Great wounds of the Great War

Later this year, the world’s media will preoccupy us with material related to the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War — the “Great War” — which was triggered, so it is said, by the assassination, in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, of the heir to the Habsburg throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie.

The Sarajevo murders (June 28 1914) were carried out by a gang of Bosnian-Serb nationalists whose ultimate aim was to unite all the “South Slavs” in a Greater Serbia, allied to Imperial Russia. Whether this act of terrorism was actually responsible for the Great War is a question historians have pondered long and hard.

In this country, there was a great deal of sympathy with Austrian demands that Serbia should rein in on anti-Austrian terrorist activities. Until August 3 1914, the majority view in the government was that Britain should keep out of the crisis that was escalating on the European mainland, where Austria had declared war on Serbia, Russia had commenced hostilities against Austria, and France (Russia’s ally) had as a consequence found itself at war with both Austria and Germany. After all, Britain had no treaty obligations to defend Russia or France. But Britain and Germany were both guarantors of Belgian neutrality. And it was Germany’s invasion of Belgium (or, more correctly, its invasion of France through Belgium) that brought the UK — and its Empire — into the conflict the following day.

How the outbreak of war should be marked in this country has already elicited strong views. At a conference that I’ve been helping to organise next June in Sarajevo, these opposing views will, I’m sure, be fiercely put and passionately contested.

The Second World War was another instalment of the First

But no one can deny that, when the Great War ended, with the armistice of November 11 1918, the international landscape had changed for ever. The royal houses of Russia, Austria and Germany were swept aside. The Ottoman Empire was dismantled. A draconian peace was imposed upon Germany that was to trigger the rise of Nazism: the Second World War was in many respects, indeed, simply a continuation of the first.

In the Middle East a Jewish “national home” had been sanctioned, sowing the seeds of conflict that are still with us, while in Europe a new map had been drawn, reflecting the triumph of nationalism over multiculturalism.
There is a great deal for Jews to ponder as we confront — or, like me, have volunteered as minor players in — the forthcoming media frenzy. In the long term, it might be argued, the Jewish people benefited from the 1914-18 conflict, because it laid the groundwork for the Balfour Declaration and for Jewish resettlement in Mandate Palestine.

But the conflict — in which Jews fought in opposing armies — also brought about the triumph of ultra-nationalistic regimes rooted in a racialised anti-Jewish prejudice. One of the principal architects of Polish independence in 1918 was Roman Dmowski, whose National Democratic party had infamously instigated an economic boycott of Jews in Poland six years previously.

During the 1920s, the post-war governments of Poland enacted draconian anti-Jewish legislation, which in some respects served as a model for similar enactments in Nazi Germany in the following decade. These decrees were, however, genuinely popular with the Polish masses.

Such measures were actually defended by influential opinion-formers in Great Britain. In the opinion (1920) of the journalist and author Beatrice Baskerville (a self-taught Polish speaker), there were just too many Jews in Poland and they wielded too much economic power.

Need we wonder, therefore, at the extent of Polish collaboration in the Nazi extermination of the Jews?
Jewish communities were simply not equipped to face such realities. Jewish delegations at the Paris peace conference in 1919 were hopelessly split between Zionists and secular nationalists, loyal to the states in which they lived. Clauses guaranteeing minority rights in the newly emerging states turned out to be worthless.

Given the horrors of 1914-18, no country was ever going to take up arms to save Jewish lives.

Last updated: 11:01am, January 10 2014