As the world marks the centenary of the end of ‘The Great War,’ on Nov. 11, 1918, it is a time to reflect on the parallels between the politics, policies, and propaganda that emerged then and now. In this piece, Monitor correspondents look at the use of “fake news” during the war and how the same issue divides and misinforms today in its modern iteration; we look at women’s rights and nationalism through the lens of then and now; we look at national identities that were shaped because of the war and how those same nations see themselves today; and we ask if Woodrow Wilson’s fight to make the “world safe for democracy” is still a guiding principle in today’s America.
-Sara Miller Llana
The long path from empire to Brexit
Today's Britain is a far cry from the globe-spanning empire that stood at the end of what Britons still call “The Great War.” But even as it struggles with Brexit now, it is both less globalized and more cosmopolitan than it was a century ago.
CAMBRIDGE, England – At midday Sunday, thousands of bells will peal across Britain to celebrate the centenary of the end of World War I. On Armistice Day in 1918, those bells rang out over a country that was near the territorial peak of its empire.
But the war sowed the seeds of the British Empire's end, historians say. And now, 100 years later, the bells are tolling over a Britain anxiously preparing to withdraw from the European Union – and arguably at its most diminished since The Great War's end.
Prime Minister Theresa May is attempting this month to finalize the terms of Britain’s exit from the union, which will take place in March, nearly three years after the country narrowly voted to leave. May has struggled to negotiate a deal that is both accepted by the EU and satisfactory to enough “Leavers” and “Remainers.” As the talks have dragged on for more than a year, many are growing more anxious about the repercussions of a “no-deal Brexit” – an exit from the EU with no formal agreement governing relations.
It may be tempting to see Brexit as the coda of the empire’s decline, the final turning inward of a force that once reached out to control a quarter of the earth’s land surface. The reality is a little more complicated, says Glen O’Hara, a professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University.
Britain today is simultaneously both more inward-looking and more outward-looking than it was a century ago, says Professor O’Hara. “It's less globalized in many ways – you're less likely to eat imported staple foods, and you're far less likely to emigrate. And in parts of the divided UK, in particular its Leave-voting ‘Deep England,’ there is a sense that some – but only some – of the British would like the world to go away. But in the country's cosmopolitan, multiracial, multilingual cities, there is a powerful sense of runaway globalization that young people, in particular, are intensely relaxed about.”
In this deeply divided country, then, to answer the question of how Britain now sees itself in relation to the rest of the world, “it depends what we mean by ‘Britain,’” he says.
Russia's new remembrance
For the entirety of the Soviet era, and more than a dozen years after, Russians viewed World War I as merely a backdrop for the far more significant Russian Revolution. But Vladimir Putin is changing the narrative.
MOSCOW – Russia entered World War I in much the same fashion as other great European powers. There was mass mobilization, huge crowds in the streets cheering for war, and talk of it all being over by Christmas. That was followed by years of grinding trench warfare that killed millions, brought mass disillusionment, and ultimately shattered the once mighty Russian Empire.
But it is the manner of Russia's leaving that war that will make Vladimir Putin something of an outlier as he joins some 70 other world leaders in Paris this weekend to mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended WWI.
Though other empires collapsed under the impact of that titanic conflict, Russia was the only member of the victorious coalition of Western allies, including Britain, France, and the US, to do so. The Bolsheviks who came to power in Russia in 1917 not only swept away the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty, they blamed it for involving Russia in the disastrous “imperialist war” and demanded an immediate end to hostilities. About eight months before the war ended in the West, the Bolsheviks made a separate peace with Germany, which freed up huge numbers of German troops to launch a last offensive against the Allies in France.
That is the short reason why Nov. 11, the day widely marked for remembrance of those who died in wars and the occasion for the commemorative meeting in Paris, is just another ordinary day in Russia. All the more so since the USSR systematically buried the memory of that war's millions of Russian victims, depicting them as cannon fodder who died in a false cause.
“For Russia, World War I was a forgotten war, one that begat civil war, followed by Soviet reconstruction,” says Oleg Makushkin, an independent Moscow historian. “Other battles, other heroes, became important for us in Soviet times.”
That has been changing as Mr. Putin's Russia seeks to weave together an inclusive narrative of Russian history that discards Soviet ideology and views Russia's radically different eras as just chapters in one continuous national story. In the new view, the millions of Russians who died in WWI are seen as patriotic soldiers fighting for their country. Dozens of monuments to the war's dead have sprung up in Russian cities, the most important inaugurated by Putin himself in Moscow's main memorial park on the centenary of WWI’s start in 2014.
Among Putin's many practical reasons for attending this weekend's peace commemoration in Paris will be the symbolic one of reclaiming Russia's mantle as a brave ally of Western powers in WWI.
