Last week, Donald Trump disgraced himself before his French hosts, US and Allied military veterans, and the entire world by remaining inside the residence of the US ambassador to France and snubbing a memorial service for US dead in World War I.
Donald Trump, who is undoubtedly the least intelligent man to ever occupy the White House, failed to understand the importance of the 100th centenary observations in France held to mark the armistice that concluded World War I. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the guns along the Western front in France fell silent. The war was entirely preventable but had been spurred on by nationalist fervor whipped up by kings, emperors, prime ministers, and foreign ministers who sent armies into battle to fight for the “honor” of their nations.
It was unbridled nationalism that led to World War I and it was nationalist feelings bent on revenge for being vanquished in World War I that ultimately led to World War II. Left unchecked, similar nationalist feelings being fanned today may lead to World War III.
The irony of World War I was that the monarchs of warring parties Britain, Russia, and Germany were all related. King George V of the United Kingdom was the first cousin of German Kaiser Wilhelm. King George and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia were also first cousins. And the Tsar and Kaiser were third cousins. Nevertheless, the nationalistic passions between Germany and its ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Habsburgs; Serbia and its protectors Russia and France; and the Ottoman Empire, allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary; and the United Kingdom, later allied with the United States led to the first modern world war.
In 1914, the ground was set for a conflagration. All that was needed to set off the tinderbox was a flame. That match was struck in 1914 when Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne, and his wife, Duchess Sophie of Hohenberg, were assassinated in Sarajevo, in Austrian-ruled Bosnia, by a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip. Austria-Hungary not only blamed Serbia and a Serb terrorist group, the Black Hand, for carrying out the assassination but also implicated the Russian military attaché's office in Belgrade, Serbia. Accusations that Serbia and Russia were behind the assassinations of the Archduke and Duchess were unfounded. Nevertheless, this “conspiracy theory” of 1914 eventually led to the direct deaths of almost 20 million people around the world. Add the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which is believed to have been spread by troops returning home from the war fronts, and the indirect war dead count climbs to an additional 100 million.
Compare the Sarajevo conspiracy theory of 1914 to several that exist today, including accusations that Russia perpetrated biological warfare attacks on individuals in England and that Russian forces shot down Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine, and we see the same irresponsible allegations about state-sponsored acts of violence that triggered World War I. In 1914, warfare led to the use of chemical and, quite possibly, biological weapons. World War II, the cause of which is nested in World War I’s aftermath, led to the use of nuclear weapons. It is unthinkable what a World War III might lead to.
Since Russia was Serbia’s patron, the Austro-Hungarians believed Serbia’s protector, Russia, and even Romania were behind the assassination plot. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Since Russia and France were pledged to defend Serbia, they declared war on Austria-Hungary, prompting Germany to honor its alliance with the Habsburgs and declare war on Serbia, Russia, and France. Eventually, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Greece, and Britain entered the war in an alliance with Russia and France. The Ottoman Empire backed the Central Powers of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Bulgaria. The United States entered the war in 1917 on the side of Britain and France.
For all the warring parties, "the other" meant their “nefarious” enemies. Extreme nationalism took an ugly turn. For the Austrians and Germans, "the other" was the "barbaric" Slavs. For the British, French, Russians, Italians, and, eventually, the Americans, "the other" was the "beastly" Germanic "Huns." For the Ottoman Turks, "the other" was the nomadic, “uncivilized,” and “cruel” Arabs. The Greeks and Serbs, “the other” was the Ottomans Muslim “hordes” ready to re-occupy the Balkans and eradicate Christianity. And, so it went, until over 18 million military and civilian personnel were killed. World War I was the result of blaming “the other” for whatever atrocity could be conjured up by the propaganda machinery of the era. It was a case of extreme nationalism running rampant. At the end of the conflict, the royal houses of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire fell, but the nationalistic blame game continued.
Aspirant peoples, with nationalism as their trumpet, rose from the battlefields of World War I to demand independence. Some of these nations, including Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Yugoslavia), were recognized at Versailles. Others, like Kurdistan, the Emirate of Darfur, the Dervish State of Somaliland, Tuareg Confederation, Zayan Confederation of the Berbers, the Emirate of Jabal Shammar (moderate rivals of the Saudis), Balochistan, and Vietnam, were not granted independence, a decision that would lead to war outbreaks later in the 20th century.
At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, statesmen, including US President Woodrow Wilson, gathered to draw new borders, grant aspirant nations their independence, and establish an international body – the League of Nations – to serve as a place for dialogue to prevent war. However, the Treaty of Versailles also, inadvertently, laid the ground for World War II. Wilson could never convince the isolationist “America Firsters” in the Republican Party to commit the United States to membership of the League of Nations. America’s absence from the League denied the organization the universality it desired. Today, President Donald Trump is ripping up treaty after treaty, withdrawing from various United Nations agencies and agreements, and sending troops to the US southern border to meet a bogus threat that Central American asylum seekers are planning an “invasion” of the United States. Trump, who fancies himself as an American “nationalist,” has seen “the other” in women and children escaping political violence and economic stagnation in countries where dictators and death squads are propped up by the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency.
Brutal reparations demanded from Germany by the victorious Allies at Versailles, as well as German disarmament, gave rise to someone who would blame “the other” for Germany’s miseries, which were accentuated by the economic depression of the 1920s.
For Adolf Hitler, a wounded veteran of the “war to end all wars,” “the other” was the “Jews,” aided and abetted by Bolsheviks and “international bankers.” Hitler blamed them all for Germany’s surrender in World War I and its subsequent economic collapse. The world failed to learn the lessons of World War I.
At a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to mark the 1918 armistice, French President Emmanuel Macron told the collected world leaders, including an uncomfortable Trump, that “patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.” Macron hosted a November 11-13 Paris Peace Forum for 84 world leaders in Paris for the World War I centenary. They included Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Theresa May, Moroccan King Mohammed VI, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The forum’s itinerary, including a keynote speech by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, touched on topics ranging from climate change and rising nationalism to abusive corporations and human rights.
In addition to skipping a ceremony at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery outside of Paris, where the remains of thousands of American soldiers who died at the Battle of Belleau Wood are buried, Trump boycotted the Paris Peace Forum.
Trump, like the doomed monarchs of early 20th century Europe, the fascist dictators who rose to power in the interbellum period, and the tyrants of today, blames “the other” for everything he can imagine.
Trump wanted nothing to do with the Paris Peace Forum. His former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is finalizing plans, along with Belgian, French, German, Austrian, Brazilian, British, white South African and Rhodesian, Hungarian, Serbian, Canadian, Australian, and fascisti Italian far-right wingers, to establish a Fascist International, called “The Movement,” in Brussels early next year. It is among these far-right wing politicians where Trump will feel most at home. One hundred years after the end of World War I, we should all have progressed to a point where we no longer pay heed to the Trumps, Bannons, and others who find always find blame in “the other.”