Will the centenary of the outbreak of “The Great War” in 1914 turn out to be more than the propagandists of Britain’s heritage industry intended it to be? The indications so far are that we are in for a sentimental, ahistorical nostalgia-fest intended to promote the theme of a “just war” to defend democracy against tyranny, a war which, in spite of its unprecedented slaughter, was not fought in vain. Those who “gave their lives” died in a noble cause. As this commemoration is due to go on for four years there will be opportunities for dissenting voices such as this one, albeit with little access to the mainstream media, to stand against the conformist tide. However much disagreement there is about the First World War- its causes, nature and consequences - one thing is beyond dispute: it was not, as the victors opined in 1918, “the war to end wars”. In fact, as readers of The Guardian were recently graphically reminded (12. February) British armed forces have been in action somewhere or other in the world every year since 1914. One hundred years of war! This is seldom mentioned. Also, despite all the ballyhoo about the centenary of 1914, very little attempt has been made to compare the critical developments in international affairs since the beginning of this century with the feverish tensions that led to the outbreak of war a hundred years ago. While it is a truism that history never repeats itself in exactly the same form, there are nevertheless, sufficient similarities between then and now to give cause for serious concern. Expanding on the same theme as the last Letter from the U.K.  we may recall some of the features of the Eurocentric world of 1900 – 1914.

It was a world of intensifying inter-imperialist rivalry. The territorially vast but shambolic, autocratic Russian empire had suffered a humiliating defeat in 1904 at the hands of Japan, the rising power in the Far East. In that war Britain had favored the Japanese against the traditional Russian enemy whose expansionist designs were seen as a threat to both Europe and the British Empire in India. The regime of Tsar Nicholas II was in terminal decline, shattered by the 1905 revolution and holding tenuously to power through a combination of repression and enforced compromise.  France’s military humiliation at the hands of the nascent German empire in 1870/71 had led to deep French hostility and a revanchist determination to recover from Germany the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Despite the violent anti-republicanism of the Tsarist regime and the republican distaste for autocracy in Paris, the Third Republic nevertheless entered into an alliance (1894) with Russian autocracy. Needless to say this was an alliance of convenience, motivated by mutual fear and suspicion of Germany. The German Emperor, Wilhelm II, jettisoning the centre-piece of Bismarck’s diplomacy which was to keep France isolated by cultivating and maintaining good relations with Russia, ensured that in the event of a war with either power, Germany would have to fight on two fronts.

Since Prussia’s defeat of Austria in 1866, the weakened Habsburg Empire (now forced into conceding a duality of power with the Hungarian nobility as the Austro-Hungarian Empire) had been reduced to the status of imperial Germany’s subordinate partner. The Ottoman Empire had been in terminal decline for many decades, its remaining Balkan and Middle Eastern provinces destined to become either independent national states or vassals of one or another of the “western” empires. Following the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary in 1908 and the Balkan wars of 1912/13, tensions increased with the challenge posed by Serbia. Russia, using pan-Slavism as a smokescreen championed Serbia against Austria-Hungary, with the aim of establishing a dominant position in the Balkans. In 1904, after sorting out some of their colonial disputes, Britain joined France in an “Entente Cordial”. A similar alliance was formed with Russia in 1907 after reaching agreement about spheres of influence. Bitter disputes that had lasted decades, were quickly patched up in marriages of convenience. The first decade of the twentieth century thus saw the formation of two large imperialist power blocs engaged in a frantic arms race. The ruling classes of the imperialist states were intent upon holding and extending their possessions and their political and economic power. By the early twentieth century, most of what is now termed the third world had already been divided between them. Any new conflict between the alliances would be to re-divide the world. This highly combustible situation was further complicated by the fact that in one way or another each of the imperial powers was riven with internal conflicts. Apart from the class divisions in the metropolitan countries, sharper in some than in others, there were numerous subject peoples who were beginning to agitate for national independence. Such movements were growing stronger throughout the British Empire. The Ottoman Empire had already lost control of most of its Balkan territories and discontent was seething throughout the Middle East. The subject peoples of the Habsburg and Tsarist empires were in revolt.

The one power that remained relatively untouched was Germany which had few overseas colonies, though the marginal national minorities within the boundaries of the Reich – French in Alsace-Lorraine, Danes in the north and Poles in the east – were to one degree or another disaffected. But of the imperialist powers, Germany was the most aggrieved by the status quo. The ruling class felt cheated of their “place in the sun”. They believed that Germany, by virtue of its economic power and dynamism deserved to be a world power. But like all the other ruling elites they attempted to justify their policies and their actions as defensive. They were threatened with encirclement by the Franco-Russian alliance; they were denied their maritime rights by the dominant British navy; their legitimate relationship with the Ottomans was threatened by Russia in the Balkans. Thus, like the other powers they were justified in challenging Britain for naval supremacy; they were justified in identifying with the Boers who faced overwhelming British power in the South African War of 1899 – 91. The truth was that like the other imperialist powers, Germany was determined to defend and extend its territorial reach on the European continent and beyond.

