I recently finished listening to Dan Carlin’s sixth and final episode of his amazing Hardcore History series “Blueprint for Armageddon” about World War I. It’s not hyperbolic to say that this six part series, totaling almost 24 hours worth of listening at almost two years in the making, is a masterpiece, and I can’t recommend it enough – and right now it’s still available to listen to for free. Not only is it a masterpiece because it was so well done, but also because World War I is still affecting our lives today more than most people realize.
World War I, which lasted from 1914 to 1918, often gets eclipsed by the second World War, which lasted from 1939 to 1945. This is understandable. The second World War is more recent for one thing, which means there are more photographs from the war, there is more footage from the war, and there are more people around that remember the war. But I think World War II also has a better narrative – a funny little Austrian man with an immediately recognizable mustache is almost cartoonishly evil, to the point that if he didn’t actually exist you might not even buy him as a character in a movie, and he attempts to take over the world using a cartoonishly evil ideology. And of course the good guys have to swoop in and save the day. That’s an amazing narrative. Like something right out of a fantasy novel. This, of course, ignores the much larger theater of World War II, which was the eastern front between Germany and the Soviet Union, where not one but two cartoonishly evil people (Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin) went to war and an absolutely staggering number of people died in a war of atrocities taking place in unimaginably miserable conditions (just look at the Battle of Stalingrad for instance). Perhaps the reason the west hears a lot less about this front of World War II is because it doesn’t fit the nice Hollywood narrative that the western front does.
You can learn more about the eastern front of World War II in another of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series called “Ghosts of the Osfront.” This is also an amazing four part series and worth well more than the $5.99 he charges.
But either way, I wanted to talk about World War I, which is actually a much more important war than World War II. For one, if World War I had not happened, there would not have been a World War II in the first place. Adolf Hitler was a soldier in the trenches of World War I. When the Germans accepted armistice on November 11, 1918, Hitler was in the hospital, recovering from a gas attack, and it’s said that he was furious. He saw the German command that accepted armistice as stabbing the German people in the back (he spends a lot of time in Mein Kampf bemoaning this). Hitler often used the refrain that Germany did not lose the war on the battlefield – indeed, when armistice was accepted, the fighting was still occurring on land the German’s had conquered from France and Belgium, not on German land (although to be fair, the German’s were getting pretty well beat at the time). All of this, on top of the crippling and punitive Treaty of Versailles, led up to the second World War.
But I wanted to talk more about how World War I is still one of the biggest influences on our world to this day, almost 101 years after it started in August of 1914. When people think of what’s in the news right now, one thing that almost immediately comes to mind is the conflicts in the Middle East. Surprisingly, this can be traced back to World War I. One of the combatants in World War I was the Ottoman Empire, fighting on the German’s side. The Ottoman Empire had been the major power in the modern day Middle East since it’s founding in 1299, and at its zenith had covered much of the Levant, North Africa, and even into the Balkan States (Greece, Bulgaria, former Yugoslavia states etc). It was weakening by the time World War I broke out, and during the war it ended up being defeated by British, French and Arabic forces – the story of Lawrence of Arabia is about this conflict. I won’t go too much into the whole story, the various promises the British and French made to a number of different people about who would get what piece of the Middle East, which is all an incredibly interesting story (you can learn more about it in Carlin’s series), suffice to say that Britain and France split up the Levant into modern day Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon in what’s known as the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. World War I also saw the Treaty of Darin which led to the House of Saud to form Saudi Arabia in 1932. World War I also brought on independence movements in North Africa. But possibly one of the most iconic conflicts in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is also a result of World War I. Britain planted the seeds of modern day Israel with the Balfour Declaration in 1917 that eventually led to the 1947-48 war (of Independence if you’re Israeli, and disaster if you’re Palestinian) that saw the creation of modern day Israel. The reasons why the British did this is fascinating, everything from mundane cronyism to hoping it would get American Jews to pressure America to join the war and hopefully keep the Bolsheviks (more on them later) of whom many were Jewish to stay on their side and up to people in the British government being afraid of a global Jewish conspiracy and wanting to make sure that conspiracy was on their side. Either way, this has been a source of conflict in the Middle East since 1917.
It’s impossible to understand our modern world without at least understanding something about the Cold War. The Cold War was the nuclear arms race between the United Stated and the Soviet Union which lasted from approximately 1947 to approximately 1989 (these years are open to debate, but the difference is about one year in either direction). This came about at least nominally from an ideological difference – democracy vs. communism. There was no such thing as a communist state until the October Revolution that took place in 1917 in Russia during World War I. This of course came on the heels of the 1917 February Revolution that toppled the Russian Czar (emperor) that was the result of the war on the already fragile Czarist regime. The German’s sent communist revolutionaries, such as Vladamir Lenin, to the now Russian republic to deliver the coup de grace, but it ended with Russia becoming a communist state. It was this same communist state that would fight the Nazis in World War II on the side of the allies and then ultimately end up on the other side of the Cold War from the U.S.
