The two world wars of the 20th century started in Europe. The commemoration of the fallen is marked each year on 11 November - the date of the armistice at the end of the "great war" of 1914-18, in which around 15 million people died. It is possible, eighty-nine years on, to see what dangerous legacies were stored by the political and diplomatic as opposed to the military conclusion of this war.
This year's anniversary of the end of what the French called la der des der (and the English "the war to end all wars") - what a bitter phrase that feels in 2007 - will find a diminishing band of veterans, alongside members of today's armed services as well as many citizens, gathering across a cloudy, troubled Europe. The atmosphere is a fitting accompaniment to a fresh study of the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) which concluded in the palace outside Paris the business that the conflicts and dislocations of the war itself had left unfinished.
Many studies of the period have rightly concentrated on the great war's impact on Germany, the rise of Hitler and the instability which led to even bloodier second world war. David A Andelman's book, A Shattered Peace. Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today (Wiley, 2007), opens a fascinating new prospect in widening the range of Versailles's contemporary influence: from Vietnam to Iraq, the Yugoslav wars and the rise of al-Qaida.
Powers and pipe-dreams
The book, by a former New York Times foreign correspondent and member of the Council on Foreign Relations who is now an executive editor at Forbes.com, is a challenging and courageous study which highlights the connection between the this critical post-war period and the George W Bush administration's modern pipe-dream of redrawing the maps in the middle east, now bogged down in the Iraqi quagmire. David A Andelman asks whether the outcome of later decades might have been significantly more peaceful and progressive if the architects of Versailles had shown greater judgment and concern, rather than redrawing the great powers' spheres of influence in a sad remake of the 1815 Treaty of Vienna.
Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent
for Le Monde.
Among Patrice de Beer's recent articles in openDemocracy:
"Why is the left so gauche?" (26 February 2007)
"France's telepolitics: showbiz, populism, reality" (2 April 2007)
"France's intellectual election" (16 April 2007)
"France's choice: the Bayrou factor" (24 April 2007)
"Sarkozy's rightwing revolution" (8 May 2007)
"Le Monde's democratic coup" (30 May 2007)"A not so quiet American" (13 July 2007)
"Nicholas Sarkozy, rupture and ouverture" (31 July 2007)
"The French temptation" (31 August 2007)
"Nicolas Sarkozy's world" (10 October 2007)
The idea that Hitler's rise and the second world war was the cost paid for France and Britain's desire to exact revenge on Germany after a bloody and devastating conflict is familiar. But the slow impact of post-1919 events was also felt far in Asia, where support of an expansionist and imperialist Japan (then one of the Allies) led to the invasion of China, launching a path that would take it to Pearl Harbour.
Moreover, what would have happened if the great powers, instead of pursuing their selfish national interests and ambition to expand their rule worldwide, had had the wisdom to foresee the consequences of their decisions in both east-central Europe and their overseas "empires": xenophobic nationalisms, instability and violent feuds, colonial wars and too-long-delayed independence?
What would have happened too if The United States president, Woodrow Wilson, had been able to balance his good intentions of building an everlasting peace on peoples' rights of self-determination with a better knowledge and understanding of Europe and of the world around him? Perhaps the outcome would have been better if he had been less compromising on his lofty principles in order to salvage both the treaty and his "baby", a League of Nations (which America itself never joined, thus leading both to a deadly obsolescence).
All this might look like the vain "counterfactual" rehashing of history. But the present does still resound with Versailles' failures. Andelman's list of them is staggering. The middle east is a prime example. The Allies, first of all the British and the French, wanting to divide among themselves the spoils of land and oil taken from the dismemberedfeud between the Sunni and Shi'a sects; as a result, they used the mandates given by the League of Nations to divide the near east among themselves, not to groom them towards self government. Ottoman empire, failed to recognise nascent Arab nationalism or to understand the explosive potency of Islam - as well as the depth of the
In a belief that the Arabs were too backward to rule themselves, they tried to impose political models and nations crafted after their own European models, with tacit agreement from a United States president too ready to trade away his principles. Thus, for instance, the creation ex nihilo of a sort of Arabian Yugoslavia in Mesopotamia - Iraq - out of an unstable amalgam of Sunni, Shi'a and Kurds made it at least likely that the pressures of war of the kind launched in 2003 would encourage the country to blow apart.
