“This war is not the end but the beginning of violence. It is the forge in which the world will be hammered into new borders and new communities. New molds want to be filled with blood, and power will be wielded with a hard fist.”
— Ernst Jünger (1918)
The dramatic events of recent weeks — President Trump’s abandonment of the Syrian Kurds to the tender mercies of the Turk; the satisfying elimination of ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — are echoes of the early 20th Century convulsion that set all of these events in apparently perpetual motion.
The new molds created by the calamitous First World War — and more directly by the conflicts that followed the November 11, 1918 Armistice — continue a century on to fill with blood.
We in the West — when we think about the First World War at all — recall that it ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. While the guns did, indeed, fall silent on the Western Front in that moment, conflict and conflagration continued in Central and Eastern Europe and in Anatolia and the Middle East until 1923. The “Pygmy Wars” as Winston Churchill pungently labeled them, were more savage than the Great War that preceded them, because in these national wars, revolutions and civil wars, civilians were targeted in a bloody preview of the horrors of the Second World War. Conservatively, some 4.5 million peop0le died in theses “peacetime” conflicts — and if you add in the Russian Civil Wars, the death toll climbs into the 12–15 million range.
The nation of Turkey was born in blood, as Mustafa Kemal rallied the broken military of the Ottoman Empire to expel Greek invaders. In so doing, the Turks ethnically cleansed the nation, destroying the ancient city of Smyrna in a welter of blood and fire. Millions of Greeks whose people had lived in Anatolia for centuries were transferred to Greece, while millions of Muslim descendants of Turkish colonists were kicked out of Greece and forced to return to a “homeland” that was not theirs.
The Kurdish peoples who dwelt across the northern tier of what had now become the states of Iraq and Syria and also in Iran sought a state of their own, but the Great Powers turned a deaf ear. Since 1918, it has been the practice of the great powers give short-shrift to the national aspirations of the Kurds — while using their hard-earned military prowess and valor when it served their purposes. The Turks, of course, view Kurdish statehood as a a national security threat.
The Middle East is where the echoes of the Great War and its bloody aftermath resound most loudly, but they continue to reverberate around the globe. The post-war conflicts demonstrate starkly how cultural and political divides can become gaping chasms, where fellow citizens of a nation are regarded as internal enemies to be repressed — or eliminated. The paramilitary Freikorps that rampaged in Germany and the Baltics after the Armistice were the hard-fisted expression of a culture that felt existentially threatened by equally hard-fisted Bolsheviks.
Proud Boy wankers and Antifa goons clashing in Portland, Oregon, are almost laughably wan and pale descendants of the Right/Left street fighters of Weimar Germany — but it is unwise to be too smug and certain of our own stability. Our world is in the midst of profound and rapid change, just as the world was spinning faster and faster in the 1920s. There are new molds being formed all around us, whether we say yay or nay — and as Ernst Junger so portentiously put it, they want to be filled with blood.
If you are interested in exploring the forge where the modern world was hammered out, I strongly recommend Robert Gerwarth’s The Vanquished: Why The First World War Failed To End, 1917–1923. As a shortcut, you can spend an hour with Gerwarth in an excellent podcast lecture on the subject for the Pritzker Military Museum.