“The motivating principle of today is moderate nationalism,” says Lev Lurye, a St. Petersburg historian specializing in the Russian Revolution. “All wars that Russia participated in are considered more or less fair wars.”
A pseudo-Ottoman policy in Turkey?
In the former heart of the Ottoman Empire, memories of World War I have mostly been about glories amid a losing conflict. But modern Turkey is pursuing policies that are starting to rhyme with those of the past.
AMMAN, Jordan – For Turkey, World War I marked both a death and a birth: the end of the 600-year-old Ottoman Empire and the forging of the modern Turkish state.
Today the remnants of an empire that once stretched from Budapest to Baghdad are scattered across the Middle East: The great Hijaz railway rusts from Aleppo to Medina; stone train stations, barracks, and forts are being reclaimed by the desert; Turkish words are scattered in colloquial “street” Arabic in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
Yet rather than mourning a lost empire, most Turks use the centennial of WWI to celebrate the reclaiming of their national identity and independence.
“For Turks, World War I was the beginning of their modern mythology – the breakup of the caliphate, the formation of the modern republic, and a real sense of Turkish identity,” says Can Erimtan, Turkish historian and geopolitical analyst.
While Turks commemorate victories over the British in Al Kut, Iraq, or at the Battle of Gallipoli, what resonates more is the proceeding war of Turkish independence in 1919.
With the Turkish nationalists’ victory over Allied occupied forces and the establishment of a new nation for Turks in 1923, leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk shaped a new, secular state of Turkey in his image. The Turkish parliament abolished the Islamic caliphate in 1923. The caliph himself, Abdulmejid II, was exiled.
But after a century of solidifying its new, nationalist identity, Turkey has begun to once again look outward and eastward, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looking to reclaim the mantle as leader of the Islamic world.
Mr. Erdoğan has backed political Islamists across the Arab world, strengthened ties with Qatar, aided an attempt to topple Turkey’s neighbor Syria, and marketed Turkey as a “model” for other Muslim states to follow.
“Erdoğan’s government has pursued a pseudo-Ottoman policy in an effort to become the first and foremost leader of Islam – meaning the entire Middle East – and becoming a geopolitical power center,” Mr. Erimtan says. “In some ways it has become successful – the Ottomans are again in vogue, and Turkey is on the path of becoming an Islamic country.”
From women's suffrage to #MeToo
Rosie the Riveter may have told the world “We can do it” during World War II, but it was the prior world war when women first proved their mettle to the industrialized world – catalyzing a struggle for equality that still is being waged today.
TORONTO – “I know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion.”
These are the words of British suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst in her 20th century fight for the female vote. A little over 100 years ago, she was successful in winning some British women the right to vote. Not coincidentally, that victory came just months before the end of a war in which women across nations took on revolutionary new roles in factories or on the front lines – laying bare for the world to see the hypocrisies they faced and catalyzing emancipation movements globally.
A century later women are again holding up Ms. Pankhurst’s “flag of rebellion,” this time the #MeToo movement that has touched every continent and turned into a global fight for women’s equality in the 21st century.
“The First World War really exposed some of the power structures and some of the inequalities that women faced,” says Alison Fell, a history professor at the University of Leeds who researches women's experiences in France and Britain during World War I. “If you think about what the #MeToo movement is doing, in a way it's also about exposing some of the structural inequalities and double standards.”
Then, as now, the victories had their limits. The fight for equal work and wages gained international resonance, but voting rights were earned more variably. If some British and Canadian women won the right during the war, it came later in the US – and much later in France, for example.
After the war, many women emerged as paragons, such as nurses who were able to combine bravery with traditional roles as caregivers. Others, particularly women combatants, faced stigmas upon their return.
“If women had transgressed too much, it made people uncomfortable after the war, and so it didn't seem appropriate to continue to see them as heroines,” Fell says.
Even today, in the #MeToo movement, some women are seen as “good” rebels in the fight against sexual harassment but others are seen as pushing too hard. “I think that probably what counts as an acceptable heroine to a lot of different audiences is probably the same now.”
-Sara Miller Llana
‘Is the US safe for democracy?’
World War I set the stage for a new international order founded on democratic ideals, with the United States as its foremost champion. But that model, powerfully espoused by President Woodrow Wilson, seems to be in retreat today due to the efforts of a new set of political leaders – including President Trump.
WASHINGTON – America’s entry into World War I began with one of the most important foreign policy speeches in the nation’s history. In fact, some scholars consider it the single most important such address ever made in the US.
This was President Woodrow Wilson’s April 2, 1917, speech before a joint session of Congress, requesting that lawmakers approve a declaration of war against Germany. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” Wilson famously said, reversing the inward-looking foreign policy with which he had won reelection in favor of international intervention.
Congress voted for the war and Wilson’s broad vision. Though the US backtracked after combat ended in 1918 (when the Senate failed to ratify entry into the new League of Nations), US leaders after World War II decisively embraced the United Nations and the concept of liberal internationalism outlined by Wilson earlier in the century.
