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.
On the eve of the Great War, barely more than half the citizens of France spoke the French language or considered themselves ethnically French, as historian Eugen Weber famously illustrated; it was the war itself that replaced France’s regional languages and identities with a national one.
And France was one of the more unified nations. In 1914, less than half the population of Romanov Russia was ethnic Russian. In post-unification Italy, only 2.5 per cent of citizens spoke Italian on a daily basis.
Multiculturalism was the prewar norm: For every 100 soldiers in the Hapsburg army in 1914, historian David Reynolds observes, “there were on average 25 Germans, 18 Magyars, 13 Czechs, 11 Serbs and Croats, 9 Poles, 9 Ruthenes, 6 Romanians, 4 Slovaks, 2 Slovenes and 2 Italians. … Many units operated with two languages, some as many as five.”
It wasn’t the war that changed all that, but the peace. In the postwar wreckage of Europe’s empires and economies, the Treaty of Versailles attempted to create a new peace by granting independent statehood to virtually anyone who sought it and asked loudly or forcefully enough. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the man most responsible for shaping the postwar world, famously declared, in early 1918, that “all well-defined national aspirations shall be accorded the utmost satisfaction.” He took the phrase “self-determination” – a Bolshevik idea popular with Lenin – and gave it a much wider meaning.
This was not at all an inevitable development – in fact, both countries best poised to determine the peace, the United States and Britain, were opposed to (and sometimes threatened by) ethnic and linguistic nationalism. But, as historian Eric Hobsbawm once observed, the postwar explosion of new countries “was the result of two unintended developments: the collapse of the great multinational empires of Europe, and the Russian Revolution – which made it desirable for the Allies to play the Wilsonian card against the Bolshevik card.” Ethnic nationalism was ugly, but it trumped communist internationalism.
These new postwar nations were of a very different flavour from those created in the nationalist fervour of the 19th century. “Whereas Italy and Germany had been created through the unification of various local polities with similar language and culture,” David Reynolds writes in his superb history, The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century, these nations were created “through secession from dynastic empires that had hitherto controlled a volatile mix of ethnic groups in various stages of national self-consciousness and political mobilization.”
Even before the war was over, more cautious people warned that this thrust to create ethno-states was a ticking bomb. Wilson’s secretary of state, Robert Lansing, expressed alarm: “When the President talks of ‘self-determination,’ what unit has he in mind? Does he mean a race, a territorial area, or a community?” The phrase, in Lansing’s view, was “simply loaded with dynamite,” and would “raise hopes which can never be realized” and “cost thousands of lives.” He was certainly correct.
These newborn nations were destined for further violence: None was actually uni-ethnic or uni-linguistic, despite their claims; most contained competing nationalities and faiths seeking self-determination. Some, such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Iraq, were purely artificial hodgepodges of groups that had ancient rivalries. Arab states such as Jordan and Syria were essentially gifts to tribal families that had favoured the old empire. The Israel-Palestine conflict was the most inevitable conflict arising from the borders of this post-1914 world, but there have been hundreds of others – including, most recently, ISIL’s Sunni-imperial challenge to the Sykes-Picot line.
“Although nationalist frenzy was more consequence than cause of the Great War,” Mr. Reynolds writes, “the war-makers had let the genie out of the bottle and the peace-makers could not put it back.”
The new nationalism
That nationalist frenzy was not merely the product of top-down peace treaties and diplomatic deals, though. What Wilson and his allies unleashed was a new form of thinking, and a new form of politics and violence, that had filled the air in 1914.
It is important to distinguish these nationalist movements from the liberal states that were created in their name. They were different things, with different consequences.
The term “nationalism” was not coined until the final decades of the 19th century; prior to that, the notion that people should form an independent political entity strictly on the basis of their language or ethnicity was confined to a few radical philosophers, especially in Germany. Unleashed, it spread like a disease.
The decade before 1914 was pocked with scores of assassinations, bombings, kidnappings and violent riots on every continent as the new nationalism took hold. Princip’s bullets were the first acts of nationalist violence of the war, but the first to succeed in creating a new country was Ireland’s, which erupted in the middle of the war, overwhelmed Britain with exceedingly bloody conflict, and created the first of dozens of new nations to be born as a result of the war.
The new nationalism, unlike the new nations, did not pretend to be orderly or rational. Whether applied by Serbians, Arabs, Basques, Jews or Sunni Muslims, it was a self-sacrificing, totalizing ideology that placed the imaginary nation above all else. Today’s ISIL fighters would recognize, in every detail, the beliefs and motives of Princip, and the nature of the Serbian ultra-nationalist organization to which he belonged. Historian Christopher Clark, in his new work The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, makes this vividly clear:
“What must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914,” he writes, “is its raw modernity. It began with a squad of suicide bombers and a cavalcade of automobiles.
“Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organization with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge; but this organization was extraterritorial, without a clear geographical or political location; it was scattered in cells across political borders, it was unaccountable, its links to any sovereign government were oblique, hidden and certainly very difficult to discern from outside the organization.”
Princip and his co-collaborators were far from being rogue extremists: They were selected by organizations that received funding and support from within the Serbian state. But they were a type of nationalist we would recognize today: harsh ascetics, they rejected alcohol and sexual relations with women, “they read nationalist poetry and irredentist newspapers and pamphlets … sacrifice was a central preoccupation, almost an obsession,” Mr. Clark writes.
Indeed, their act of June 28, 1914, was meant to be a suicide bombing. It isn’t remembered that way – because the bomb exploded beneath the wrong car and a handgun was used instead, and because Princip’s suicide capsule failed to kill him – but the language of martyrdom used by these young men would be entirely recognizable to the foreign fighters of ISIL and al-Qaeda.
This new ideology had dire consequences. The previously polyglot countries of Europe discovered the new language of uni-ethnic nationalism: supremacy, xenophobia, ethnic cleansing. In the years before 1914, anti-Semitism, previously a Christian hatred of spiritual rivals that had peaked in the pogroms of the Middle Ages and gradually faded (though certainly not vanished) after the Enlightenment, burst back onto the scene in a new form: the Jew as disloyal, unpatriotic outsider, as civilizational invader.
The war gave new licence to this ideology. In 1915, as the Ottoman Empire began to collapse, the Turks expelled and slaughtered Armenians in a mass atrocity widely considered genocidal (they would later also expel millions of ethnic Greeks). Then, starting in 1916, the Irish rose en masse against their British occupier. As the decades of war and extremism unfolded, the ethnic cleansings and expulsions became more intense: While the Great War and the Versailles Treaty did not authorize the hateful movements of the 1930s and 40s, they provided a welcoming climate for their gestation. In the years after the Second World War, the movements would spread with equal vehemence across Asia and Africa.
We are left, a century after those bullets in Sarajevo, with two lasting consequences: a set of lines in the sand, damningly difficult to erase, and a set of ideas etched into countless minds, even harder to obliterate. Ours is a much more peaceful, well-ordered world, but its last remaining threats and menaces are almost all traceable to the dark origins of 1914.