Andelman says that all this "was hardly a recipe for peace and prosperity. This template had, after all, led to a succession of bloody wars in Europe (...) Most Arabs wound up with a deep bitterness towards Britain and France (...) The United States inherited this enmity towards foreign overlords (...) In Paris, the British and French sought to serve their own economic and geopolitical interests. Now, in the post-cold war period, the United States appears to be doing the same - shaping the region to serve its own global interests. And Americans wonder why they face such implacable hostility". Wilson's concern was, the book adds, for the Protestant missions that had sprung up across the region; there are echoes here of the same lack of understanding that the Bush administration displays now, shared by American Christian fundamentalists who want to convert the whole world.
"Terrorism is another manifestation of the frustration of the people of the Middle East". But the main difference, today, is that, not only Iraq has become a regional nightmare but that these "disenfranchised" are able to "take their frustrations, often violently, to the very doors of those they see as their oppressors" - as by proxy in movements like al-Qaida, with its deadly impact across the region and beyond; or the Shi'a militant group which have been nurtured by the current Iranian regime to become a factor in Iraq's conflicts, as well as threatening the integrity of the multi-confessional Lebanon.
This same terrorism is also assailing the state of Israel. Andelman notes that the founder of Israel Chaim Weizmann was present in Paris while the treaty was being negotiated; as was Prince Faisal, Lawrence of Arabia's protégé who was to become the first king of Iraq; as was an unknown cook from what was then French Indochina - Nguyen Tat Thanh, the future Ho Chi Minh - who led Vietnam to independence in 1945, kicked the French out in 1954 before defeating the mighty United States with the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Roots and revolutions
The Treaty of Versailles in the middle east context benefited only the Zionists, as it did so sowing the seeds for later wars and for the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, things had seemed to start well with an agreement between Weizmann and Prince Faisal on Jewish immigration to Muslim-populated Palestine. But Faisal had no influence on less welcoming local Arabs, and the marauders who attacked newly arrived settlers in the early 1920s might be said to prefigure Hizbollah's rockets eighty-five years later.
"The peacemakers of Paris", says Andelman, failed the Jews and the Palestinians in equal measure as profoundly as they failed the Bedouin Arabs [of Iraq] - Shi'a and Sunni alike. The western leaders were simply unable or unwilling to appreciate that each of these groups had its own very specific characteristics. They might very well have found a means of co-existing as separate, independent neighbours".
Thus "the Middle East remains as unstable - perhaps even more unstable than its advocates had envisioned when they met with the Allies in Paris in 1919. The west is still unable to appreciate that small, homogeneous states in such volatile regions are inherently more stable than large heterogeneous groupings".
Yet, the experience of former Yugoslavia (which Andelman interestingly discusses) shows too that "small, homogeneous states" can also have both abrasive relations with their neighbours and serious internecine problems: Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo, Albanians and Macedonians in Macedonia (whose name Greece stubbornly refuses to recognise), and irreconciled Bosnia among them. This too is partly a legacy of 1919 (see Carl Bildt, "Europe's future in the mirror of the Balkans", 2 April 2003).
Moreover, is it certain that the present wave of Islamist extremism, with its dream of reviving a "caliphate" aiming to reunite all Muslims in one single state (which has been and is murdering far more Muslims than "infidels") could have been prevented by smaller, homogeneous states?
It is sometimes too easy to rewrite history with the mind focused on today, forgetting how different people and situations were at the time. With this qualification, David A Andelman has done a great service in looking beyond contemporary clichés and highlighting how the present multiple crisis can be understood with a better knowledge of its historical roots.
It is all too easy to forget that it is the west - prominently Europe, where both world wars of the 20th century started - which in several ways is largely responsible for implanting and nurturing those roots. It is an uncomfortable thought for the armistice-day commemorations of 2007, eighty-nine years after the first war ended, sixty-two after the second. The period of both, it might be noted, was less than the "war on terror", which is very far from finished.