But that is only one side of the story. The United States had to go through changes in order to become the world power that could face off against the Soviet Union. Through the earliest part of U.S. history, America was a non-interventionist country. The line from the sixth president of the United States John Quincy Adams that “She goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy” was the overwhelming sentiment as far as the American foreign policy. America made a brief foray into old school colonialism after the Spanish-American War in 1898, but it wasn’t until World War I that America achieved world power status. During most of the war, America played a support role until officially entering in 1917-1918, and that support role was selling arms and goods to the allies, primarily Britain. At the start of the war, Britain was the worlds superpower, owning numerous colonies and being a financial powerhouse. During World War I, Britain scraped down to the bottom of their coffers and started using credit and debt to pay for arms and goods, much of that credit and debt going to the United States. This became a massive transfer of wealth from Britain to the United States and that turned America into the worlds financial powerhouse. It was largely because of Britain’s debts owed to America that got the U.S. into the war – those debts won’t be paid back if Britain loses. But it was this aspect of World War I that transferred the mantle of worlds biggest financial power from Britain to America. The U.S. would not go full interventionist until after World War II (which, as I said, was a direct result of World War I in the first place), but this financial change of hands planted the seeds for American interventionism abroad.
The eclipsing of world financial powers due to World War I, such as Britain and France, also led to the decline in old school colonialism. This led to modern day Africa, to the India-Pakistan partition, and independence movements around the world too numerous to name.
The Cold War was a major factor in shaping the modern world, and the Cold War can be unambiguously traced back to World War I. The Cold War saw major interventions in Latin America, including the overthrow of governments in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Guatemala. Proxy wars abound. The Cuban Revolution. The spread of communism to China and the Maoist revolution, which is still ostensibly ‘communist’ today. The Cold War led to the Korean War and Vietnam War. And in modern times, it led to ISIS.
Because of the Cold War, the CIA’s Iranian coup of the democratically-elected Mosaddeq in 1953 led to the US-supported regime of the dictatorial Shah of Iran. This led to his popular overthrow by the Iranian people, which resulted in the Hostage Crisis of 1979, and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power. This led to US military support for neighboring dictator Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War (and America’s curious support for Iran through the Iran-Contra scandal, which harkens back to the intervention in Latin America as well) which led to Saddam’s chemical weapons attacks on Kurds and his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Operation Desert Storm then led to the insertion of US troops into Saudi Arabia (a strange alliance, since Saudi Arabia is known for exporting Islamic extremism, particularly following the 1979 seizure of Mecca). This interventionism didn’t sit well with Osama bin Laden, and he became such a nuisance to the Americans and Saudis that he was exiled and found refuge in Afghanistan, which was controlled by the Taliban, the prevailing group in the mujaheddin that had been armed during the 1980’s by the United States in order to fight a proxy war against, you guessed it, the Soviet Union (back to the cold war again). This alliance of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, along with anger over U.S. intervention, sowed the seeds of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The 9/11 attacks were used as justification for George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the establishment of puppet governments there. During the U.S. occupation, the Iraqi professional army was disbanded, leaving thousands of armed, angry Sunni’s who were then mistreated by the Nouri al-Maliki led Shia government that had been installed by the United States which gave birth to the sectarian violence in Iraq that’s lasted throughout the beginning of the 21st century. The nascent ISIS was part of this violence as early as 2005-2006. ISIS, which was at the time a part of al-Qaeda, found little success in Iraq, so it moved to Syria, where it found a foothold, and even American arms when the U.S. government became interested in overthrowing the Bashar al-Assad regime. The growing strength of ISIS allowed them to overtake areas of Syria and even move back into Iraq where they found a weak military protecting a state they didn’t really believe in, whose surrender afforded ISIS even more American weaponry. This has now led to the rise of the brutal ISIS, who interestingly enough has explicitly expressed their wish to do away with the Sykes-Picot agreement from 1916 during World War I – and we come back full circle.
But to get back to the main thesis, it’s amazing how much World War I, which lasted from August of 1914 to November of 1918, still affects us today. There is a sense in which the war never really ended – many of the world’s conflicts today can be traced back to The Great War, so in a sense they can almost be said to be an extension to the conflict that started over 100 years ago. World War I has till never actually ended.