The 100 Years War

It’s 100 years since a political assassination in the Balkans set in motion the Great War which, in one form or another, has continued ever since. In destroying themselves, and millions of their subjects, the German, Austrian and Russian empires brought forth Nazism and Bolshevism, which killed in the tens of millions. After 1945, the killing mostly stopped in the developed world, replaced by the threat of instant nuclear annihilation, which remained ever-present for decades and has by no means disappeared. Instead, the War moved to the Third World, and a multitude of proxy conflicts. The fall of the Soviet Union saw the renewed outbreak of the War in Europe, most bloodily in Yugoslavia and more recently in Georgia and Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the British and French imperial War plans, embodied in the (secret) Sykes-Picot treaty and the contradictory assurances offered to Jews and Arabs in the Balfour declaration and the McMahon-Hussein correspondence[^1], continue to work their evil consequences long after all the original participants have gone to their graves. Syria, Iraq and Israel-Palestine are all products of the Great War, as is modern Iran (the product of a revolution against British and later American suzerainty imposed after 1918).

And, after 100 years, nothing has been learned. The architects of the most recent catastrophe in Iraq are still respected commentators, as are the many historians and others who defend the conduct of the British-French-Russian imperial alliance in the 1914-18 phase of the Great War (most British and French apologists ignore or explain away the alliance with the most oppressive European empire of the day, but I imagine there are now Putinist historians hard at work producing defences of Tsarist war policy).

More fundamentally, despite 100 years of brutal and bloody evidence to the contrary, the idea that war and revolution are effective ways to obtain political ends, rather than catastrophic last resorts, remains dominant on both the right and the left.

Perhaps in another 100 years, if we survive that long, the world will have learned better.

[^1]: In addition to these, there was the secret Constantinople agreement with the Tsarist empire, and the Treaty of London and Agreement of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne with Italy, none of which came into effect. These secret deals (and similar agreements made by the Central Powers) make it clear that all the major participants in the Great War were committed to the pursuit of imperial expansion, even as they all pretended to be defending themselves against aggression and pointed to the crimes of their enemies as justification for their own.

91 thoughts on “The 100 Years War

  1. In pre-2003 US invasion Iraq there was no sectarian violence.

    The US own the subsequent inter-sect killings.

    That is an indisputable fact.

    To suggest the reason sunni and shia got along perfectly well, inter-married and lived side by side before the US started killing everyone and funding/directing/arming terrrsts etc.. was JUST because they lived under a (ahem, US-backed) dictator, and then suddenly started killing each other after he was killed – is the stupidest argument I have ever seen on this website.

  2. @John Quiggin

    I read your opening, but it is a great problem for people who hate the idea of empires (basically taking other people’s land) and the method to halt empire-building (war).


    Yes, Megan, tell the Kurds who were gassed and the Shi’ites who instigated an uprising and were massacred for their trouble after 1990/91 that Saddam Hussein was a gentle and peaceful person.

  3. @John Quiggin

    Oh, but I should add that I agree with your overall view though that WW1 was an instigator for some of the most violent fanatics we have ever seen and in my view set back liberalism for decades and decades.

  4. J-D (@ #35) wrote:

    It is beyond credibility to suppose that either side fought a war on the scale of the Second World War without substantial strategic errors.

    So, J-D thinks it was a “strategic mistake” for the Americans and British to allow Nazi Germany to reconquer the whole of a country which had liberated itself entirely from fascism in July 1943, delaying the victory over the Third Reich which finally occurred in May 1945 by possibly a further 21 months, costing the lives of 152,940 Italian civilians and also costing the allied armies in Italy over 300,000 casualties?

    Whilst the British, Americans, French, Poles and Indians and Kiwis were fighting to conquer territory that had already been liberated in July 1943, the Nazi gas chambers at Treblinka, Auschwitz, Jasenovac, Majdenek, etc. were working tirelessly to exterminate occupied Europe’s Jewish population.

    Presumably, J-D thinks it was also a “strategic mistake” for the allied air forces not to finish off the operations of the gas chambers and the railway lines over which Jews were transported to the gas chambers with aerial bombardment?

  5. JQ reminds me of a comment I made to someone tonight elsewhere, re the Badar aborted seminar talk debate on honor killings; the lack of comprehension as to “others” remains underlyingly unchanged, from Heart of Darkness through Apocalypse Now, to Dr Haneef, to the present.

