The period 2014-2018 has not exactly been a period of peace. Over the past four years, the world has witnessed the brutal war with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar, and the civil war in Ukraine (not to mention continuing conflicts in Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria, Darfur, Mexico, and many other parts of the world).
One hundred years ago, the guns of World War One fell silent. Yet the “Great Powers” would be at each others’ throats again in a little over two decades, with the start of World War Two. Today, the threat of open conflict between the USA and powerful rivals such as China seems remote (though certainly not inconceivable). Yet can we really say we’ve learned the lessons of the First World War?
One hundred years after the end of WWI, Debating Europe has launched a series of online discussions dedicated to examining the legacy of the Great War. We’ll be looking at the origins and impact of the First World War, and what lessons can be drawn one hundred years later.
What do our readers think? We had a thoughtful comment sent in from reader Helen, who felt the centenary was a missed opportunity to really learn the lessons of World War One. She had this to say:
To me, it feels like we had some solemn parades in 2014 (And we will have some more in November 2018), but apart from that [World War One] has been largely forgotten. A better way to mark the centenary would have been a period of world peace. This, obviously, our leaders have not delivered.
To get a response, we took Helen’s comment to Dan Carlin, host of the podcast Hardcore History. Carlin has previously released a series of episodes looking in-depth at the First World War (and he also hosts a podcast on contemporary American politics called Common Sense). What did he think about the way the world has commemorated the centenary of World War One?
I think it’s on an upswing, and I can’t say why interest is on an upswing. There are a bunch of different theories I have: one is the centennial – we’re still in that window, it’s one hundred years on November 11 of this year since the Armistice. So, I think I’ve actually seen an upswing in interest. If you caught me maybe ten or fifteen years ago, I would say that the amount of knowledge out there was shockingly limited considering the importance of the event. I do think that there’s been an uptick.
Now, if there’s been an uptick from shocking ignorance, I don’t know what that means in terms of where we actually are, but I do think people pay more attention to the second World War than the first; it overshadows the first to some degree. What’s a little sad about the whole thing though is that I don’t know how you understand the second World War without really delving into the first. They’re almost like Part I and Part II of a movie. I don’t understand how you can get the Empire Strikes Back if you didn’t see the original Star Wars. So, I think it’s on uptick from a very low level of interest.
For another perspective, we also put Helen’s comment to Dan Snow, presenter of numerous award-winning history programmes for the BBC, and host of the podcast Dan Snow’s History Hit. How would he respond?
I would agree with Helen, I’m afraid. I think it’s been a period of solemn commemoration, and it’s been nice to see community and school projects, but when it comes to the lessons of the First World War it’s all very well us discussing and talking about it, but the people who need to read those lessons are Vladimir Putin, Trump, the Chinese leadership. And I worry that, just as Kennedy was reading the book about the First World War during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I wish that our current leadership would not just turn up to these state occasions but would actually think about it and ingest some of the lessons of the First World War. And that is that politicians may not feel they are in control of events, they may feel that things are forced upon them. But they always have a choice. Ultimately, they always have a choice. They can always halt the slide towards confrontation.
And also a fundamental lesson which is that nationalism, and this division of the human race into made-up and imaginary political bodies is patently absurd. And whilst it’s great to celebrate where you come from, and in many ways serves a purpose – that people in Kent are happy to subsidise people living in Glasgow because they feel a shared kinship – ultimately the capacity for the nation-state to trigger extraordinary catastrophe is very profound. And it’s sad that these four years have shown a riot of American exceptionalism, Brexit, and interstate conflict.
Have we forgotten the lessons of World War One? Do you think the centenary of the First World War has been marked appropriately? Or was have the last four years been a missed opportunity? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!
IMAGE CREDITS: Public Domain / UK Government; PORTRAIT CREDITS: Dan Snow / CC IPUP York Image Galleries; Dan Carlin (used with permission)