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(l-r): Mel Myers, Margaret MacMillan, Abe Anhang

How do you begin to explain all the conflicting forces and ideas that took hold during and after the First World War and that led, directly or indirectly, to so many of the problems in the world today?

That was the task that noted historian, author, and gifted speaker Margaret MacMillan set out for herself before members of  a packed audience numbering over 700 who were in attendance at the 13th Sol & Florence Kanee Distinguished Speaker lecture on Sunday, April 15, at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue.
MacMillan, who is currently a Professor of History at the University of Toronto, is recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts on World War I and its aftermath. Her book, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (published in 2001), focuses on the Paris Peace Conference – which was pivotal in shaping the modern world as we know it today.
To give justice to MacMillan’s fascinating lecture I have taken the liberty of writing a longer-than usual piece.

Massive changes in world order begin to take place
MacMillan began her talk with the observation that “in the summer of 1918 the Germans had hopes of breaking through the Allied lines on the Western Front. They had made peace with Russia and had transferred thousands of troops to the Western Front.
“But the American entrance into the war (in 1917) stemmed the tide,” MacMillan noted, and, by November 1918, Germany accepted an armistice agreement with the Allies.
Although it was the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 that was probably one of the most important events in world history, leading among other things to: the formation of the League of Nations, the creation of “mandates” for Britain and France in the Middle East, and the terms of German reparations that were to be paid to the Allied powers, MacMillan did not focus to any great extent on that conference.
Instead, she tried to give the audience some sense of the massive, and often conflicting forces that were at play in the world around that time, including nationalism, imperialism, and revolution. Not all those forces were born out of the First World War, MacMillan explained, but they all took shape during that conflict and emerged as the dominant forces that led to the modern world as we know it today.

It was during the war years and their immediate aftermath that the world saw the dissolution of previously great empires, including the Ottoman and Russian empires. New states emerged, such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, while parts of the Russian Empire, such as Poland, regained their independence.
The question, as MacMillan put it, was: “Who was going to settle the fates of the countries” whose borders were being fashioned after the war? Were their fates going to be decided “by the people living there or outside forces?”
The answer, she said, was “both”.
Complicating an already very complicated situation was the emergence of “competing nationalisms.”
“What created the continuing series of events in the Middle East (that persist to the very day)?” MacMillan asked. The answer, she said, was “the collapse of empires”.
“How unique is what happened in the Middle East?” she asked.
“Much of what happened in the Middle East,” she suggested, “was a reflection of what was happening elsewhere – and has continued to happen, citing “the collapse of the Soviet Union” as one notable comparative example.
Further, while many may think that nationalism has been around for a very long time, MacMillan noted that it is a fairly recent phenomenon, having developed only in the 19th century.
“People used to be united by family and clans,” she explained. With the advent of nationalism, people now began to see themselves united by larger forces, such as “language and ethnicity”.
The concept of the “right to self-determination” also took hold during the turbulent war period and its aftermath, “not just in Europe and the Middle East,” MacMillan said, “but Africa as well”.
That right “was given further impetus by statements and actions of (American) President Woodrow Wilson”, who insisted that “peoples should govern themselves”.
“Britain and France were not so enthusiastic about the idea,” MacMillan noted, “but went along with Wilson”; however, “the great powers were still thinking in imperialistic terms…they were superior” in their minds, she explained, “and had a civilizing mission….They had an obligation and a right to take over other parts of the world.”

At the same time, “new revolutionary ideas were brewing in the 19th century,” MacMillan observed, which “came to fruition in the Russian Revolution” (1917).
In this new, revolutionary view of the world, “people should not be divided by nationalism, but by class…Class knows no nation.”
Thus, by 1919 you had these three “trends taking hold”: nationalism, imperialism, and revolution.
When the Allied Powers gathered in Paris in 1919 (and without any representatives from the losing sides present), they “were very concerned about Bolshevism…They wanted to build a series of strong states around Russia.”
There was also a fear that Bolshevism could spread to the Middle East, MacMillan noted. Something else that happened during the war, she explained, was “a tremendous mixing of people and ideas.” There were over a million soldiers from India who fought as part of the British forces, for instance, and after the war, they took home many of the new ideas that were now alive in the world.