    It’s definitely true that 1914-45 was a classic Thirty Years War, but we were brought up to believe that a new dawn had arrived, ushered in by John Wayne, Trevor Howard and Audie Murphy and that apart from post Stalinist Russia and the muddled Chinese, all would be well apart from a few loose ends to be tied up.

    In fact, all that had happened was that the killing fields had been removed to the Third World, in particular Africa, where maybe twenty or thirty million people have died dogs death in places like Uganda and the Congo.

    We learnt this was only because they were primitive and we should greet the horror stories as with disdain.
    What we didn’t learn till later was that most of the Third World wars are actually to do with Big Power interference and quarreling through proxies, over strategic or resources provinces, which closed the Circle back 100 years quite neatly.

  6. @John Quiggin

    I would prefer the peaceful establishment of stable democracies to bloody revolution, in all cases. But I don’t see any reason to think that peaceful evolution towards stable democracy would have been any more likely if the First World War had not been fought, or if the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires had survived. The Russian empire, at least, had already had a bloody (but unsuccessful) revolution, in 1905.

  7. @Megan

    What’s the basis for your assertion that there was no sectarian violence in Iraq before 2003? That’s not what Wikipedia says. I am aware of limitations on the reliability of Wikipedia as a source, but then, I’m also aware of limitations on the reliability of your unsupported word as a source.

  8. @Sheila Newman

    Like at least one other commenter here, I don’t accept it as established fact that the Allies could have prevented the Germans from seizing control of Italy in 1943. However, if, hypothetically, they could have done so and failed to do so, clearly that would have been a strategic mistake, probably one on a disastrous scale. Why would one not call that hypothetical scenario a strategic mistake?

    I also don’t accept it as established fact that it was within the power of the Allies to halt the operation of the extermination camps by aerial bombardment, but since you raise the subject, I deny your right to put words in my mouth for describing that hypothetical scenario.

  9. I repeat, Italy did not liberate itself, because it wasn’t at that time ruling itself. In 1943 Italy was first nominally independent under Mussolini but in reality under German control, and then nominally independent under the Italian government but in reality under German control. The Germans had to be removed by force under either scenario. The Italian campaign wasn’t done particularly well on the allied side (in particular, Bradley taking Rome instead of cutting off the German retreat was a big mistake), and Kesselring was pretty good on the German side, but that was really only a particular instance of the general principle that the German army was bloody good and allied generals were pretty ordinary.
    As for the camps, the accuracy of allied bombing simply wasn’t good enough to hit Auschwitz ovens and not Auschwitz dormitories, let alone railway lines. They could hit cities – at best, large marshalling yards – and their real strength was that they made the Germans move their AA guns from the eastern front to Berlin, but they didn’t do pinpoint.

  10. “Riverbend” (an Iraqi living in Iraq during the period in question) from her blog April 26 2007:

    I remember Baghdad before the war- one could live anywhere. We didn’t know what our neighbors were- we didn’t care. No one asked about religion or sect. No one bothered with what was considered a trivial topic: are you Sunni or Shia? You only asked something like that if you were uncouth and backward. Our lives revolve around it now. Our existence depends on hiding it or highlighting it- depending on the group of masked men who stop you or raid your home in the middle of the night.

    Erik Leaver, Research Fellow for Peace and Security at the Institute for Policy Studies, and Raed Jarrar, Iraq Program Director at Global Exchange, stated in their Aug. 10, 2006 Foreign Policy in Focus website article titled “Iraq’s Sectarian Bloodshed ‘Made in the USA'”:

    Iraqi Shia and Sunnis have lived in harmony for centuries. Historically, the two sects lived in the same areas, intermarried, worked together and didn’t fight over religious beliefs. During the decade of U.S.-imposed sanctions, Iraq’s generally secular society became far more religious. This transformation even affected the secular Baathist regime, which gave Islam a bigger role in schools and other aspects of everyday life. Still, there were no social conflicts based on religious differences in the country.

    When the United States ousted Saddam Hussein in April 2003, crime spiked and full-scale looting erupted. But there were still no signs of sectarian clashes. That quickly changed, however, as the U.S. administration assumed control over Iraq, led by Paul Bremer.

    The statements along the line “they’ve been killing each other continuously for centuries” come mostly from “pro-US war” spin (e.g. Bush, Kissinger, Chalabi and selected presstitutes).

  11. the germans abandoned rome, declared it an “open city”, and left it undefended.

    bradley took rome because italian communist partisans would certainly have taken it if he hadn’t.

    as they advanced towards germany, american, british & french commanders had a very real fear of red uprisings in friendly cities they had yet to liberate. -a.v.

