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Why 2014 looks eerily like 1914

July 30, 2014 16:49 IST

The destruction in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul after ISIS terrorists captured it. Photograph: Reuters'The parallels between 1914 and 2014 are striking. The crumbling of American and Russian hegemony, the rise of powerful terrorist groups, ferment in the Middle East and the rise of China... These closely mirror the world of 1914,' says Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

This year the world will commemorate the centenary of one of the most cataclysmic events of the last century -- the First World War which was fought from 1914 to 1918. Most historians agree that the Second World War, that was fought between 1939 to 1945, was essentially a continuation of the struggle that began in 1914.

But remember that war is not merely for indulgence in nostalgia as the world today looks increasingly like it did a century ago. Deeper analysis of the events of 1914 can offer us useful insights into coping with the multiple crises the world faces today.

In terms of sheer slaughter of soldiers, the battles of that war have few parallels. The battle of Verdun in 1916 that lasted 10 months cost 535,000 casualties to the French and 427,000 to the Germans, totalling almost a million men to become history's bloodiest single battle.

Militarily, WWI has very few lessons. The military on both sides engaged in competitive slaughter. Repeated artillery bombardments followed by futile infantry attacks were the order of the day. The First World War offers an example of how not to fight wars. But in terms of impact on world politics, it indeed was a turning point.

The war destroyed the flower of youth of an entire generation of Europe and marks the end of Europe's hegemony which began with the Industrial Revolution in the previous century.

This war also laid the foundation of the rise of the United States of America as the world's pre-eminent economic and military power. It also began the process to end European colonialism in Asia and Africa though it took almost another 50 odd years and one more war for it to take effect.

The parallels between the international situation in 1914 and 2014 are striking. The rise of multi-polarity in place of the duo-polar balance of the Cold War era, the crumbling of American and Russian hegemony, the rise of powerful terrorist groups, ferment in the Middle East and the rise of a new world power in China are some of the characteristics of the present era. These closely mirror the world of 1914.

The rise of the powerful German State challenging the Anglo-French domination of Asia and Africa is regarded as a major cause of that conflict. The Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires were crumbling and there was a scramble for the spoils. The competition for colonies and Germany's quest for lebensraum (Living Space) for its growing population brought it in conflict with the existing old colonial powers like Britain, France and Russia.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by a Serbian nationalist on June 28, 1914 at Sarajevo triggered a crisis that led eventually to war. Exactly a month later, on July 28, the Austro-Hungarian Empire invaded Serbia (an ally of Russia) and war began.

On one side were the central powers led by Germany and consisted of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Bulgaria and Turkey while the on the Allies side were Russia, France, the British Empire, Italy and Japan. The US joined in later. The war lasted till November 11, 1918. The allies suffered close to 5 million casualties while the central powers lost 3 million soldiers.

The Indian Army played a significant role with 1 million soldiers serving overseas. India lost 74,000 soldiers and their names are inscribed on the war memorial at New Delhi's India Gate.

The war shattered the peace that had more or less prevailed since the 1815 Congress of Vienna that ended the Napoleonic wars. Once Germany's initial offensive into France was halted, the war in the west was bogged down to the trenches.

First, one side, then the other, tried to break through the opponent's lines, with neither side succeeding. Rows after rows of trenches, protected by barbed wire protected the defender. Murderous machine gun and rapid rifle fire mowed down row after row of attacking infantry. War had turned into a meat grinder.

At the end of the war, the victors realised that they had suffered more than even the vanquished Germans. The rise of Adolf Hitler's Germany within a mere 20 years showed that the First World War had failed to achieve its primary aim of checking Germany's rise. The slaughter of war shattered Europe's self confidence and emboldened the populations in the colonies to question European superiority and their right to rule.

In India, demobilised soldiers were in the forefront of unrest in Punjab that led to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre which shook the moral foundations of British rule in India.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, many European leaders were left wondering how they had 'stumbled' into a war that had such devastating consequences and achieved so little. In plain terms, the First World War could well be called 'an accidental war', a war that nobody wanted.

It is this aspect that merits serious consideration in 2014 as many of the factors and situations prevailing today bear an uncanny resemblance to those fateful months a hundred years ago.

Once the anarchists Serbian nationalists triggered the Balkan crisis, the Germans faced a dilemma. With the Franco-Russian alliance in place, they faced the prospect of a two front war. The only way out of this strategic dilemma (which Hitler also faced in 1939) was to take advantage of the fact that the Russian system of mobilisation was cumbersome and time consuming.

This gave Germany sufficient time to attack in the west, neutralise France and then turn it forces around to face the Russians in the east.

Thus, once the Russians decided to stand by their Serbian allies, an attack on France was the only 'survival' strategy for the Germans. For Russia and France, checking Germany in the Balkans was necessary to contain German expansion in Eastern Europe as well as its demand for colonies in Africa.

A compromise or delay was fatal for both sides. This interlocking of rigid plans made compromise impossible and war the least unacceptable outcome. The interaction between the central powers and the allies had been reduced to a zero sum game where the loss of one side equalled the gain of the other.

The First and Second World War combined had one major impact on the world; it virtually ended the European colonial expansion in Asia and Africa. Even the European migration to the US slowed down after these events as Europe itself was emptied out of its human resources. Close to nearly 10 million soldiers died in these wars.

This led to the ending of the population explosion of Europe that had been going on since the 18th century. Europe's population doubled between 1750 to 1800 and went up four fold by 1900. This expanding population armed with modern firearms spread to the Americas, Australia and Asia.

In this process Europeans destroyed the natives of North America and overwhelmed those in South America. Thanks to the massacre of European males on such massive scale in the World Wars, Asia and Africa survived. Another consequence of the decimation of the male population of Europe was that European women, long treated as a 'commodity', came into their own post these wars. India and China owe their survival and later rise to this event more than any other reason.

Cut to the present. We have a rising power in China and the crumbling Russian and American empires. There are whackos groups galore, Sunni extremists under the new Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, the Jamat-ud Dawa in Pakistan, the Taliban waiting in the wings in Af-Pak et al.

A rising China is taking on countries to its east and west, laying claims to islands and whole states (Arunachal Pradesh in India). There are crises in Europe-Russia due to the attempts to restore the Russian Empire.

In the Middle East, the artificial States created by the colonial powers after WWI are crumbling with the subtext of the ancient Shia-Sunni conflict. It seems that like the Europeans during WWI, the Arab and Islamic world is intent on self destruction.

India, a home to one-fifth of humanity, cannot be immune to the effects of events elsewhere. The rise in oil prices being the most direct linkage. But even more worrisome is that non-State actors in Pakistan can fish in troubled waters and launch a repeat of the November 26, 2008 attack on Mumbai.

Thanks to the reckless Cold War strategies of the US and China, the world's most violent, unstable and economically bankrupt country, Pakistan, is bristling with nuclear weapons. The external situation for India is indeed grim.

It is time India steps up to lead the move towards sanity in cooperation with others who have a stake in the survival of the world. The quicker the world recognises that the days of a sole (pretentious) superpower with a leader who spouts liberal rhetoric but practises crass immorality are over, the better it will be.

If the world is to avoid a repeat of Verdun with nuclear weapons, a Cold War era-like stability has to be created in the world with competition replacing conflict and a non-zero sum model for relationship between the major powers.

The first step to avoid an 'unintended' conflagration is to have a global agreement on curbing the non-State actors worldwide. India can and should play a major role in this endeavour along with Germany, Japan and France.

Image: The destruction in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul after ISIS terrorists captured it. Photograph: Reuters

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)