Several commentators have pointed to the similarities between the pre-World War I era and our own. While every historical analogy is, by definition, inexact, they are right to raise the alarm.
In 1914, Europe was divided into two camps: the Entente, consisting of Britain, France, and Russia, and the Central Powers, predominantly Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Italy was formally a member, but went neutral when the war started, eventually joining the Entente). While this division had its roots in the long history of inter-imperialist rivalry over the acquisition of colonies in Africa and the Far East – with the “haves” being Britain and France, and the “have nots” being Germany and Austria – by the turn of the century the conflict began to re-focus on the European theater, where the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in Southeastern Europe – the Balkans – put the rival camps on a collision course.
Intent on penetrating the region and promoting its pan-Slavic agenda, Russia was fanning the flames of Serbian nationalism in the region, and the Kingdom of Serbia was the logical launching pad for this campaign. Serbia was a cauldron of ultra-nationalist sentiment, where – at the instigation of Russian agents – secret societies sprang up militantly agitating for a “Greater Serbia.” A pseudo-mystical ultra-nationalist narrative was elaborated for popular consumption, based on the idea of restoring the old “Greater Serbia” of the pre-Ottoman era, a supposedly glorious chapter in the history of the race that ended with the defeat of Prince Lazar on the famous Field of Blackbirds: Lazar died heroically, fighting off Turkish Janissaries. The great problem of the Serbian nationalists, however, was – and is – their expansive concept of what “Greater Serbia” consists of: every spot on which a Serbian Orthodox church or monastery ever existed is, today, considered Serbian territory by these radicals, and back in 1914 they were far more numerous – and powerful – than they are at the present moment. Indeed, as Ralph Raico points out:
“The immediate origins of the 1914 war lie in the twisted politics of the Kingdom of Serbia. In June, 1903, Serbian army officers murdered their king and queen in the palace and threw their bodies out a window, at the same time massacring various royal relations, cabinet ministers, and members of the palace guards. It was an act that horrified and disgusted many in the civilized world. The military clique replaced the pro-Austrian Obrenovic dynasty with the anti-Austrian Karageorgevics. The new government pursued a pro-Russian, Pan-Slavist policy, and a network of secret societies sprang up, closely linked to the government, whose goal was the ‘liberation’ of the Serb subjects of Austria (and Turkey), and perhaps the other South Slavs as well.”
The foreign policy of the Serbian government, with ultra-nationalist Prime Minister Nicolas Pasic at its head, “aimed at the creation of a Greater Serbia,” writes Raico, “necessarily at the expense of Austria-Hungary.” The Russians, the British, and the French all backed the Serbs’ expansionist claims, and, with Russian help, a series of Balkan wars saw the doubling in size of the Serbian kingdom as the decibel level of Serbian revanchist agitation picked up. It was in this volatile context that a Bosnian Serb fanatic, one Gavrilo Princip, shot and killed Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo. Princip and his collaborators were members of the “Black Hand,” an extreme nationalist group headed up by the chief of Serbian intelligence.
The Austrian annexation of Bosnia had added fuel to the fire, and set off a series of assassination attempts on Austrian officials by the “Black Hand.” When the Archduke visited Sarajevo, Austrian troops were massing on the Bosnian-Serbian border, backing up an Austrian demand that the Serbs renounce all claims to the territory. The Serbs complied, but the actions of Princip and his co-conspirators set off an explosion that ended with the destruction of European civilization.
What turned a regional conflict over narrowly defined issues of chiefly local interest into a global conflagration was the system of alliances and resulting intrigues that plagued world politics. I won’t go into the longstanding controversy over who bears the chief burden of “war guilt”: suffice to say here that the structural logic of the two rival alliances had an escalating effect, one that dragged the rest of Europe – and us – into the vortex of destruction. From the trenches of the Great War sprang the worst monsters of the twentieth century: fascism, national socialism, and Bolshevism. The death toll was in the millions.
In its broad outlines, we face a similar situation today. The Balkans of the new millennium is undoubtedly the Middle East, and here it is that, once again, a country imbued with a religiously-inspired vision of a “Greater” version of itself is pushing an expansionist policy, having roughly doubled its size since its inception as an independent nation. Inspired by an ideological vision that seeks to recreate a glorious past kingdom, and driven by the religious fanaticism of a militant ultra-nationalist movement, the state of Israel is the Serbia of our time – the epicenter and catalyst of the coming conflict.
