Sohail Anjum Malik
Britain’s prime minister Herbert Asquith, hundred years ago stood before the House of Commons to make his government’s case for hostilities against Germany – two days after war had been declared.
Several of the debates that raged in the run-up to that horrific conflict remain unresolved a century later, and one particular cause for wonderment is that more concerted efforts were not made to halt the drift towards catastrophe – with the social democratic forces that might have been expected to undertake such an initiative by and large choosing instead to leap on to the jingoistic bandwagon.
The scale and duration of the slaughter that lay ahead were obviously unclear at the time, yet who could seriously have doubted that a clash of empires at that juncture would be harsher and more complex than the periodic European wars of preceding centuries?
“We hold it to be the patriotic duty for all good citizens to oppose to the utmost the participation of this country in the greatest crime of our time,” the Manchester Guardian editorialized on the day Britain joined the war. The following day it declared “All controversy is now at an end” and called for a united front against Germany, yet reiterated its regret that the nation had failed to steer clear of “the greatest calamity that anyone living has known”, and predicted: “Some day we shall all regret it.”
The primary focus in centennial commemorations has been on honouring the dead, which is unexceptionable, but sanctimonious talk of sacrifices implies that there was some worthy cause or noble principle at stake. It’s important to remember, 100 years on, that there wasn’t.
The pacifists and conscientious objectors who did indeed sacrifice their liberty and sometimes even their lives by opposing what they saw as an unjust and unnecessary war are unlikely to receive honorable mentions at official ceremonies. Nor, at the opposite end of the spectrum, should we expect a spotlight on those who shamelessly relished the spectacle.
The latter included Winston Churchill, who confessed to a friend halfway through the conflict: “I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment, and yet – I cannot help it – I enjoy every second of it.”
One cannot help comparing his exuberance with that of the Israelis who congregate on hillsides overlooking Gaza to watch the region’s most formidable military force pounding the inmates of the world’s largest prison with high-tech weaponry. Incidentally, a cartoon in The Sydney Morning Herald depicting this frightening phenomenon of war as a spectator sport unsurprisingly provoked charges of anti-Semitism, and an abject apology from the Australian newspaper followed in due course.
Both the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration, which determined the subsequent shape – and arguably sealed the fate – of the Middle East, date back to the period of the First World War. Interestingly, though, 10 years before the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which announced London’s support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, British Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman had written a report that said: “There are people who control spacious territories teeming with manifest and hidden resources. They dominate the intersections of world routes. Their lands were the cradles of human civilizations and religions. These people have one faith, one language, one history and the same aspirations…
“If, perchance, this nation were to be unified into one state, it would then take the fate of the world into its hands and would separate Europe from the rest of the world. Taking these conditions seriously, a foreign body should be planted in the heart of this nation to prevent the convergence of its wings in such a way that it could exhaust its powers in never-ending wars. It could also serve as a springboard for the West to gain its coveted objects.” Meanwhile, another anniversary is being marked today whose political fallout continues to attract controversy. The atomic bombardment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki no doubt hastened Japan’s surrender in the Second World War, but plenty of historians have credibly argued that it could have been accomplished without demonstrating the genocidal power of those awful weapons – suggesting that the United States’ actual intention was to intimidate the Soviet Union.
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