The First World War and the death of empires

It is now exactly a hundred years since the guns stopped firing in the First World War. I don’t propose to discuss the rights and wrongs of the war since there is little to be said on that subject that hasn’t already been said.

I do want to take about one of the most evil of all the evil results of the war.

The war destroyed four great empires – the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. I’m sure that none of those empires could have been described as perfect but they were all significantly better than what replaced them.

The destruction of the German Empire led to the chaos of the Weimar Republic and then to Hitler.

The destruction of the Russian Empire paved the way for the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917. The Russian Empire was autocratic and authoritarian certainly but it was not especially brutal. It was also an empire that was booming. Contrary to popularly held views the collapse of the Tsarist empire was by no means inevitable. In fact in 1914 there was every reason to think that it had a bright future in front of it. The war brought Lenin to power. Without the war Lenin would have lived out his days as just another failed revolutionary in exile. He would hardly have qualified even as a footnote to history.

The destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire led to some extraordinarily ill-advised territorial reorganisations which were always going to end up leading to further war.

And most of the horrors that have been visited upon the Middle East in the last century can be said to be due to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

The First World War changed everything and remarkably it changed almost everything in extraordinarily disastrous ways. It’s difficult to think of a single good thing that came out of that war.

That’s the trouble with wars. They set in motion events that are entirely unpredictable and are often the exact opposite of the result that had been hoped for. What they destroy can never be rebuilt. They kindle a fatal desire for political and social experimentation. They encourage the entirely pernicious desire to change things.

Most wars would have been better not fought. That applies particularly strongly to the First World War.

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