Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Eleventh Hour Of The Eleventh Day Of Eleventh Month

This is no ordinary fall day it is quite special. In the United States it is Veterans Day.  In Europe, today is more properly called Memorial Day or Remembrance Day.  What is being remembered is the end of one of the greater disasters of history.  The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh day of 1918 is when the armistice of WW I was signed.


World War One was the great game changers of history. At the beginning of the “War to end all Wars”  there were five empires in Europe.  There was Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the Ottomans. After the war Austria-Hungary had shattered, Germany became a republic, the Ottomans were in the process of becoming Turkey and Russia had turned Communist.  The only empire left standing was the U.K.

Looking at a map the British Empire looked to be the big winner.  It had expanded into what it called the Near East. It controlled either directly or indirectly all of the Ottoman areas between Anatolia (Asia Minor) to Egypt. The French, not nearly so fortunate, manage to grab Syria and Lebanon as a consolation prize. But looks were entirely deceiving.

The U.K. was a shell of its former self and the new acquisitions only added to a colonial burden that the British could no longer support.  Looking back with hindsight we now know that Colonialism was dealt a mortal blow by the Great War. Canada, New Zealand and Australia had national awakenings that began their journey to independence. In other parts of the Empire native peoples began to stir. The legitimacy of the Colonial governments, always suspect in the best of times, became null and void as local elites abandoned their subservience to distant, detached, foreign masters.

Those foreign masters and foreign elites no longer had their previous gumption and will to power.  Large portions of those elites had died in the trenches and survivors had lost their claim to leadership.  By leading their nations into the meat grinder that was WW 1 they had evaporated any claims of superior ability or superior knowledge.

The cat was out of the bag as far as aristocratic power went. WW1 started in Europe because two great nation-states had laid dynastic eggs. If Germany or Russia was lead by even the standard mediocrities that crop up all too often in monarchies the Great War would never have happened or at least taken a different course.  But the nations were lead by two epic historical incompetents: Willy and Nicky. Neither the German Kaiser nor the Autocrat of all the Russians had the innate ability to lead a Cub Scout troop never mind great and powerful empires.

Europe entered a butcher shop of horrors because the conventional wisdom and the status quo of Power Politics lead it there.  If there is a lesson to be gained from this date it is to be constantly wary of people who blithely try to explain why we must spend lives and treasures in obscure parts of the world for supposed grand strategic designs.  Often the best and the brightest are the most ignorant of people.

Cross Posted at History Isn't What It Used To Be
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