Today that legacy appears in question. Ironically, the question, “Is the US safe for democracy?” might appear in a modern version of Wilson’s iconic oration.
To his critics, President Trump is a big part of this problem. He speaks more fondly of authoritarian leaders than he does of venerable democratic allies. He muses about using federal law enforcement to pursue political enemies, curtailing reporters’ First Amendment protections, ending birthright citizenship, and other things outside the normal scope of presidential powers.
Perhaps more importantly, Mr. Trump’s avowed vision of America’s role in the world is radically different than that of his Wilsonian predecessors. He sees US alliances as transactional and questions the value of NATO. He talks of pulling back from overseas and focusing defense dollars and effort on the homeland. He has said that America should not “give lessons” to other countries.
But in these cases Trump is not singular. He is reflective of trends that predate his election in 2016. In the US, political partisanship has become endemic. Voters are increasingly divided along racial and religious lines.
Politically, opponents are described not as adversaries, but enemies. Officials exercise their powers to the utmost.
As Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt warn in their recent book, “How Democracies Die,” “The guardrails of American democracy are weakening.”
The war's forgotten African legacy
When envisioning “The Great War,” many picture the grueling trench warfare in Europe, or perhaps sweeping battles in the Arabian deserts. But it was truly a "world" war, reaching sub-Saharan Africa – where the war's legacy remains unaddressed.
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Pop quiz: Where did Germany suffer its first defeat in World War I?
Serbia? No. Russia? Try again.
The answer is Togoland, a narrow tongue of land poking out into the Atlantic Ocean just east of Ghana. A tiny German colony with a big radio transmitter, it was an important early target for British troops. They conquered it the same month they entered the war, August 1914.
Although World War I, as its name suggests, sprawled across the globe, “the color of [its] memory remains essentially white,” write Jacques Enaudeau and Kathleen Bomani, creators of the World War I in Africa project. But the war's legacies are still playing out a century later in Africa as well.
Take Namibia, for example. When Germany lost World War I, it was stripped of its African colonies, including Namibia (then German South West Africa).
And when it left Africa, Germany took with it a dark history.
In the decade before the war, the Kaiser’s army had waged a self-described campaign of “absolute terrorism” on local Herero and Nama peoples, vowing to “destroy the rebellious tribes by shedding rivers of blood.” Tens of thousands were driven into Namibia’s unforgiving desert to die of thirst and starvation. Those who remained were sent to concentration camps, or shot on sight.
For nearly a century, that history remained submerged, rarely discussed outside of the Namibian communities that had lived the horror, and vastly overshadowed in Germany by the brutalities of World War II.
But in recent years, activists have forcefully demanded a reckoning. They have called for an official German recognition of genocide, reparations, and the return of the bones of Namibian genocide victims taken to Germany for “anthropological research.”
Although the German government has agreed in principle to an apology, negotiations have stalled over the exact terms. A group of Herero and Nama, meanwhile, have filed a class action law suit in New York to force the German government to pay direct reparations to descendants of those killed in the genocide.
“We want help to heal the wounds from the atrocities committed by Germany at the time,” said Michelle Müntefering, a junior minister for international cultural policies in the German Foreign Ministry, in August, as the country’s government handed over the remains of 19 Namibians to be reburied at home.
But Germany, she admitted, still has “a lot of catching up to do in coming to terms with our colonial heritage.”
-Ryan Lenora Brown
‘Fake news’ of the Great War
Though "fake news" is as old as war itself, World War I was one of the first times that it featured on the global stage, as German forces were accused of atrocities as they marched across Belgium. And while the context is much different today, the problem of "fake news" is back with a vengeance.
BRUSSELS – As the German military began its 1914 invasion of Belgium, a general wrote a proclamation, published in newspapers. While he regretted that Germany was “forced,” as a result of French perfidy, to traverse through the neutral country, he encouraged locals to look upon these soldiers as “the best of friends.” He offered “formal pledges” that Belgium would not “suffer the horrors of war,” though he concluded with the slightly menacing hope that his troops wouldn’t also be “forced” to respond to any Belgian treachery.
Allied governments legendarily launched propaganda efforts of their own in the days after the invasion, pushing out terrifying, often untrue, tales, published in newspapers, fliers, and pamphlets – the social media of the age – of bayoneted babies, mass rape of girls, and old men dubbed guerrillas after obediently turning in useless rifles, shot on the spot by heartless “barbarians.”
In his diary, one German soldier proudly recounts a Belgian woman telling him, “You are not barbarians – you’ve spared our crops.” But he grows increasingly suspicious of civilians in the face of the (mostly) untrue stories – passed along from friend to friend in the pre-Facebook era – of plain-clothed insurgents wreaking havoc on vulnerable troops. His journal, like those of his fellow soldiers, shows him alternately struggling to deny, digest, and justify horrors his countrymen did, in fact, inflict on Belgians.