Sharif aliArab nationalism begins to develop
At that point though, MacMillan turned back the clock to the pre-war period, in an attempt to explain “what was happening before 1914”.
The Ottoman Empire had been declining, but it hadn’t been a “steady decline”; instead, it was something that “happened over a long period of time,” she said.
Most of its once-powerful empire was gone by 1914, but it was still “powerful in what was to become Turkey and in all of the Middle East up to Persia” (modern-day Iran).
Prior to the war’s beginning, a group of young army officers known as the “young Turks” had taken over control of Turkey. They “modernized the army and wanted to re-establish firm control over parts of the Middle East” that had been slipping from the grasp of the Ottoman Empire.
“This didn’t suit the Great Powers,” MacMillan noted, “who had expected to carve up the Ottoman Empire.”
At the same time, Britain and France, “who had recently become friends, but were mutually suspicious” of one another, were desirous of expanding their own empires. Britain had established itself in Egypt, while France had taken over Algeria. France also “had links to what were going to become Lebanon and Syria.”
“What worried both of them was that Germany was also very interested in acquiring an empire,” MacMillan explained. “(Kaiser) Wilhelm made a great plan in developing a friendship with the Ottoman Empire.” Toward that end, Wilhelm helped build a railroad that ran from Berlin to Baghdad.
Also pressuring the Ottoman Empire, MacMillan noted, was Russia, which saw itself as the rightful heir to the second Roman Empire, based in Constantinople.
Further complicating the matter for the Ottoman Empire was the infiltration of new ideas emanating from such things as the spread of rail lines and a great many more printing presses.
Within the Ottoman Empire the first seeds of Arab nationalism were beginning to sprout, although in the early stages they were in the form of “Arabic societies, mostly promoting Arab culture,” MacMillan said.
In time though, these “societies” became more “political”, and the first notions of “Arabs ruling themselves” began to take shape.

Rise of Zionism
Parallel to these various manifestations of nationalism, MacMillan suggested, was the rise of Zionism. “Europe’s Jews began to think they could never exist peacefully in societies dominated by Christians,” she said.
While there was a glimmer of hope that a new day had arrived with the French Revolution, the fact was that, by 1914, “four-fifths of the world’s Jews lived within Russian territories”, and anti-Semitism had emerged as a tool by which the Russian government was able to control the Russian people – diverting their attention to the Jews as scapegoats.
Anti-Semitism on the rise
There were also “worrying signs in other parts of the world” that anti-Semitism was on the rise. The mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, was an overt anti-Semite (and is credited for having been a forerunner of Nazi ideology).
As MacMillan put it, “Jews were blamed for having too much money or not enough.” (Ed. note: I would have liked to ask MacMillan what she meant by saying Jews were also blamed for not having enough money. Maybe one of our readers can explain that reference for me.)
Finally, there was the Dreyfus affair, which developed in France in the 1890s,  and which reverberated for years, that added to the sense of European Jewry that they would never be safe in Europe.
While the World Zionist Movement began to consider various options for a Jewish homeland, including Uganda, the first movements of Jews to Palestine had begun. By 1914, there were 85,000 Jews in Palestine; however, the Ottoman Empire was unhappy with the immigration of Russian Jews to Palestine. “They thought Russian Jews were still Russian and therefore, the enemy,” MacMillan observed.
With the coming of World War I, so many new forces came into play that the entire dynamic of the Middle East suddenly changed. Key to an understanding of why the British and French, in particular, began to make different and often contradictory promises to various peoples, according to MacMillan, is an awareness that, until fairly late in the war, “the Allies thought they were going to lose.”
Although MacMillan is an expert on World War I, she didn’t spend much time giving a description of military events. What she did explain, however, is that the Allies and the Germans, in particular, but also the Turks, were so evenly matched that neither side could gain much of an advantage over the other.
Even though over 9 million men died in battle, the neither side had gained much of an advantage over the other - until the very end of the war. Thus, in an attempt to undermine the Ottoman Empire in order to gain some sort of advantage, the Allies began “to persuade people to rise up”, as in, for example, the case of the Arabs against the Turks.
The result was, MacMillan observed, that the British and French “made a series of promises” to various peoples “that were incompatible”.

balfour lord ukChief among those promises – and at this point MacMillan was careful to note that the language used in those promises was often vague and open to different interpretations, were assurances given by Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioners to Egypt, to Hussain bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, that the British would support him as ruler over a great swath of Arab territory, if the Arabs were to rise up in revolt against the Turks.
At the same time, in the form of the famous Balfour letter, written to Lord Rothschild, the British seemed to be making promises to the Jews for their own homeland in Palestine.
MacMillan described the great quandary surrounding that letter: “Was it a formal undertaking or was it just a letter? What did it mean? Was it a promise for a Jewish state? Why did the British do it?”
In answering her own question, MacMillan offered the following as possible reasons for the Balfour letter:
Both David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time, and Lord Arthur Balfour, who was Foreign Secretary (and who had also served as Prime Minister himself in the previous decade) “were brought up on the Bible,” as MacMillan put it. As such, they saw the return of the Jews to Zion as fulfillment of a biblical prophesy.
Secondly, “they thought that a promise (to the Jews) would be a way of keeping the French from getting it” (Palestine).
Thirdly, they thought that making a promise to the Jews might lead German Jews to lessen their support for the German war effort.
And finally, they had “an exaggerated idea of the power of American Jews” to influence their own government to commit even more strongly to the war effort.