  12. “Information Clearing House” currently has this as one of their headline quotes:

    “Man has no right to kill his brother. It is no excuse that he does so in uniform: he only adds the infamy of servitude to the crime of murder” – Percy Bysshe Shelley


  13. Bradley took Rome because he wanted to be famous. It’s hard to link Communist guerillas to, for his example, his bitter and sincere complaint that Eisenhower had deliberately arranged D-Day on 6 June to steal his thunder.

  14. @alfred venison

    don’t know where you get that, Tim Macknay.

    the argument that they fight each other now because they have fought each other for millennia is racist & ahistorical – it fails as an explanation of the present because it cannot account for periods in the past when in different circumstances they have not fought each other. -a.v.

    Yes, I certainly agree that the argument you describe is nonsensical – it’s true only in the trivial sense that if you take a millenia-long view, ‘everyone’ has been fighting ‘everyone’. It sheds absolutely no light on the causes of the present turmoil.

    I only meant that the relative stability of the Ottoman period provides scant solace for anyone looking for a solution to today’s conflict, since that stability was founded upon imperial rule, rather than any kind of popular sovereignty or social contract.

  15. are you saying the italian communist partisans would not have taken rome if the americans had pursued the german army instead?

    it is well known that american, british and french political & military leaders were concerned communist partisans would seize cities in italy & france before they could be “officially” liberated. you do know, don’t you, that the french communist party was very highly regarded by the population for its work in the resistance? as well regarded as de gaulle’s gov’t in exile?

    it is also well known that stalin was asking awkward questions at the same time about why he wasn’t involved in settling the question of axis italy like he was involved in settling the question of axis germany. how do you think rome falling to italian communist partisans would have played out in those circumstances? in light of these facts taking rome instead of pursuing the german army was a no-brainer. there is no need to resort to bradley’s ego to explain it, unless you think any other american general would have left rome to the communist partisans and all that entailed in order to pursue the german army. -a.v.

  16. i get it Tim, i just needed to be absolutely clear. they may not have elected the ottomans but there was a social contract between muslims and their rulers. -a.v.

  17. @alfred venison

    The ‘social contract’ between the Ottoman rulers and their subjects was this: if the subjects did nothing to upset their rulers, their rulers would not have them killed.

  18. its textbook history, J-D pure & simple. and its clear you know squat about muslim societies & how they were organised in pre-modern times. -a.v.

  19. @J-D: what’s your background in middle-eastern history, that you can make these statements?

    I mean, I don’t know very much at all about ottoman social policy, but it’s fairly common knowledge that the ottoman rulers saw much of their legitimacy deriving from their claim to the title of “caliph”, putting them as number-one person in charge of seeing the laws of god carried out, and that sharia law sets up a fairly significant social-policy framework, with a significant social-welfare system and even some protections for minorities.

    Presumably you wouldn’t be making the claim that the ottomans regarded their authority as absolute if you didn’t think it true. But with what I know, with what I think most people know, it seems pretty implausible. And the question I want you to think about is, is this difference of conclusion because you know things I don’t know, or because I know things you don’t?

  20. @alfred venison

    they may not have elected the ottomans but there was a social contract between muslims and their rulers.

    Fair enough – I won’t quibble with that. Not the ideal choice of words on my part, perhaps. My gist was that the Ottoman order was externally imposed. But I don’t think we’re actually disagreeing.

  21. @Collin Street

    Did the Ottoman Sultans acquire the title of Caliph by agreement with their subjects? or did they seize it by force?

    Were there instances where the role of the Ottoman Sultans as Caliphs was used by their subjects to constrain their actions? or was it only used as official propaganda intended to enhance official authority?

  22. I don’t know, J-D. You’re the one who’s claiming to have all that knowledge.

  23. @J-D

    That’s not what Wikipedia says

    What does Wikipedia say about it, in your view?

    When I searched it for “sectarian violence” under “Iraq” the earliest reference was to 2006.

    Given that you usually just throw around questions but seldom state any position, it is reasonable – in the absence of evidence to the contrary – to conclude that you have an unspecified and unstated contrarian agenda.

    In my view you are a troll – with pretentions to sophistication, but a troll nonetheless.

    But snide asides aside, what was the Wikipedia reference you were thinking of to suggest that there was sectarian violence in Iraq before 2003?

  24. I just wonder whether it started with 28th June 1914. The assassination was apparently happenstance albeit a significant tipping point. Historical understanding might be informed by system science? Equally, we are witnessing contemporary political leaders who are blind to to implications of climate science.

