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. coincidentally, its 95 years today since the treaty of versailles was signed. -a.v.

  2. This is crazy. You cannot combine Nazism and Bolshevism in the same sentence as causing millions of deaths.

    What a hopeless muddle. Nazism worshiped deaths based on race. Bolshevism was not Stalinism.

    Have you counted the deaths caused by European empire building?

    What is your count of the deaths due to American involvement in Middle East, Afghanistan, South America, Indochina, and Indonesia?

    What is your count of the number of deaths due to religious sectarianism?

    What of the future – what is your understanding of the likely death toll from capitalism’s demand to continue sending fossil-carbon into the atmosphere?

  3. Two years ago, discussing the horrors unleashed by 1914, Professor Quiggin paid tribute to my co-religionist Benedict XV for his attempts to stop Europe’s auto-genocide. May I, for my part, offer homage to a world leader of the time (and yet another co-religionist) whom, to my knowledge, Professor Quiggin has never cited?

    I refer to Spain’s Alfonso XIII. During the Great War King Alfonso maintained at his own expense a kind of monarchical Red Cross, which did all kinds of good work in conveying letters and parcels to and from the families of military prisoners, as well as frantically attempting to intervene – not least through the agency of the Marques de Villalobar, Spain’s ambassador to Belgium – in getting Edith Cavell’s death sentence commuted. (Other campaigns by Alfonso and Villalobar at the time to spare civilians from the firing squad had greater success.)

    After World War I, the Allies made Madrid pay dearly for its 1914-18 insistence on neutral status. A contributing factor – although hardly the contributing factor – in the subsequent ineptitude of the League of Nations sprang directly from the Allies’ frequent attempts to treat Spain as if it were a conquered vassal state. Combine this with the overpowering influence of la leyenda negra, “the black legend”, on what has traditionally passed for “thinking” on Spanish issues among American leaders since the 1890s and among British leaders since 1588, and you have a brew of predictable toxicity.

    There was always more to Alfonso himself than that capacity for dreadful blunders which so often overwhelmed him from the late 1920s until and after his 1931 downfall. Many of these blunders derived explicitly from the loss in 1912 of his best Prime Minister, Jose Canalejas, who had a Stolypin-like talent for making the system work despite itself (and who, like Stolypin, constituted so severe a danger to the Moron Right and the Psycho Left alike that he had to be murdered).

    Alfonso, notwithstanding his mistaken judgements – many of them surely connected with a sex drive which almost made JFK look like a Trappist, and which had results comparable with Mussolini’s latter-day mental exhaustion – came out of the 1914-18 conflagration with enhanced foreign-policy stature. This is a phenomenon rare enough to be worth noting, today of all days.

  4. There is something appealing about the idea that people don’t get what they want through war, but in fact history provides a number of examples of people who got what they wanted through war. I might begin by listing, just for example, Alexander the Great, Qin Shi Huang, Liu Bang, Trajan, Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, Genghis Khan, Peter the Great, Frederick the Great, Bismarck, and Mao Zedong. Their wars had heavy costs in human life and human suffering, but those I named got what they wanted.

    I could with similar ease produce a list of historical figures who have launched wars that brought disaster on themselves as well as those around them. I don’t mean to say that war is often, or ever, a good idea. But it strikes me as giving less than the full picture to leave out the fact that sometimes, at least for some people, if they don’t care what price others pay, war works.

  5. Funny isn’t it, how we like to see ourselves as ‘enlightened’. But we still want to solve things with violence. As a society we don’t appear to want to grow into our better nature, just crawl back to our most base. It fits with the libertarian ideal, FYIGM.

  6. has anyone seen “ 37 days” on sbs? it a docudrama depicting the actions & reactions of state ministers & their monarchs in the period between the assassination & the start of war. part one of 3 one hour episodes, was screened last week & is at the sbs on demand site until july 4. part 2 screened last night. its worth a look, imho, though everyone’s a critic. it may be a while before it screens again & you certainly won’t have another chance to see it so close to the centenary of days it portrays. -a.v.

  7. Oh yes, I know Nurse Cavell was put to death. I never suggested that she had been reprieved. But other defendants were reprieved, and in at least 20 cases (including eight other females) Alfonso’s intervention – with or without Villalobar – made the difference.

  8. Unlike the case with the First World War, humankind had a vital stake in the outcome of the Second World War. The consequences if the Nazis had won would have been unthinkably horrific.

