One element of history that has been missing from of the commentary warning of the parallels between 1914 and 2014 is the nature of the British Empire, the major force behind organizing World War I in the first place. This element, fortunately, is supplied by Seumas Milne, a columnist for Britain’s Guardian, in a column posted on Jan. 8 which is, ostensibly, a response to those among the Tories who regard World War I as some sort of “Great Patriotic War” (our words, not Milne’s). Milne regards all of the assertions that World War I was some sort of noble cause in defense of international law and small nations as “preposterous nonsense” and demonstrates the truthfulness of his characterization by exposing the brutal nature of the empires that fought the war.
“[T]he bloodbath of 1914 was not a just war,” Milne writes. “It was a savage, industrial slaughter perpetrated by a gang of predatory imperial powers, locked in a deadly struggle to capture and carve up territories, markets and resources.” Milne goes on to attribute the war to the unstable alliances formed among the empires contesting for control of the Balkans and the crumbling remains of the Ottoman Empire. “The idea that Britain and its allies were defending liberal democracy, let alone international law or the rights of small nations, is simply absurd.”
The warring powers, in fact, all had their own colonial empires in which they brutally suppressed their subject populations through racist tyrannies. Some 30 million people died of famine in British-ruled India, during the decades prior to the war, because “colonial officials enforced the export of food” and “slaughtered resisters in their tens of thousands and set up concentration camps in South Africa.” Belgium, whose neutrality Britain supposedly went to war to defend, similarly killed 10 million people in the Congo through forced labor and mass murder.
None of this stopped with the end of the war in 1918, Milne points out. Britain and France divvied up the remains of the Ottoman and German empires between them, “without a thought for small nations’ rights, laying the ground for future disasters in the process.”
Milne concludes by suggesting that this anniversary of 1914 should remind us that empire, in all of its forms, leads to bloodshed and disaster. “It also contains a warning about the threat from the rise and fall of great powers. China is no imperial Germany, but the US—allied with Japan—is a declining global power in a region in which it is tightening its military grip,” Milne writes. “It’s not 1914, but the dangers are clear.”