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Legacies of the Great War

The 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip — the act that started World War I — has occasioned ample debate about the impact and legacy of the conflict. It is worth focusing on two key factors that have had a dramatic effect on the course of Jewish history in the 20th century.

First, the scale and technological sophistication of the means of destruction surpassed anything previously known. Brutality was hardly born in World War I; one need only remember the methods used by European colonial powers in the late 19th century — for example, the Belgians in the Congo — to impose their will on the native populations of the colonized lands. What was new was the development of weapons that could easily and quickly kill thousands, including poison gas, machine guns and tanks. The deployment of these tools of destruction exponentially multiplied the loss of life, forever memorialized in the names of the killing fields: Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele. Estimates are that some 8.5 million armed combatants were killed in World War I, and the total number of casualties — civilian and military — approached 40 million. 

The scale of destruction left deep physical and psychic wounds in many European societies. It also introduced, as the literary critic Paul Fussell explored in his brilliant book “The Great War and Modern Memory,” a new and ubiquitous mind-set — a cynical irony that originated on the battlefield, where the routinization of senseless death stood in stark contrast to the repeated appeals by the warring powers for heroic and patriotic self-sacrifice from their citizens.

The combination of these factors — a new scale of destruction, routinized death and cynical irony — left an astonishingly toxic legacy. It enabled the ideological fervor and dehumanization of the enemy that led to the genocides that scorched so much of the terrain of the 20th century, from Ottoman Turkey (during World War I itself) to Cambodia to Rwanda. Of course, in the case of Nazi Germany, which undertook the most systematic form of genocidal assault ever pursued, one must add to the mix the indignity of that country’s defeat in World War I, and the attendant loss of national pride, which the Austrian-born Adolf Hitler sought to reverse with single-minded intensity. Essential to that task was the elimination of the Jews from the German Lebensraum, living space, the culmination of which was the Final Solution.

If desensitization to mass death was one of the most dire consequences of World War I, a second effect would seem to be its antidote: the right of national self-determination, to which President Woodrow Wilson, among others, gave persistent voice. The Great War unfolded against the backdrop of the decline of three world empires: the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman. One of the main tasks of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 was to redraw the map of Europe and the world by carving up those disintegrating empires into discrete nation states. It was a version of this goal, namely, the crafting of an expansive and independent South Slavic state out of Austro-Hungary, that motivated Gavrilo Princip. Many other national groups in Europe — Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and Romanians, for example — aspired to their own nation-states, believing that sovereignty would restore a measure of historical dignity they believed was long overdue.  

Jews, too, joined in this hope. Deemed the “last, least typical of European nationalisms” by Hugh Trevor-Roper, the Zionist movement trained its vision on the ancestral homeland, Eretz Yisrael (Palestine), as the locus of their political and spiritual hopes. The movement received a significant boost when the British issued the Balfour Declaration, calling for a “Jewish national home” in Palestine, in November 1917. A month later, Gen. Edmund Allenby strode into Jerusalem, signaling the end of Ottoman rule over Palestine. 

The quest for national self-determination has been a leitmotif of the 20th century. It brought much-needed stability and boundary demarcation to the destabilized world order on the eve of World War I. 

And yet, its legacy is, at best, mixed. In the first instance, the new nation-states of Europe created out of the old empires were called upon, by the League of Nations, to respect the rights of national minorities in their midst, especially the Jews. Almost immediately on establishment, they violated their promises by ignoring the rights of national minorities. Mindful of this tendency, Salo Baron, the towering figure of Jewish history in the 20th century, concluded that Jews fare better in multinational (often imperial) settings than in ethnically homogeneous nation-states.

It also must be noted that the collapse of the three great empires did not mean the end of imperialism. Throughout World War I, the British and French were actively jockeying to promote their interests the world over, particularly in the Middle East. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 amounted to a division of much of that region into British and French spheres of influence. In reaction, various Arab nationalist groups sought to remove the yoke of colonial influence and achieve self-determination. Ironically, the new states that arose over the next three decades or so — Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria — fell betwixt and between, neither fully subservient to the European powers nor detached from their influence. 

What does the balance sheet of history show? The centenary of World War I is a good moment to ponder the fate of the nation-state system that followed in its wake. For example, when we look at the current failed states of Iraq or Syria, we must wonder whether a decentralized or federated system of autonomous provinces — reminiscent of the old imperial model — wouldn’t make more sense than the current arrangement.

The Jewish case would seem to be different, for self-determination has not yielded a failed state. Rather, it has brought undeniable and tangible benefits — a place of secure refuge for a dispersed people, a source of national pride and the site of a revived national culture. That said, the nation-state system never rises in a vacuum; it tends to operate in contested contexts, often marked by a stark zero-sum logic. What the Zionists achieved, the Palestinians have not. Does the self-determination of one preclude that of the other? If so, what follows?

For better or worse, we cannot conjure back into existence the multinational empires as they once were. Even in the current age of globalization, nation-states continue to rule. And yet, it often seems as if Israel and Palestine, notwithstanding their fierce desires to the contrary, will eventually become more, rather than less, integrated in the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. If that trend continues, then we will be left with a striking irony: The very success of the nation-state project that emerged out of World War I may well spell its own demise. That is, Zionism’s triumph in creating a Jewish state — and the concomitant failure of the Palestinians to create their own — may yield a single state that neither side seems to desire.


David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA, where he serves as the Robert N. Burr Chair of the history department.

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