  25. @Collin Street

    The subject of the role of the Ottoman Sultans as Caliphs was introduced into this discussion by you, not by me. I assumed that you did so on the basis of some knowledge that made the subject relevant to the foregoing discussion. Should I not have done so? If you do have some knowledge that makes you think that the subject of the role of the Ottoman Sultans as Caliphs is relevant to this discussion, what was it? but if you don’t, why did you bring the subject up?

    If you have no further knowledge of the subject, does that mean you’d hypothetically be prepared to entertain the possibility that the title of Caliph was seized by the Ottoman Sultans by force, and that it was used by the Sultanate as a propaganda tool to enhance official authority but never by their subjects to constrain government action. In that hypothetical scenario, would you say that the role of the Ottoman Sultans as Caliphs was evidence of a social contract between them and their subjects?

    More generally, it’s my understanding, from my reading of history, that the Ottoman Sultanate was a military despotism. Do you have a different understanding? Do you consider that it’s meaningful to talk about a ‘social contract’ in a military despotism?

  26. @Megan

    Since you ask, in Wikipedia I find this —

    In March 1991 revolts in the Shia-dominated southern Iraq started involving demoralized Iraqi Army troops and the anti-government Shia parties. Another wave of insurgency broke out shortly afterwards in the Kurdish populated northern Iraq (see 1991 uprisings in Iraq). Although they presented a serious threat to the Iraqi Ba’ath Party regime, Saddam Hussein managed to suppress the rebellions with massive and indiscriminate force and maintained power. They were ruthlessly crushed by the loyalist forces spearheaded by the Iraqi Republican Guard and the population was successfully terrorized. During the few weeks of unrest tens of thousands of people were killed. Many more died during the following months, while nearly two million Iraqis fled for their lives.

    — and this —

    Throughout the 1970s Shia became increasingly disaffected. al-Dawa (“the Call”), a political party dedicated to the establishment of an Islamic state in Iraq, was formed.

    Religious processions during Muharram in the shrine cities turned into political protests. After rioting in 1974 five members of the Daw’a party were executed after rioting in 1974 and in 1977 eight Shia were executed after worse rioting.

    The Islamic Revolution in Iran intensified unrest and repression. In June 1979 Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr was arrested and placed under house arrest. Less than a year later, after an attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein, Sadr was executed. In 1982 the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq was formed in Iran by Iraqi cleric Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim as an umbrella group to overthrow the Sunnni-dominated Arab nationalist regime in Iraq. In Iran, Hakim attempted to unite and co-ordinate the activities of the Dawa party and other major religious Shi’i groupings (the Paykar group (a guerilla organization similar to the Iranian Mujahidin) and the Jama’at al ‘Ulama (groupings of pro-Khomeini ulema).

  27. @wmmbb

    If you think of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as analogous to a spark and the First World War as analogous to the fire (or explosion) ignited by that spark, then you could continue that analogy by saying that it was the spark that caused the fire, but that a spark can’t start a fire where there’s no fuel, and also that the fuel for the fire of the First World War might just as easily have been ignited by another spark if (hypothetically) nobody had conspired to assassinate Franz Ferdinand.

  28. @J-D

    Very interesting. And you seem to have grasped the “pre 2003” concept quite well.

    The quoted parts refer to political violence and repression.

    But where is your Wikipedia source that there was “sectarian violence in Iraq” pre-US invasion in 2003?

  29. J-D (@ #8, 1 Jul 2014) wrote:

    I don’t accept it as established fact that the Allies could have prevented the Germans from seizing control of Italy in 1943.

    Nor is it an “established fact” that the British and Americans, with total air and naval supremacy could not have prevented Germany’s conquest of Italy in July 1943.

    What is an established fact is that they didn’t even try.

    Nor did the commanders of the Italian Army serving the new supposedly anti-fascist government. The one Italian general who did try to prevent the German invasion was tried and executed as a war criminal by the British in 1946. Whilst few Italians, who had killed Ethiopians in 1936 with poison gas were, in any way, held to account for their crimes, this general was tried and executed. His “war crime” was that three British soldiers were killed attempting to escape from prisoner-of-war camps under his command. (The name of the Italian General escapes me, but I watched a documentary on ABC TV about it, possibly around 2006).

    It is also an established fact that the Americans and British conquered the rest of the Italian Peninsula in the most inept and unimaginative way possible over the next 21 months. Instead of using their naval and air supremacy imaginatively (with the arguable exception of the ineptly managed seaborne landing at Anzio in January 1944), they fought bloody battles of attrition all the way up the peninsula at a cost of over 300,000 allied dead and wounded in a addition to 159,000 Italian civilians dead.

