interesting idea

November 10th, 2007

Versailles led on to Vietnam and Al Qaeda? Well, at a first glance it seems like a bit of a stretch, but looking a bit closer, the idea does seem to have a bit of merit. I guess this is one area in which I still haven’t fully liberated my mind from the eurocentric bollocks fed to me when I was a kid:

The idea that Hitler’s rise and the second world war was the cost paid for France and Britain’s desire to exact revenge on Germany after a bloody and devastating conflict is familiar. But the slow impact of post-1919 events was also felt far in Asia, where support of an expansionist and imperialist Japan (then one of the Allies) led to the invasion of China, launching a path that would take it to Pearl Harbour.

Should that not be obvious? Were the Versailles negotiations not one of the triggers that set of the May Fourth Movement? Did the cession of Shandong to Japan instead of its return to China somehow not embolden Japan’s empire builders? Is not Versailles’ influence on the Middle East not equally obvious? It was not, after all, only the German and Austro-Hungarian empires that were carved up among the victors, but the Ottoman too. And to extend this a little further, but over one gigantic leap: Modern Turkey is a direct result of World War One- Now take a quick look at the continued “controversy” over the Armenian genocide and the effect that still has on Turkey’s foreign relations and also the, ahem, Kurdish question- not just eastern Turkey, but northern Iraq- and, of course, the currently quiet Kurdish regions of Syria and Iran.

This Open Democracy article focuses far more on the Middle East than East Asia, but still, it makes for an interesting and thought-provoking read. It also seems to ignore the fact that many of the factors influencing the world wars, the events that followed (the collapse of traditional empires, the Cold War, the American Empire, nationalism in general, etc, etc, etc), although being largely rooted in Europe, can be traced back to long before the world wars or Versailles. Take nationalism as an example: I remember one of my German teachers (high school or university, I can’t remember which) telling the class that the line in the German national anthem, in the verse that is now conveniently ignored, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” actually represents a desire to unite the pre-Bismarck German states in one German nation- Germany as a coherent, unified whole over separate Bavaria, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Niedersachsen, and so on; not Germany, Global Hegemon, in other words. Thinking about it, it seems like the kind of thing my high school German teacher would’ve said- she offered no proof or references of any kind to back her up, for starters… Anyway, Versailles may well have had an inordinate impact on the development of the entire world, but it certainly did not suddenly spring out of a vacuum.

And having issued a series of what-ifs, the author drops this little drop of wisdom:

It is sometimes too easy to rewrite history with the mind focused on today, forgetting how different people and situations were at the time.

Uh, yes, and there was a huge, long, complicated historical process that lead to Versailles, and from there on to now.

But I really can’t stand the last paragraph:

It is all too easy to forget that it is the west – prominently Europe, where both world wars of the 20th century started – which in several ways is largely responsible for implanting and nurturing those roots. It is an uncomfortable thought for the armistice-day commemorations of 2007, eighty-nine years after the first war ended, sixty-two after the second. The period of both, it might be noted, was less than the “war on terror”, which is very far from finished.

The thing is, that paragraph is absolutely, 100% correct, and yet there’s something wrong here… I can’t quite put my finger on it exactly, but: It’s almost as if the author absolves every country outside Europe of responsibility. I mean, what makes modern China is the entire historical process that began way before the Xia Dynasty, and yes, that historical process collided with Europe’s own historical process rather spectacularly in the period from 1840 up to about now, but we must remember that

  1. China has been absorbing and adapting outside influences since way before the Xia Dynasty, just as the rest of the world has been absorbing and adapting Chinese influences over the same period as each region came into contact with China; and
  2. The same principle is true of the rest of the world.

Sure, Versailles had a huge and perhaps disproportionate effect on the Middle East, but many of the historical processes that led to the modern Middle East (the Sunni-Shi’a split, for example) happened completely independently of Europe and way before anybody had ever thought a world war possible.

Alright, so this post has been interrupted by photos and dinner, so it’s getting less and less coherent. Anyway, when I first opened up that article I thought, hey, that’s pretty interesting. I think it does raise a pretty important point, and I do think we could say Versailles was a sort of nexus at which many ideas ran into each other and many historical paths crossed. We could say that Versailles had a huge effect on how the 20th century developed, and therefore on our current times, but there was so much leading into Versailles, and at least as much running peripheral to or completely outside that we can’t say it lead to Al Qaeda anymore than the American Revolution did. Yeah, think about that- that comparison was entirely deliberate.

Not that any of this matters. The article in question was merely a book review. It seems like a reasonably interesting book, but the article didn’t do much to inspire my interest. It got me thinking in ways I didn’t expect, though, which is a good thing.

But I also think I just hit one of those moments when a few random bits of knowledge and several ideas I already possessed were brought together by one apparently random phrase in one apparently random article in one of those “well no shit! Why did I not see that earlier?” moments, and that’s something I’m always grateful for.

Comments are closed.