If the past is a foreign country, then I’ve been away for a few days. After the Hastings book on WWII, I tackled Margaret McMillan’s 1919 about the Treaty of Versailles (see book list below left). Thus like Tom Ballard in the TV series “Waiting for God”, I’ve been in Paris this past week looking over the shoulders of Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau and their staffs as they worked on the treaties which “settled” the differences after WWI.
Richard Holbrooke wrote an introduction praising this book, and it is a fine read for the history addicted like me. (Holbrook spent many months in the Balkans trying to find order in that troubled land as have countless others.)
A few years ago when I worked with ancestry and ethnicity data at the Census Bureau, I and several colleagues tried to determine exactly what ethnicity was. Like race, ethnicity is a tenuous topic. This means it’s very weak. Or to put it another way, its slight, insubstantial, meager, flimsy, weak, doubtful, dubious, questionable, and suspect.
And yet sociologists say it is real because it has consequences. People go to war and kill each other because of it. And WWI was exactly that, a big brawl over ethnic issues. So the “peacemakers” who came to Paris in 1919 wanted to make the world a better place by letting people govern themselves (one of Wilson’s fourteen points). This sounded good until they got into the details.
Lloyd George and Wilson, both liberals came Paris to do good and failed miserably.
For one thing the belligerents did not accept they lost the war. The armistice signed November 11 had only been a cease-fire. WWI never ended. And the war flared again immediately afterwards in several brush fires, such as Kemal Ataturk’s independence movement.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk; 19 May 1881 (conventional) – 10 November 1938) was a Turkish army officer, reformist statesman, and the first President of Turkey. Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, he led the Turkish National Movement in the Turkish War of Independence. Having established a provisional government in Ankara, he defeated the forces sent by the Allies. His military campaigns led to victory in the Turkish War of Independence. Atatürk then embarked upon a program of political, economic, and cultural reforms, seeking to transform the former Ottoman Empire into a modern and secular nation-state. Under his leadership, thousands of new schools were built, primary education was made free and compulsory, and women were given equal civil and political rights, while the burden of taxation on peasants was reduced. His government also carried out an extensive policy of Turkification. The principles of Atatürk’s reforms, upon which modern Turkey was established, are referred to as Kemalism.
Every ‘ethnic’ group points to some atrocity in the past as the reason for their hatred. For example, many Greeks are angry because the Ottoman Turks overran the Byzantine Empire in 1453. But previously Greeks had smashed the Persians and taken the same lands. And before the Persians there were many other raiders from the steppes of Central Asia. The Middle East and the Balkans have changed hands so many times you can get a headache trying to understand it.
A few years ago, I read John Van Antwerp Fine’s two-volume history of the Balkans (The Early Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Sixth to the Late Twelfth Century and The Late Medieval Balkans from the Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest), as well as a later book he wrote with Richard Donia. Basically, the Balkans and Eastern Europe for that matter have been overrun so many times every corner holds a different ethnic group.
The truth is, various factions in these areas have been at war continuously since the beginning of the twentieth century, and while political ideologies wax and wane, ethnic rivalries stay the same. How could something so tenuous cause so much trouble?