These were some of the elements that contributed to the combustible hothouse that blew up in 1914. Is there any comparison with the situation in 2014? Clausewitz’s famous dictum that “war is the continuation of politics by other means” still carries some weight. But if we are talking about war between major world powers – war like that of 1914-18 and even more so that of 1939-45, it seems less valid for the obvious reason that such a war would be very likely to involve nuclear weapons, with consequences that are beyond imagining. However, it is possible to imagine how the present international situation might lead quite quickly to one or more huge conflagrations that could engulf large parts of the world with consequences too terrible to contemplate. To focus on just two of the present flash-points is sufficient to concentrate attention on the seriousness of the situation.

1. The Middle East. The civil war in Syria has resulted in a human tragedy of such enormity that it is no longer possible to talk of it realistically in terms of the “Arab revolution”. It has become perhaps the worst refugee crisis of modern times with no end in sight. Unless the fighting stops, the unenviable choice seems to be  between the Assad regime and Al Qaeda. The Syrian crisis has already had serious repercussions in the wider region, exposing deep and irreconcilable divisions in the Arab world and beyond. The Sunni-Shia divide has sharpened the conflict between Assad’s backers in Teheran and Hezbollah and the motley assortment of Sunni jihadists sponsored by the Saudis and affiliated to or associated with Al Qaeda. The conflict between Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, diametrically opposed to one another over Syria, has seriously weakened the Palestinain cause to the advantage of Israel. The impact on Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq is already serious and is likely to become more so. Given the continued backing for the Assad regime by Russia and for the opposition by the United States and countries of the European Union, it is perfectly possible that the Syrian civil war might escalate into a wider military confrontation involving Israel, Iran, Russia and the United States.


2. Ukraine. At the end of February the deepening crisis in Ukraine seems ominously reminiscent of the Balkan and Central European crises that led to the first and second world wars. In the summer of 1914 the rival imperialist alliances were drawn into war by the clash between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. In 1939 German imperialist aggression against Czechslovakia and Poland led directly to the declaration of war on Germany by Britain and France. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, the E.U., the U.S. and Nato have steadily extended their economic and political influence eastwards at the expense of Russia. In 2008 it was made clear to the the E.U. and the Nato states that the Russians were not prepared to accept any further encroachments into what they regarded as their traditional sphere of influence. The swift and overwhelming military response to the reckless adventurism of Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia demonstrated clearly that Russia was prepared to act militarily if necessary even to the point of encouraging Russian separatist movements and secession of ethnic Russian and Russian speaking minorities in the successor states of the Soviet Union. The Georgian crisis made clear that Russia would not roll over and supinely accept the eastward expansion of Nato and the E.U. Events in the Ukraine over the past few weeks have confirmed this. However corrupt and authoritarian the government of Yanukovych may have been, it was the elected government of Ukraine. The agreement reached on 21.  February between Yanukovych and the opposition and signed off by German, Polish and French representatives of the E.U., was arbitrarily scrapped under pressure from the extreme nationalist elements in the opposition with the tacit approval of the E.U. The ousting of Yanukovych, described by the opposition and their western backers as the triumph of a revolution, was regarded by Russia as a coup. The Russian refusal to recognize the new self-proclaimed government in Kiev as legitimate should have surprised no-one. At the time of writing (1. March) Russian military forces have moved into the Crimean peninsula, apparently securing all strategic points. Crimea has historically been part of Russia. It was only transferred to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954. The majority of its population are Russian speakers with a deep attachment to Russia. The Duma in Moscow has unanimously endorsed the military action. The Russians are no more likely to give up their naval base at Sevastopol than is the U.S. to give Guantanamo back to Cuba.

Given the eastward expansion of the E.U. since the beginning of the century and the well-founded suspicion of a similar recruitment drive by Nato it would be surprising if Russia had not reacted as they did. But the situation is very dangerous. The most likely outcome would seem to be that Russia, with the backing of a majority of the Crimean polulation and much of eastern Ukraine, will organize a referendum to bring about the secession of the Crimea from Ukraine to the Russian Federation. Should this occur, possibly followed by agitation for a similar “solution” by the pro-Russian population of eastern Ukraine, it will bring the E.U., Nato and the U.S.into direct confrontation with Russia. This would be the most serious crisis since the end of the cold war and there is no certainty that it could be resolved peacefully.Such a denouement may be closer than we think. Echoes of 1914 are still reverberating in 2014.