other great superpower until the century’s last decade.

   At the 1919 Peace Conference the allies forever dismembered the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, creating new nations, some by reassembling  pieces into entities such as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and that ill-fitting assemblage called Iraq, prized for its oil. Late in the century Yugoslavia blew apart violently–Czechoslovakia peacefully.

   The vast Ottoman Empire reached from Turkey to the Balkans, then most of the Middle East and Arabia. The allies divvied up the pieces into “mandates” and spheres of influence, reinforcing colonial rule there, throughout Africa and parts of Asia. The Kurds lobbied for a homeland and are still doing so.

   In 1917 Britain promised Zionists a Jewish homeland in its mandate of Palestine, outraging Arabs there and elsewhere. Though the promise was not fulfilled for three decades, the outrage remains after many wars. You may have noticed no peace has yet been reached.

    Germany was humiliated by the imposition of onerous economic reparations and forced to surrender colonies and territories won in earlier wars. It returned Alsace-Lorraine to France and Danzig (Gdansk) to Poland, which regained other lost pieces, permitting it to emerge as a renewed nation–until much of Eastern Europe went to the Soviets following World War II.

  The economic burdens and harsh treatment of Germany are believed by many to have set the conditions for the rise of Adolph Hitler–though numerous historians dispute that analysis.

   Needless to say, the World War II allies took a different tack in dealing with Germany and Japan. They also succeeded in creating the United Nations after the failure of the League of Nations. Colonial rule ended in most places later in  the century. When the Soviets collapsed, lands ruled by them after the war were liberated, though Vladimir Putin eyes them for a new Russian empire.

   Today’s world map closely resembles that drawn after the 1918 armistice; some problems were solved, others remain. On what we used to call Armistice Day–now Veterans Day–as we watch the ritual laying of wreaths on the tombs of the Unknowns while still engaged in our longest war, let’s remember what shaped today’s world and ask:

   Is there ever a good war?

Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

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