The history we forget
In our high school history classes, we are taught about the First World War through certain key points: the assassination of the Archduke of Austria and his wife, new and modern warfare, the Triple Entente, the central powers, the Treaty of Versailles and the start of the League of Nations. The focus tends to centre on the success of the Allies over Germany, largely ignoring any activity outside of Europe and the United States. While these are important aspects of the Great War, this narrow-minded approach does a disservice to us all by presenting certain facts, while glossing over others.
One aspect of the First World War that has been grossly neglected is the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Looking over my high school textbook, the event is largely described as being isolated — the natural result of joining “the wrong side.” Contrary to the mental image this creates of the Empire imploding, a series of carefully executed decisions instigated much of the tension that is still present today.
At the start of World War I, the Ottoman Empire signed a treaty with Germany, aligning itself with the Central Powers against France, Russia and Great Britain, who had all colonized much of the Ottoman Empire in the previous century. The French and British responded by sending armies into the area in an attempt to take advantage of revolts in the Arabian Peninsula and to seize control over as much area as possible. In the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, Great Britain agreed to support Arab independence if it were to revolt against the Ottoman Empire, taking advantage of the revolts in an attempt to diminish the Ottoman Empire’s military threat.
The 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, secretly drawn up between French and British diplomats with Russia’s assent, split part of the area between France and Great Britain. This agreement gave each country permission to establish direct or indirect control or administration. According to the agreement itself, this power was to be used “as they desired and as they may think fit to arrange with the Arab state or confederation of Arab states.” France obtained control over the costal strip of Syria, Lebanon and the greater part of Galilee, while Great Britain’s acquisitions included southern Mesopotamia and the territory surrounding the Acre-Haifa Bay, with rights granted to build a railway from there to Baghdad.
The details of this agreement were not revealed until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, when a copy of the agreement was found in the Russian government’s archives and was subsequently released into the public domain.
At the end of the war, the Ottoman Empire was further divided until its formal end on July 24, 1923, under the Treaty of Lausanne. Through the League of Nations in 1919, the French and British used the mandate system of colonial control, intended to lead countries to eventual independence and self-rule, to further divide the Middle East between the two. Naturally, the growing resentment towards the European presence led to revolts, including Egypt in 1919 and Iraq in 1920.
The Ottoman Empire was also made to sign the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 that granted more territory to both Great Britain and France, some of which was just a confirmation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. It also distributed further land to other members of the allied powers, including Italy and Greece. This treaty was superseded by the Treaty of Lausanne, which brought the Ottoman Empire to a formal close. European domination over the area did not end until after the Second World War, but by that time, feelings of resentment had long embedded themselves among the people and defined the modern boundaries that are present in the Middle East today.
Looking back on how these events unfolded, it is clear “the war to end all wars” was anything but. The allied powers took advantage of their victorious situation to extend their colonial control — cultivating resentment rather than peace. In order to fully understand even the present day tension in the Middle East, it is necessary to acknowledge and teach this aspect of history.
As we pin poppies to our lapels and commemorate the soldiers who fought in WWI on Nov. 11, we should also take a moment to reflect on the concept of war itself. The effects of war do not end with the final signature at the bottom of a sheet of paper. Victory for one inevitably involves the defeat of another.