JOOST – 100 years later

100 years laterAs with most Dutchmen, World War I for me has always been the “unknown” war, totally overshadowed by World War II, which is, correctly, seen as a landmark historic event, a defining moment for the Netherlands in the same way that 1914-1918 was for the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. In that sense, the popular perception of the Great War of 1914-1918 in Holland mirrors the Turkish one of World War II: It was an important time for others but not for us.

The reason is simple: The Netherlands remained neutral in 1914 and stayed out of the war as did Turkey in 1940.Last Monday, July 28, marked the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I On that day in 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, one month after Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the Austrian throne, had been killed in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, a young Bosnian-Serb nationalist sent on his mission by Serb conspirators with close links to the Belgrade authorities.

During the last two weeks, I finally managed to get acquainted with the fateful events of July 1914 by reading the much-acclaimed book “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914,” written by Christopher Clark. Let me explain why I think that title is a must-read for Turks who, for understandable reasons, tend to look at World War I solely through a Turkish lens.

In that reading of the conflict, the emphasis is on the impact the war had on the final days of the Ottoman Empire: the battle at Gallipoli, the gruesome ethnic and religious cleansing policies of the Young Turks, the loss of the Arab territories and the near dismemberment of the empire that led to the War of Independence.In Clark’s book, the Ottoman Empire plays only a minor role.

There are, of course, the two preceding Balkan Wars, but the book focuses almost exclusively on the gains made by Serbia and Bulgaria and not on the losses suffered by the Ottomans. The Turkish Straits, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, do feature prominently, but that is because controlling them is seen by Clark as the overarching strategic aim of the Russians.

It would explain why Russia was willing to side with the Serbs in the messy politics of the Balkans: It was considered the most effective way to prevent other big powers from taking over Istanbul before the Russians could.“The Sleepwalkers” is a great read for several reasons.

Clark’s presentation of the main players of the five great powers of the day and their ideas, doubts and hesitations is outstanding. It is impossible to disagree with his conclusion that there was much more ambiguity and lack of clarity about the goals of each of the key figures than biased and one-sided explanations have tried to suggest in the past.

One example: Although Clark does not want to enter into the blame game, it is clear after reading his book that simply accusing the Austrians and the Germans of starting the war would be a mistake. Apart from obvious miscalculations and misunderstandings on all sides, Russian aenturism and obsessive anti-German feelings among the then French authorities played a major role as well.

In an interesting article in Foreign Policy magazine, Stephen M Walt went one step further than Clark by trying to explain which lessons present political leaders should draw from the tragic experiences of World War I Unsurprisingly, Walt concludes that it’s much easier to get into a war than it is to get out of one and that, then and now, getting accurate information about how a war is going is extremely difficult.His third lesson brings us straight back to the current horrors of war and that is the tendency to demonize and dehumanize the enemy: “Today, Hamas offers up anti-Semitic and conspiratorial depictions of its Israeli oppressors, while Israelis increasingly embrace racist depictions of Palestinians () But World War I warns that treating enemies as if they are subhuman beasts only makes the conflict last longer, because politicians cannot compromise with a hated foe and many will think it is foolhardy even to try.

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SOURCE: Today’s Zaman