One hundred years ago in this month of August, German troops raced through Belgium, wheeled towards France, and nearly overran Paris before the Western Front settled into the trenches of northern France where the horror of the world’s first industrialized war would take place over the next four years. The aftermath of this war still defines our world.
One particular way is the national boundaries that define political rule by governments. For Europe and the Middle East, these boundaries were determined by the victorious powers (notably, Britain and France) during the peace negotiations that followed the suspension of hostilities on November 11, 1918.
The victorious powers dismantled the empires of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman dynasty. They reduced the territory of Germany and Russia as they created independent nations in Eastern Europe: Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland, Finland, and the Baltic states. They moved territory from one nation to another, e.g. Transylvania was moved from Hungary to Romania.
1914 Europe: 1921 Europe:
The victorious Allied powers did not redraw these maps out of altruistic motives. They operated out of the Great Powers theory and their desire to expand their colonial empires. Germany and Russia were whittled down to reduce their power; Austria-Hungary was dismantled to end its Great Power status. That left Britain and France as the two major powers to direct the course of European affairs, or so they thought.
The Ottoman empire was dismantled to further the colonial empires of Britain and France with a view to gaining control over the oil assets of the Middle East. By this time, Europe was well aware of the economic importance of oil and where oil could be found.
Provinces and territories were conglomerated toward this end. Ethnic groups were united where they should have been left apart. Proof of this is shown by the merger of Czechs and Slovaks. Once Czechoslovakia escaped the control of Moscow, the two peoples separated. Yugoslavia went through the same process, but was unable to do so amicably.
Those dissolutions were the beginning. Much of what we now witness is the further undoing of these borders that were drawn unwisely. The Ukraine conflict is another story and will need a separate post. But what we see in Iraq is the undoing of three Ottoman provinces that were combined into one colonial territory to place the oil assets under one political rule. Iraq is separating into its three original provinces, each struggling to exist apart from the others yet wishing to dominate the rest: the Shiite south aligned with Iran, the Sunni middle, and the Kurdish north.
In the future, we should expect more unraveling of the redrawn boundaries. Although western Europe is firmly settled, the rest is in play. We often think the Second World War is the one that determined the course of our history, but it is the First World War, better known overseas as the Great War, that continues to influence the conflicts of our times.