At the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the cannon and guns of war went silent. This ended the First World War. It had started four years earlier, when the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian member of the Black Hand society. The men behind the assassination wanted to gain independence for the South Slav provinces from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Vienna issued an ultimatum to Belgrade and Russia sided with the Kingdom of Serbia. In the end, the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) faced off against the Triple Entente (Russia, France and Britain). The alliance was later joined by Japan and the entente by the US — bringing a hitherto unseen global dimension to war. Overall, 70 million soldiers were drafted from many corners of the globe.
The hostilities brought about monumental political change on the European continent. The German and Austro-Hungarian monarchies were replaced by republics. In Russia, the tsar was toppled by the communists. Germany had a hand in that development: They organized a secret train to transport one Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (known by posterity as Lenin) from his Swiss exile, through Germany and to the border of its eastern nemesis. The ensuing Russian Revolution did a lot to weaken the entente on the eastern front and hence to prolong the war. The First World War also brought about the end of the Ottoman Empire, which had sided with Austria-Hungary. That saw the birth of modern Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
The political upheavals that ensued destabilized Europe. The continent was exhausted from bloody warfare, hunger and disease. The influenza epidemic of 1918 was a direct consequence of the four years of warfare, which had left the population worn-out and malnourished.
To the west, the Weimar Republic was unstable and gave birth to the oppression and totalitarianism of Hitler’s Germany and with it the Second World War. To the east, in Russia, the Mensheviks were followed by the Bolsheviks. Ultimately, Joseph Stalin would create his own brand of totalitarianism and oppression in the Soviet Union.
This brings us to the question of what mankind has learned from the devastating consequences of the two world wars.
From the battlefields of the Somme, Galicia and Megiddo, to the high seas near Jutland and the trenches of Verdun, millions were killed and maimed. Between 15 and 19 million people were killed and about 23 million were wounded.
The human suffering was of epic proportions. About one-third of deaths claimed by the First World War were civilian. Sadly, this started a trend where more and more casualties in warfare tended to be civilians. With changing methods of warfare and new technologies, every subsequent armed conflict saw the percentage of civilian deaths increase. The civilian population does not have any choice whether or not to participate in armed conflict; they are merely “collateral damage.” This is incredibly harsh because they are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time with absolutely no ability to influence their fate. After the Second World War, 196 nations ratified the Geneva Convention, which regulates how to deal with both civilian and military prisoners of war. It also stipulates how to treat non-combatants and the civilian population caught in war zones. Sadly, more and more countries question the validity of the Geneva Convention, with the rise, as a result, of asymmetric warfare.
Wars have become more and more brutal for the civilian population. The two world wars should have taught the family of nations that nothing good can come from barbarism. Alas, nothing was learned. During the 1990s, war in the Balkans was a shocking episode in modern history. Horrendous genocide took place just one hour’s flight from civilized Vienna or two hours from Zurich or Paris. Europe and the world stood by and watched for a very long time.
There was also genocide alongside brutal military conflicts in Africa and many other far-flung corners of the world. The 2000s did not herald a peaceful era either. Millions died on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. It was and is again the civilian population that suffered the most. Baghdad, Kabul and Basra bear the physical and emotional scars of armed conflict. They are not safe places for their citizens to go about their daily lives.
The most heart wrenching recent examples of modern conflict are Syria and Yemen. Let us focus on Syria. Over the past seven years, about half a million people have lost their lives and a further 11 million-plus are displaced inside or outside the country. Turkey alone houses 3.5 million Syrian refugees; a further 3 million-plus fled to Lebanon or Jordan, not to speak of the hundreds of thousands who went further afield to Western Europe. The war has inflicted untold human suffering on the civilian population. Most combatants had never heard of the Geneva Convention and, had they done so, they would probably not have cared, rendering the civilian population the real victims of war.
This brings us to the question of what mankind has learned from the devastating consequences of the two world wars. Military personnel and non-state combatants alike flagrantly violate the Geneva Convention. They have zero regard for civilian populations caught in the crossfire. Worse, they use them as human shields and tools of warfare. The question remains as to what it will take for state and non-state actors to settle their conflicts without inflicting suffering on civilians, because every child and every grown-up has the right to live his or her life in dignity, unencumbered by conflict. The powerful and their weapons do not have the right to settle their conflicts on the backs of the unarmed and the powerless.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources
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