sykes In addition to the conflicting promises made to both Arabs and Jews, the British and French had also been negotiating their own separate agreement how to carve up the Middle East once the war was over. Known as the Sykes Picot Agreement, that agreement effectively carved up the Middle East into two spheres of influence.
However, according to MacMillan, “the British promised too much to the French“ “under the terms of Sykes Picot and “immediately began to undo” the agreement once it was signed in 1916.
Thus, with a series of contradictory promises and supposed commitments made by the British and French – all of which were meant to induce one party or another to lend support to the war effort on the Allies’ side, it is no wonder that so many groups have felt such a strong sense of betrayal ever since.
The Arabs, for instance, were soon to realize that their dream of control over most of the Middle East was for naught. As MacMillan put it, there is an Arab saying that “if something starts crooked it gets more crooked.”
Further, the promise of a Jewish homeland, as described in the Balfour Declaration, “became a symbol of the betrayal Arabs feel,” MacMillan stated, “not so much because of the presence of Jews in Palestine, but because they had risen up in revolt and felt betrayed.”

United States had  little interest in the Middle East post-war
Continuing her scholarly lecture, MacMillan turned to the aftermath of World War I. She referred, once again, to the all-important Paris Peace Conference of 1919, to which “the losers were not invited”.
The main item of discussion at that conference was: “What was going to happen to Germany?”
Woodrow Wilson’s influence was strongly communicated in the results of the conference, with its many “declarations about self government,” according to MacMillan. Chief among those results was the creation of the League of Nations (which came into being in 1920).
As far as the shape of the Middle East was concerned, MacMillan noted that “the United States had very little interest in” that part of the world at that time. In fact, the United States had never even declared war on the Ottoman Empire, she explained.
Subsequently, there were other major conferences, including the San Remo Conference (1920), when “Britain and France met and carved up the Middle East for themselves.” It was at that time that the British and French were awarded “mandates” to rule over different parts of the Middle East.
“The British got Palestine (which included Transjordan) and parts of Iraq, including Mosul, while the French got Lebanon and Syria,” MacMillan said.
It was later, at the Cairo Conference of 1922 that “Winston Churchill created two new territories: Palestine proper and Transjordan (now the Kingdom of Jordan).” According to MacMillan, the “Zionists were shocked; they felt Transjordan should be part of Palestine.”
MacMillan also referred to other events that took place during those years, including the Treaty of Servres, “which never came into existence”, she noted, and “the Treaty of Lausanne, in 1923, when Turkey renounced all claims to its former territories.”
(In case you’re wondering why I took such detailed notes, it’s an old habit of mine, going back to my university years, when the question most asked of history professors was: “Is this going to be on the exam?” Nowadays, I imagine, every history student simply records every lecture – but how on earth would they know what’s really important if they don’t take notes, I wonder?)
One of the results of the maneuvering between the French and British to carve up the Middle East, MacMillan explained, was “intense resentment among Arab peoples at their betrayal at the hands of the British and French.” That resentment, in turn, led the Arabs to focus their anger on the Jews in Palestine.”
Since her talk was focused on the “First World War and the Making of the Modern Middle East”, MacMillan did not proceed to offer a detailed history of what happened in later years following the mid 1920s.
She did note, however, that the “British and French continued to make trouble for each other…and that the Zionists felt that the British were trying to limit immigration to Palestine…where many British officers were anti-Semitic”.
“The British kept trying to come up with solutions for Palestine”, including the writing of several “White Papers” that were supposed to offer some sort of solution to what was evidently an intractable problem, i.e. how to reconcile the conflicting aims of Arabs and Jews.
It was in 1937 that “the British first proposed to create a separate state in Palestine for the Jews,” MacMillan said, which laid the way for the eventual partition plan of 1947 and ultimately the creation of the State of Israel.
Looking back then at what was undoubtedly one of the most important eras in modern history, if not the most important, MacMillan’s assessment though was that “I don’t think we can trace everything in the Middle East today to what happened 100 years ago…to go on simply blaming history and the meddling of outside powers “(for all the problems in that region).
“Sooner or later,” she suggested, “any solution is going to have to come from the people living there” rather than from outsiders.
While there is only “a very dim prospect for peace” in the Middle East, MacMillan said, she did point to modern post-war Europe as an example of what can happen” when formerly bitter enemies learn to live together in peace.
Following her talk, MacMillan fielded questions. Among them was this simple question: “Why should we study history?”
MacMillan’s answer was “to help us to understand other people.” Within the context of the Middle East, it would help us ‘to understand the Arab sense of betrayal,” she suggested.
Later, in answer to another question about why the British and French would ever have wanted to get involved in such a troublesome region of the world in the first place, MacMillan observed that “greed and ambition will carry you a long way.”
She pointed out that, at the time that the British took parts of Iraq for themselves under the mandate system, they did not know there was oil around Mosul (which was not discovered until 1927).
“Our capacity for meddling is endless,” she concluded.

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