    I have already shown that in 1944, after the British landed in Greece, they disarmed resistance fighters whilst secretly re-arming those who had collaborated with the Nazi invaders. The British subsequently unleashed these former Nazi collaborators onto their fellow countrymen in a bloody civil war. In the meantime, partisans who could have blocked the retreat of Germans along roads beneath mountains they controlled, were prevented from doing so.

    Similar events occurred in Vietnam and Korea. In Korea, the Americans rearmed Koreans who had collaborated the Japanese, whilst brutally repressing those who had fought against the Japanese.

    In Vietnam, the British started shooting Viet Minh who had resisted the Japanese, before they handed Vietnam handed back to its former colonial rulers, the French.

    Given all the above crimes of the British and American military commanders in the Second World War and in subsequent years, why shouldn’t we presume that they also allowed the Germans to reconquer Italy in July 1943, with all its terrible consequences, for the worst possible motives?

  30. My comment above (@ #32) has also been posted to my own web-site, candobetter_dot_net. Links to sources which confirm the claims made above and minor grammatical and factual errors have been corrected. Links to pages which show how, in 1944, the British armed Greeks who had collaborated with the Nazis (which I thought I had posted here), have been included. The section which explains how General Gracey ordered his soldiers to turn their guns on the Vietnamese and re-armed captured Japanese soldiers, and also turned them on the Vietnamese in August 1945, has been expanded.

  31. don’t know about korea, but the viet minh were communists. the greeks the british disarmed were communists. the most motivated & competent resistance in italy were communists. do you see a pattern? -a.v.

  32. J-D thanks for the rare response to one of my comments. I don’t think the assassination was a spark, and did not say it was. I said it was a tipping point. I was merely noting it was an event much like those that may arise skiing down a slope without ski poles. This account does not suggest the driver took a wrong turn, having then to reverse.

    I suggest that the symbolic significance was the the Archduke and Sophia (a link to wisdom) were been driven in one of the new-fangled motor cars, with petrol engines introducing in their wake developments including fighter planes, the politics of petroleum, and much else. Presumably, the assassination may have been avoided. Could the First World War also have been averted?

  33. well, remember (1) the caveat about not believing everything you read, and (2) corroboration. the account at “eyewitness to history dot com” is wrong. it is the only account i’ve ever read that says they were killed while the car was moving forward. it seems that, if the authors actually read any of the sources they cite, they forgot what was said in them when they came to write their piece. there is no room for “interpretation” of the facts here, there were hundreds of witnesses, drivers, guys on the running boards, and a police investigation that led to men being jailed & executed. in the case of an event like this an author reporting it either gets it right or gets it wrong: “eyewitness to history dot com” got it wrong. -a.v.

  34. What is the most reliable and detailed account then a.v.? A good account should exist somewhere. provides some detail. The driver, was following the leading cars who were following the earlier plan to visit the National Museum. He was told to stop and go back. Apparently, the car had no reverse gear. It stopped and had to be pushed back. Gavrilo Princip was five feet away when he fired his gun. Nobody told the drivers of the change of plan. That seems an odd oversight, given one of the Black Hand group had thrown a stick of dynamite on the way to the Town Hall. The details of the planned route had been published in the newspapers. Furthermore, advice had been given to Ferdinand not go to Sarajevo.

  35. hi wmmbb – for one the thing don’t reply on only one source. that’s what i mean by corroborate, for example if one source says they were moving and other sources say they weren’t moving . there are events in history the details of which are opaque, controversial & unsettled, but this is not one of them. -a.v.

  36. I agree. The assassination is an event and a story that should be fully and accurately told. I have not seen any suggestion of a conspiracy. However the consequences were extraordinary.

    On the assumption the Second World War was a development from the First, many of us would not have born. Equally, many who were born would have lived with living descendants.

  37. wmmbb (@ #38)

    A good account of the assassinations of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie (nee Chotek(?)) and the geopolitics of the Balkans and Austria-Hungary of the time. The failures of the Austro-Hungarian security service appear suspicious in the circumstances described by Richard Preston. That much incompetence and poor judgment seems implausible.

    Nearly 60 years later, on 22 November 1963, somewhat similar changes to a planned motorcade caused the death of another political leader. This caused another war, which would have otherwise ended in 1964, to escalate into the bloody conflagration in which somewhere between 1.1 million and 3.9 million died (according to Wikipedia) across the whole of Indochina.

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