By Vikas Datta
JAIPUR–Nationalism got a fillip in the aftermath of World War I as several empires disintegrated and new nations were born, but an unfortunate fallout was the terrifying rise of ethnic nationalism that led to many tragedies and still destabilizes parts of the world, especially the Middle East, experts said on Friday.
Termed the war to end wars or the Great War, the First World War (1914-18) did solve some of the issues for which the conflict was fought but gave rise to new ones too such as competing ideas on the course of the world affairs, which are still playing out, said a panel of prominent historians at a session titled “The Peace to End All Peace” at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
These were whether the right of self-determination, as propounded by then US President Woodrow Wilson, should be be paramount, or whether Western powers should control the world as “their responsibility and right” given that they were powerful, advanced and civilised, said Canadian historian Margaret Macmillan.
“These are clashing principles still in play now,” said Macmillan, an Oxford University professor and author of “Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World” and “The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914”.
On the impact of the war, she said it was tumultuous and “literally a watershed” for the modern world as empires, including the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman, were destroyed and Western society shaken as long-suppressed desires for nationhood surfaced.
One of the key areas in this respect were the territories of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, on which both Britain and France were casting covetous eyes, and determined that the other should not gain.
Meanwhile, among the Arabs, there were competing choices – some remained faithful to the Ottoman Empire but wanted it to become an Arab-Turkish empire, some wanted independence and were fearful of European designs, and some heeded the call by the British to revolt, said Eugene Rogan, a professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at Oxford.
British journalist and author Anthony Sattin contended that the Middle East was the area where the ideas of empires and nation came into conflict and where British duplicity was its highest, but American historian Ronald Grigor Suny cautioned against getting into the trap of seeing nationalism bigger than what it was.
“I’m no Lenininist but I can call it a war between imperial powers, and empires stoked nationalism, which has been given an exaggerated role, but was stoked, utilised then…
“The name of the game then was nation – a very new and subversive idea, which could question the legitimacy of empires.”
“It also resulted in the philosophy that the nation and state can be synonymous, which was bad for minorities and led to genocides in the 20th century,” said Suny, director of the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Michigan and author of books on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Armenian genocide.
Macmillan also noted ethnic nationalism was a terrifying idea as against civic patriotism and that President Wilson had regretted supporting self-determination for nations when he realised how many there were.
On the current Middle East, Sattin said the appearance of Israel had been the most traumatic for the region till the arrival of the Islamic State, which was not overturning old imperial settlements but filling the power vacuum in Syria and Iraq while Suny said that one of the greatest problems left unsolved was that of the Kurds, whose right to statehood was not recognized but who are now eagerly sought as allies against the IS.
Rogan said the future of the Middle East appeared bleak as most of the revolutions that overthrew autocrats had left dangerous power vacuums utilised by groups like the IS. A little glimmer of hope was the return of Iran to global affairs after the nuclear deal.