Earlier this month, a swarm of fighters bearing the black flags of the jihadi militia known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, busy invading a large chunk of northern Iraq, decided to pause and link their cause to the First World War.
On that Tuesday, the Sunni fighters seized a bulldozer and some military vehicles and plowed a rough roadway through the earthen berm that divides Syria and Iraq. After dancing on the newly erased border and firing automatic weapons into the air, the ISIL fighters took to Twitter and YouTube to make a historic boast: By moving aside this pile of sand and earth, they said, they “are demolishing the Sykes-Picot borders. All thanks due to Allah.”
Our world, those Sunni insurgents reminded us, is still very much governed by the ideas that were blasted into global prominence with Gavrilo Princip’s pistol.
They saw themselves reversing a decision made only a few months after Princip’s bullet killed the future leader of Austria-Hungary, one of the huge empires that controlled much of the developed world in 1914. Soon after the Great War’s battles began in earnest that August, leaders of the Allied powers realized that those empires – Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian Czarist and German Hohenzollern – were likely to collapse. They set about inventing something new to replace them.
Seeing that Constantinople was on the verge of losing hold of the huge expanse of the Ottoman Empire and worried that this territory (and the petroleum beneath it) would fall into the wrong hands, the Allies dispatched two diplomats, Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France, to figure out how to divide the remains between the future victors. Two years later, their governments accepted a line those diplomats had drawn across the Middle East. In the years after the war, that line would define the borders of the newly created post-Ottoman countries: Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and, later, Israel.
You might think that, by trying to create a Sunni Muslim theocracy stretching across a wide swath of the Arab world, those ISIL fighters saw themselves as undoing one of the great consequences of the Great War: the replacement of empires with scores of newly formed and largely arbitrary nations; that they were putting an end to the postwar world.
From another perspective, though, groups such as ISIL are the true heirs to the ideas of June 28, 1914. Their beliefs, and their way of organizing those beliefs into terrifying action, are very direct copies of those that launched the Great War – and which had really not existed, to any significant extent, before Princip brought them to life.
Are we living through the long tail of 1914, or experiencing its even longer antithesis? The difference depends on how you weigh the two forces unleashed a century ago – one a new form of nation, the other a new form of nationalism.
The new nations
The modern idea of the nation – that is, a political entity claiming to represent people united by language or ethnicity – had existed only for a few decades before 1914, and at the time was regarded as something of an anomaly. Europe had been nothing more than 200-odd kingdoms and a handful of empires a century earlier; in June, 1914, it contained just three republics (Switzerland, France and Portugal). And it had only recently witnessed the birth of Germany (which is four years younger than Canada) and Italy (seven years older), both cobbled together from diverse collections of somewhat-similar kingdoms.
At the same time, 1914 Europe was teeming with nationalist movements, most of them without nations: Armenian, Georgian, Lithuanian, Jewish, Macedonian, Albanian, Ruthenian, Croatian, Basque, Catalan, Flemish, Sardinian and Irish. Few had widespread popular support: The nationalist idea was an elite one.
It was also almost entirely fictional. European states in 1914 were far more multicultural and multilingual than they are today; the idea of finding a common language, culture or ethnicity within any of them was implausible, and could be accomplished only by using extreme force.