    Even if the Second World War could not have been avoided — and some political participants believe it could have been, notably UK Labor politician Konni Zilliacus (1894-1967) — the death toll should not have been anywhere near as great for the Western Allies. (As terrible as these losses were, they were still only a fraction of the death toll suffered by countries like the Soviet Union, Poland and China.) The Second World War, in the West could easily have ended by 1943. The overthrow of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in July 1943 and the all-too-brief liberation of the entire Italian Peninsula from the yoke of fascism is only one of a number of examples where the opportunity for a quick victory over Nazi Germany was thrown away. Evidently because the manufacturers of the Western Allies’ war materials stood to gain far more by prolonging the war than by ending it, the war was needlessly prolonged.

  9. Given Hillary Clinton’s role in launching the current war against Syria, her stated intention to start a war against Iran and her former husband’s role in starting the war against Yugoslavia as United States’ President in 1999, it seems to me that the review of Hillary Clinton’s just released autobiography, published on our web-site, will be of interest to site visitors. If the overall poor response of book reviewers to Hillary Clinton’s autobiography sinks her bid to be the Democratic Party candidate for President of the United States in 1916, then we should all be able to sleep a little more soundly for the next year or two.

    Review: Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices – the Syria chapter recently received a review copy of Hillary Clinton’s “Hard Choices,” Simon and Schuster, 2014. Curious, I opened it at the chapter on “Syria: A wicked problem.” It was interesting to have a document from the horse’s mouth, or the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Her style as a US Secretary of State dealing with foreign affairs reminded me of an old-fashioned psychiatrist’s unimaginative confirmation of problems in any patient they are sent, where, even if the patient is quite sane, she’s going to find them insane.

  10. Meanwhile, China avoids expeditionary wars and continues wars of the periphery. China seeks to incrementally increase its territory around its periphery. Tibet is an older example now. The South China Sea, its islands, its fishing grounds and its possible potential for oil now lure China into conflict with Japan, Phillippines and Viernam. One would expect that Mongolia and the eastern part of Russia are in China’s 100 year plan as territorial acquisitions.

    Will China achieve this kind of expansion? I don’t believe so. The USA’s and Russia’s containment of China should hold long enough for the Limits to Growth to strangle China. But the USA itself needs to retrench from attempting to remain a global power and return to being a “mere” hemispheric power. If it does not it will cripple itself with strategic over-reach. China understands this well and waits patiently for the USA to destroy itself.

    “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” – Napoleon.

  11. J-D (@ #13) writes that I have provided no evidence that the Second World War could have ended in 1943.

    Have you looked at the article, which I linked to, J-D?

    At (@ #9) I pointed out that the Italians liberated the whole of Italy themselves when they overthrew Mussolini in July 1943. Surely you must ask yourself why the subsequent invasion of the whole Italian peninsula by Italy’s former ally, Nazi Germany, was not prevented, with the British and American armies in Sicily and with total (as I believe I recall) air superiority over Italy all the way up to the Brenner Pass at the Austrian border through which all of Germany’s ground forces had to move by rail?

    Can’t you see that if Italy had remained liberated after July 1943, as surely must have been possible, that the war could have finished that year?

    As I showed in my linked article, the Western allies threw away other opportunities to quickly liberate large areas of occupied territory and capture or eliminate large numbers of German soldiers on the ground. Surely if they hadn’t thrown these opportunities away, the war could have ended much sooner than may 1945. ‘Lost’ opportunities to more quickly end the war also include:

    1. During the British invasion of Greece in 1944, the British, with total air superiority over the skies of Greece allowed nearly all of the occupying German armies to escape as the British turned their guns on ELAS resistance fighters and re-armed Greeks who had collaborated with the Nazis. ELAS fighters, who controlled the mountains above the roads through which the German Armies had to retreat, were prevented from attacking the retreating Germans.

    2. After the Second Battle of El Alemain from October to November 1942, Rommel’s forces were allowed to retreat, when their retreat could easily have been cut off on the ground and with aerial bombardment? (I have momentarily mislaid a book with a title somewhat like “Great Battles of the Second World War” in which this was shown. I will cite from this book when I find it.)

  12. Christopher Clark”s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is detailed account of what happened. I largely agree with John Quiggin’s comments.

    what needs to be noted in the current ‘celebrations’ of World War I by the current govt is that no consideration is given to why Australia got involved and why the horrific consequences were for the Australian community and family life. Not to mention two referendums on conscription which revealed a deeply divided nation. they seem to be operating on the basis that if we don’t mention these issues then they didn’t happen

  13. > Surely you must ask yourself why the subsequent invasion of the whole Italian peninsula by Italy’s former ally, Nazi Germany, was not prevented, with the British and American armies in Sicily and with total (as I believe I recall) air superiority over Italy all the way up to the Brenner Pass at the Austrian border through which all of Germany’s ground forces had to move by rail?

    That it’s possible to do any one of a set of things does not mean that it’s possible to to all of those things. “Opportunity cost”.

