In geopolitics, a century can seem awfully short.
One hundred years ago this week, German troops crossed the border into Belgium, starting the First World War and setting the stage for the second. The paradox is that as more time passes, the great catastrophe of the early 20thcentury only seems to grow in importance. Most major wars and conflicts today are shaped by how its actors relate to the two world wars.
Take Ukraine’s civil war, where Russia and the rebels it supports use every opportunity to revive the memory of 1941. Moscow’s prolific propaganda depicts Ukrainian troops as fascists, showing its leaders alongside footage of Nazi war criminals on TV.
The rebels have clearly internalized the notion that they are protecting Eastern Ukraine’s Russian speakers from Nazi genocide. Rebel leader Igor Bezler recently said of pro-Kiev militants, “They are fascists! So why should we stand on ceremony with them? Questioning, an execution, that’s it.” In rebel-held Slovyansk, militia leader Igor Strelkov executed thieves and enemies based on martial law implemented by Stalin on June 22, 1941, as signed death sentences show.
Perhaps less obviously, the Western response to Russian aggression is also shaped by the experience of two world wars. British and American officials implicitly refer to Chamberlain’s failed appeasement policy in 1938 when arguing for a tough stance against Putin. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made that connection explicit when she compared Putin’s invasion of Crimea to Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia.
Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, on the other hand, bases his more hesitant Russia policy on the experience of World War I. As The Economist’s Berlin office likes to point out, he argues that Putin must always be offered a way out through diplomatic channels to avoid the kind of irreversible escalation of tensions that led to the outbreak of World War I. Putin himself somewhat cynically used this argument in a speech commemorating World War I last week.
In East Asia’s simmering border disputes, World War II is just as present. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to strengthen the country’s military capabilities by loosening the country’s post-war pacifist constitution. These attempts are accompanied by a campaign to teach schoolchildren a less apologetic narrative of the country’s role in World War II. China and the Korea are wary of a stronger Japanese army primarily because they were among the main victims of Japanese militarism in the 1930s and 1940s.
In Iraq and Syria, World War I serves as a reference point for the fighters of Islamic State. Their campaign to turn two separate countries into one Sunni caliphate is also an explicit attempt to redraw the borders imposed by Britain and France in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in 1918.
World War II and the Holocaust played an important role in Israel’s decision to attack Gaza. Benjamin Netanyahu’s former national security advisor Yaakov Amidror recently explained that the Israeli Prime Minister is “a guy who has a historical view of events.”
“He understands that one of the most important differences between the past and the present is the ability of Jews to defend themselves,” Amidror is quoted in The New York Times. “If he feels that Israel might endanger its ability to defend itself because of the international community, he will decide to use the capabilities of Israel even against the international community.”
There are of course many conflicts today that have little to do with the events of the early 20th century. Still, the number of disputes with a direct link to the pre-1945 years is striking and marks a major departure from past decades.
The two world wars hung heavy over the Cold War, which dominated global politics between 1945 and 1991. But following the Soviet Union’s collapse, the international order appeared to have escaped from its post-war state.
Major armed conflicts in the 1990s and 2000s—the Balkan wars, the Rwandan genocide, the Congo wars, the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Russo-Georgian war—all had little or no direct connection to the two world wars. History had entered a new phase in which 9/11 replaced Auschwitz and Stalingrad as the 21st century’s great catastrophe, or so it seemed.
Now the world wars have staged their comeback. One reason is that many of the disputes that were fought over so violently between 1914 and 1945 are still unresolved today.
In Eastern Europe, both world wars were fought over one fundamental question: was the region part of Russia’s sphere of influence or should it integrate with Central Europe? This question is still at the heart of Ukraine’s civil war today–although the choice is no longer between Nazism and Stalinism, but between liberal democracy and Putin’s proto-fascism. This similarity makes it makes it almost logical that Russian propaganda evokes the memory of World War II.
In East Asia, the unresolved Japanese question–how much regional power the country should wield–is at the heart of current border disputes. Almost eighty years ago it led Tokyo to war with its neighbors.
But while unresolved disputes play a role, a more important reason for the continued importance of the world wars is their usefulness as propaganda.
Russian state media use the memory of World War II to stir up popular support for the Kremlin’s involvement in Ukraine and mobilize fighters. China’s government is using anti-Japanese sentiment rooted in World War II to strengthen patriotism and divert attention from its own corruption. And in the U.S., foreign-policy hawks are using the disastrous 1938 appeasement to discredit virtually all efforts of diplomacy vis-à-vis Russia or Iran.
After 1945, world leaders hoped the bloodshed of two world wars would be a lesson to mankind and allow for a more peaceful future. As transnational institutions like the EU and the UN flourished, their hope seemed justified.
Today, leaders are more likely to use the memory of two world wars to encourage violence and the killings of the past become a justification for the killings of the present. As world leaders commemorate the outbreak of World War I this week, we can only hope some of them remember how much progress mankind has made in the past 70 years–and how easily it can be reversed.
This article also appeared on the World Policy Journal’s blog.