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In the distance, the Douaumont Ossuary, where the remains of some 130,000 French and German soldiers are interred, in Verdun, France, June 2, 2014. World War I destroyed kings, kaisers, czars and sultans; it demolished empires; it introduced chemical weapons; it brought millions of women into the work force. (Tomas Munita/The New York Times) (TOMAS MUNITA/NYT)
In the distance, the Douaumont Ossuary, where the remains of some 130,000 French and German soldiers are interred, in Verdun, France, June 2, 2014. World War I destroyed kings, kaisers, czars and sultans; it demolished empires; it introduced chemical weapons; it brought millions of women into the work force. (Tomas Munita/The New York Times) (TOMAS MUNITA/NYT)

Globe editorial

Nationalism and the lessons of World War I, 100 years on Add to ...

The human genius for turning small differences into big wars was never more apparent than 100 years ago this week. The world was on the verge of a slaughter that took 17 million military and civilian lives. The causes were a suicide attack on an archduke, followed by a series of casual decisions by various leading powers to allow treaties and alliances to fall into place like the tumblers on a lock, opening the gates of hell. A century later, what have we learned?

A lot, in fact. Whether we know it or not. As the media, including this newspaper, focus their attention on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at the hands of Gavrilo Princip in 1914, and its consequences through 1918, it should be our species’ fervent wish that we acknowledge two fundamental truths to emerge from the First World War.

The first truth is that the leading powers of the day must be cautious about pulling themselves and their allies into escalating conflicts. There is an element in well-armed countries that, energized by either a thirst for blood or a naiveté about the horrors of its shedding, wants to answer every terrorist attack, act of aggression or perceived threat with military-backed ultimatums. This was Austria-Hungary’s response to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand – it now serves as a reminder that an interconnected world, as ours most definitely was in 1914, can back into Armageddon as easily as march into it. World leaders who resist calls for military action aren’t necessarily showing weakness; they may be showing resolve and wisdom.

The second indelible truth is that nationalism, a product of the age in which the war started, is the single greatest threat to peace. It was a toxic narcissism that convinced Princip and his co-conspirators that a suicide mission to kill a mustachioed future monarch would make Bosnia a better place. The subsequent cult-like worship of nationalistic identity, with its attendant hatreds, irremediable grievances and glorification of violence, continues to divide the world into ever smaller units of self-determination. What we need is the opposite: a world where different peoples respectfully unite in the name of prosperity and the mutual good.

The world today is more stable in many important ways than it was in 1914. But we are still human, and our capacity to slide into all-out war remains. The centenary of our most ill-conceived global conflict is a good moment to remind ourselves of the better path.

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