Saturday, May 10, 2008

World War I, or, was it really just a war between imperialist powers?

Which is the interpretation of it given by Lenin. The basis for that idea is that Germany and Austria, and the Ottoman Empire, on one side, were fighting against Britain and France, who both had colonial possessions, as well as Russia, which was an autocracy. But if you look at the consequences of World War I a different picture emerges. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, as well as states like Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Finland emerged as independent states. Previously they were either part of the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, or Imperial Russia. Austria, Hungary, and Germany also had their first experience as democracies in the wake of World War I. The idea of the right of nations to self determination was recognized by international law and an international organization, albeit a somewhat ineffective one, the League of Nations was set up for common discussion between countries. On the other side, even though the Russian Revolution overthrew the Tsarist monarchy, beyond losing territories to its west Russia still remained the 'prison house of nations' that Lenin himself labeled it, with ethnic minorities not being given the choice of whether or not to affiliate with the Soviet Union, even though this was later claimed as having happened. All of this was a fulfillment of the national aspirations of the Revolutions of 1848.

The mandate system was instituted, legitimating new colonial influence in places like the Middle East while colonialism itself was recognized by the League of Nations. Yet it seems that most of the colonies possessed by the powers who fought were preserved and not reshuffled. In particular, Germany and Austria had few overseas colonies, instead dominating the European countries that were liberated at the end of World War I. The Ottoman Empire was the only ally of Germany and Austria that lost significant territory, while Soviet Russia either retained all its territories not bordering western Europe or reconquered them after a short period of time, like in the Caucuses.

It could easily be argued that the principles of national self determination were hypocritically enforced, but that's not the same as saying that there weren't concrete goals in the wake of World War I that were fulfilled, albeit at the price of millions of lives through grim modern mechanized warfare.

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