Of course, the specifics are quite different: yet the broad outlines of the Balkan scenario fit the Middle East to a tee. We have the modern day Entente – the “haves,” i.e. the Western powers of the US, Britain, and France, versus the “have nots,” those being Russia, Iran, and Syria. Standing warily on the sidelines is China, a formerly “have not” nation on its way to becoming a superpower, which is increasingly tilting toward the latter. And of course the Western allies have their Middle Eastern protectorates, or what’s left of them, in Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states.
Under normal conditions, the narrowly defined issues of whether the Ba’athists should continue to rule Syria, or the status of the occupied territories of Palestine, would be of chiefly local interest. Under the conditions of inter-imperialist rivalry, however, every local ethnic-religious-territorial dispute has the potential to become an issue of global import. That’s what gave Gavrilo Princip the opportunity to fire the first shot of the Great War and achieve a malign immortality. It’s not hard to imagine a similarly explosive incident somewhere in the Middle East signaling the first volleys of World War III. The region is so crowded with tripwires that it’s only a matter of time before Uncle Sam stumbles over one and is driven by the structural logic of its alliances into a war with Iran: indeed, the first shots of that war have already been fired, in Syria, where the World War I analogy seamlessly segues into a parallel with World War II.
The end of the cold war did not lead to a “unipolar world,” as Charles Krauthammer and his fellow neocons celebrated it in the early 1990s. Instead of the “benevolent global hegemony” envisioned by Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan in their nineties foreign policy manifesto, we are back to the pre-WWI era of old-fashioned inter-imperialist rivalry. Instead of the “end of history,” we stand at the beginning of a new era of nationalism, religious fanaticism, and ideologically-driven violence. Combined with the structural incentives for conflict inherent in our system of alliances and the built-in dangers of a policy of “collective security,” this is a recipe for another world war.
In reading various accounts of the origins of World War I, I am struck by the leitmotif of unintended consequences that runs throughout that tragic story: it is a narrative of events that took on a life of their own, and created such a momentum for war that all the combatants were dragged along the road to destruction in spite of themselves.
As the Russians send missiles to Syria, and the US (and its Gulf allies) support and arm the Islamist rebels, the involvement of Iran is bound to drag in the United States sooner or later. Meanwhile, our modern day Serbians, the Israelis, are busy swallowing up ever-greater portions of the occupied territories of Palestine, and conducting bombing raids on Syrian territory.
In short, the Middle East is a tinderbox, even more explosive than the Balkans of 1914 – and 2014 may mark the beginning of yet another hundred-year cycle of global conflict.
But it doesn’t have to turn out that way. We have a choice. Indeed, we are each of us making the choice right now, by what we choose to believe, and what we choose to support. For there is the unmistakable sound of war drums in the air, and it is coming from Washington, D.C., which daily threatens Iran and where Congress has just passed a bill authorizing aid to the Syrian rebels. An amendment specifying this is not a blank check for the President to go to war over Syria failed. Lines are being drawn: sides are being taken – and, as usual, the wrong side is empowered by the loudest voices.
These are ominous times, and you don’t want to be without a sure guide to what’s happening – but it looks like that possibility is increasingly likely. Antiwar.com is facing the biggest financial crisis of its 17-year history. This fund-raising campaign has failed to raise even the basic minimum for us to continue this web site: at the present level of contributions, we will have to fold up shop and call it quits. If you saw the message from our staff on the main page, I am here to say: and we mean it. Our very existence is being called into question.
The irony – and potential tragedy – is that it is happening at this moment of very great danger. Having failed to learn the lesson of history – even relatively recent history – our politicians are repeating the mistakes of 1914. Disdaining the sage advice of the Founders, we are once again going abroad in search of monsters to destroy: impelled by our system of entangling alliances, we are drawn ineluctably into the vortex of destruction.
When news of the FBI investigation of Antiwar.com broke, a number of major contributors were scared away: we have yet to recover from that loss. Add economic downturn to the government-inspired fear campaign, and every year since then the shortfall in our fundraising has grown larger. There’s no question we will have to scale back no matter what the ultimate outcome of this fundraiser: the real question is – will we survive at all?
That’s what it comes down to. As the world teeters on the brink of a global war, Antiwar.com teeters on the edge of extinction. Only you – our readers and supporters – can stop that from happening. It’s as simple as that.