The insidious legacy of propaganda – called “false news” back then – is not only that it purposefully obscures the truth, but that it can make good people confused and ultimately cynical when it comes to true tribulation, says Samantha Taylor, professor of national security strategy at the US Army War College.
Today, surveys show that half of Belgians believe some news is “totally invented to serve political or commercial ends.” NATO, for its part, considers disinformation, particularly out of Russia, to be a national security threat. “The issue for them is figuring out how you deal with someone purposely spreading lies that undermine [allied] governments,” Dr. Taylor says.
The answer is “getting the public to the point where they can make those discernments” for themselves, she says. The European Union agrees, and this year Brussels became ground zero in the effort with the European Commission’s “High Level Group on ‘Fake News’ and Online Disinformation,” which stresses teaching media literacy “as the starting point for developing critical thinking skills” – key, they say, to safeguarding democracy in the digital age.
-Anna Mulrine Grobe
Canada comes into its own
The British Empire began to grant autonomy to some of its colonies well before World War I. But for many, the war was the crucible that truly forged them into nascent nations.
OTTAWA – Modern Canada was founded with the passage of the British North America Act on July 1, 1867. But it’s really World War I that shaped a sense of Canadian nationhood, both inside and outside the country.
Canada was automatically at war in 1914 because the British Empire was at war. “Canada very much had a colonial mindset going into the war,” says Tim Cook, an historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa who co-curated the “Last 100 Days” exhibit to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the war.
The war was deeply divisive, with convictions over issues like conscription or income taxes roiling the dominion. But Canada united under its sacrifice, with 620,000 men enlisting – one of every three adult men in the country. And when the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, Canada emerged with a new sense of self, independent of its status within the British Empire. Under Prime Minister Robert Borden, Canada put its own signature on the Treaty of Versailles. It also joined the League of Nations with its own seat, a scenario that would have been unthinkable prior to the onset of the conflict.
It was the US that balked at Canada’s seat in the League, the precursor of the United Nations. But it was hard to argue that Canada didn’t deserve its own place at the table. Canada lost one tenth of the men who enlisted, a much higher percentage than the US, which only entered the war in the spring of 1917. That was two and a half years after the first Canadian Expeditionary Force sailed to Europe.
“There was a feeling in Canada that the United States had shirked its responsibility,” say Dr. Cook, author of many books on the war, his latest “The Secret History of Soldiers.”
These are some of the same sentiments Canadians express today, amid perceptions that America in 2018 is retreating from the values of multilateralism and international cooperation that emerged from the fighting of the 20th century.
And once again that means Canada finds itself punching above its weight on the global stage – and wondering how much it can continue to depend on the US for stability.
-Sara Miller Llana
The rise of nations – and nationalism
Canada's was far from the only national spirit ignited by World War I. From the ashes of the war's fallen empires sprouted a host of new nations. And the allegiances that those nations stirred persist today, posing a modern challenge to continental stability.
PARIS – Nov. 11 marks not just the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I; it is also the centenary of Poland’s national independence. For the whole of the 19th century, the country had been erased from the map, partitioned among three European empires. It was reborn in the same nationalist wave that had contributed to World War I in the first place.
That nationalist tone can still be heard. Sunday’s independence celebrations in Warsaw, like each recent anniversary, are expected to be heavily dominated by ultra-nationalist, right-wing groups.
“The lead up to the First World War saw a particular brand of nationalism that has a stark overlap with the populist nationalisms we see on the rise in Europe today,” says Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Center for Right Wing Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
Until 1914, empires were the organizing principle in much of continental Europe and its neighborhood: Between them, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, the German Empire, and the Ottoman Empire ruled territories stretching from Aden to the Arctic, from Luxembourg to Lvov. Nationalist stirrings among ethnic groups within those empires helped spark continental conflict, and all of them evaporated in the crucible of WWI.
In the empires’ place, inspired by identity politics and Woodrow Wilson’s ideal of self determination, new sovereign nations sprung into existence across eastern and central Europe. But German nationalism was denied. The continent exploded again in 1939.
As Europe recovered from World War II, its leaders sought to tame nationalist sentiment through unity, creating the European Union. That has brought economic prosperity and unprecedented peace, but it has failed to engender much sense of continental loyalty.
A recent EU poll found that only six percent of Europeans see themselves as Europeans first, and then as their own nationality. Ninety percent see themselves primarily, or only, as their own nationality.
The EU is now fraying at the edges, and under strong attack by populist nationalist politicians such as those who persuaded Britain to leave the grouping. Their pedigree goes back 100 years and further, says Dr. Rosenthal. “That kind of nationalism,” he says, “never dies.”