For a war so far in the past and which was so devastatingly eclipsed by the far more destructive and atrocious World War II, why would we ever think World War I matters today?
It matters because of the Middle East.
The area of the world that often causes deep consternation for the West and is often deeply misunderstood is the Middle East. But what does World War I have to do with the Middle East? Wasn’t the deadly, suffocating trench warfare located in the once peaceful, fruitful fields of France?
Yes, much of the drama of World War I played out on the death stages of Verdun, Passchendaele and the Somme. Just as World War I is overlooked in our historical consciousness, also overlooked are some of the World War I belligerents such as the Ottoman Empire, which had maintained the peace and stability of the Middle East until it lost World War I. The fall of the Ottoman Empire is directly related to modern crises in the Middle East today.
The Ottomans rose to power in the 14th-15th centuries, capturing land, wealth and power from the dwindling Byzantine Empire (based in Constantinople, but called Istanbul in Turkish). From Istanbul, and the region of Turkey, the Ottomans dominated areas ranging from Central Europe to the Balkans to the Black Sea region, including the recently contested Crimean peninsula, the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa from Egypt westward to Algeria.
Within the vast domains of the Ottoman Empire was a veritable babble of language groups (Turkish was the official language; there were at least 35 minority languages), ethnicities and religious affiliations. The Ottoman Empire controlled one of the most diverse sets of people ever successfully governed. For all its flaws, the Ottoman Empire provided order, peace, stability, cultural continuity and imperial persistence over a bewildering diversity of peoples and persuasions.
Truly the Ottomans maintained one of the world’s great empires.
But it was not to be.
Despite the Ottoman imperial motto of “The eternal empire,” as the centuries progressed problems from within and without the empire led to decay. By the 1800s, Europeans derisively labeled the Ottoman Empire “The Sick Man of Europe.”
Seeking to preserve itself as a living, sustainable empire, the Ottomans sided with Germany in World War I. They hoped that Germany would provide them salvation from the encroachments of competing foreign powers. Of course, as history played out, the 1919 treaty of Versailles effectively labeled Germany and its allies, such as the Ottoman Empire, the losers responsible for the devastation and damage of World War I. The victors were primarily Britain and France. According to the rules of war, France and Britain divvied up the spoils of war. Those spoils included the Middle East.
The Ottoman Empire had ensured political stability and peace for centuries in the Middle East, minimizing the conflicts potentially inherent in differences of race, ethnicity, nationalism, language and religion. Now, with the death of the Ottoman Empire, the rules that had kept full-scale internal conflict from the Middle East were gone. And apparently without calculating the consequences, Britain and France, influenced in part by the European invention of nationalism, decided to impose nationalism on peoples, religions, languages and ethnicities.
Most Western countries have a sense of nationalism derived from hard-won, agentive self-determination, often attributed to a revolution (e.g., the American or the French revolutions). In contrast, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the peoples of the Middle East were not allowed self-determination or even much self-rule. They became protectorates of foreign powers. France and Britain drew new borders, effectively inventing new countries that had never existed previously: Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and by some measures Israel/Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. How many Americans would have pride in their country if some war-winning foreign power invented our borders and chose our leaders?
This rhetorical mental exercise has obvious answers.
Thus, is it any wonder that people throughout the Middle East have felt such angst and consternation about controlling their own lives for the nearly 100 years since the end of World War I?
Why, then, does World War I matter today? Because the conflicts of the present are, in part, the unresolved conflicts of the past. If we seek to resolve the conflicts of the present, we must first understand and resolve the conflicts of the past.
Taylor Halverson, Ph.D., is founder and co-chair of the BYU Creativity, Innovation, and Design Group and acting associate director of the Center for Entrepreneurship, Teaching & Learning Consultant. His views do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.