  14. @zoot

    I wish I could say I was surprised at how obscure the history of Alfonso XIII’s global charity now is. Alas, from my own memories of certain “historians” at a sandstone Australian campus during the Cold War, I am not surprised at all.

    One such “historian” took us through the history of Soviet Russia from Lenin to Brezhnev, in a series of lectures during which he politely refrained from mentioning the Holodomor even once. Had I not possessed myself a family background which acquainted me with Truman Democrats, Solidarnosc, Laurie-Short-type union leaders, etc., etc., I would have been left ignorant.

    For anyone who might wish to learn more about Alfonso, Wikipedia can (as so frequently) be helpful if used with caution. I cite three bibliographical entries from the relevant Wikipedia article:


    * Churchill, Sir Winston. Great Contemporaries. London: T. Butterworth, 1937. Contains the most famous single account of Alfonso in the English language. The author, writing shortly after the Spanish Civil War began, retained considerable fondness for the ex-sovereign.

    * Noel, Gerard. Ena: Spain’s English Queen. London: Constable, 1985. Considerably more candid than Petrie (see below) about Alfonso the private man, and about the miseries the royal family experienced because of its hemophiliac children.

    * Petrie, Sir Charles. King Alfonso XIII and His Age. London: Chapman & Hall, 1963. Written as it was during Queen Ena’s lifetime, this book necessarily omits the King’s extramarital affairs; but it remains a useful biography, not least because the author knew Alfonso quite well, interviewed him at considerable length, and relates him to the wider Spanish intellectual culture of his time.


    I hope that this assists.

  15. @Robert (not from UK)

    Sounds like revisionist history to me.

    “Following World War I, Spain entered the lengthy yet successful Rif War (1920–1926) to preserve its colonial rule over northern Morocco. Critics of the monarchy thought the war was an unforgivable loss of money and lives, and nicknamed Alfonso el Africano (“the African”).[7] In 1923, General Miguel Primo de Rivera seized power in a military coup. He ruled as a dictator with Alfonso’s support until 1930. ” – Wikpedia.

    Alfonso was a rich aristocrat in league with imperialists, oligarchs and the military dictatorship. How does some token charity work make one iota of difference to these damning facts?

  16. Go to the link on the Rif War and see the photo of “Spanish Legionaires holding the heads of Riffian fighters, 1922.” That’s a “nice” thing that attests to the real level of morality and honour of Alfonso el Africano.

  17. Australian losses on the Western Front in the 18 months from March 1916 until November 1918 were far higher than at Gallipoli in the 8 months from April until December 1914. Over 50,000, or an average of 1,562 per month, died on the Western front compared to 8,141 or 1,017 per month at Gallipoli. If we put aside the fact that no side’s cause had merit in the First World War, the plan to attack Gallipoli, even if it failed, showed vision and initiative compared to the unimaginative and bloody war of attrition subsequently fought on the Western Front.

    Almost none of the ostensibly objective and critical histories of the Gallipoli campaign discuss the campaign in its wider context – the nearby Balkans campaign, which was a resumption a the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, or the Ottoman military campaign against Armenians, which ended in attempted genocide of Armenians and the eventual rescue of some in 1920 in the newly formed Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic established by Lenin and Trotsky.

    An exception is Bruce Page, in the “The Murdoch Archipelago” (2003). He shows how Rupert Murdoch’s father, Keith Murdoch, who has been lionised for his denunciation of the Gallipoli campaign and the supposedly incompetent British generals in command, had little to say about the subsequent even more terrible carnage of Australians on the Western Front.

  18. @malthusista

    Italian peninsula by Italy’s former ally, Nazi Germany

    Of course, if Nazi Germany hadn’t been sending vast amounts of resources to Italy then they could have very well used them elsewhere. Thank heaven Hitler was a strategic failure.

  19. That’s OK, Alfred Venison, I can now understand – which previously I couldn’t – how my original sentence could have led to your interpretation of it.

    So perhaps, if Professor Quiggin is able to edit already existing comments (such editing might or might not be technically possible, I have no idea), my initial words “Other campaigns by Alfonso and Villalobar at the time to spare civilians from the firing squad had greater success” could be changed to “Nurse Cavell paid the supreme price, but other campaigns by Alfonso and Villalobar at the time to spare civilians from the firing squad had greater success.”

  20. I am surprised that nobody has talked about the biggest war that mankind personkind has declared: War against nature.

    We have decided to raise the temperature across the world by 2 to 10 degrees C (there is a great deal of uncertainty) in the next hundred years. This will lead to death and destruction on a scale not since the dinosaurs disappeared from the face of the earth with not an insignificant probability.

    The Great War killed no more than 20 million (military and civilian casualty). What happened immediately afterwards – the flu pandemic – killed 60 to 100 million. Climate change, makes another mass killing through bird flu or other lurking diseases far more likely over the next century.

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