Past wars are remembered to recruit for present and future wars. The act of mass war is such an extraordinary thing to do, and its hold on the men, and now women, is such that everything must be put to use, lest it all fall apart at the front. For decades World War I could not be called on for that, and the burden fell on World War II, a struggle against radical evil in Europe, and, for Australia, for national survival at home. Afterwards, the Nazi example would be invoked ceaselessly: to justify the Suez adventure, Nasser as Hitler; crushing the Palestinians, Arafat as Hitler; and to encircle Libya, Gaddafi as Hitler, before he became posthumously rehabilitated as a wise desert elder.

That World War I served as the acme of futility and waste from around the late 1920s to the 1990s can be explained by one simple fact: there were still enough people around who had witnessed it to contradict anyone keen on trying to ascribe sense to it. Once they started to go, the revision could begin. That began to occur right at the same time as many of its unresolved conflicts came back to the front, such as conflict in the Balkans and the carve-up of the Arab world. There is no question that we are still within that era — the Sykes-Picot line sharing out Syria and Iraq runs directly to 9/11. The end of the Cold War ended the need for tales of a single other against which we were aligned; the rise of China, India and a nationalist Russia has renewed the need to find sense in a war between power blocs, and to construct the Islamic world as outside of it, a pathological case, and deserving of special measures. The latter is achieved by reconstructing the war against the Ottoman Empire as a war provoked by the horror of the Armenian genocide, rather than as one contributing to it. And the cause of horrific wars between power blocs has been served by reconstituting Imperial Germany as a form of proto-Nazism, bent on world domination.

Is this deliberate propaganda? By some, undoubtably — those who believe that the public’s aversion to war has to be, well, neutralised by a powerful myth of hideous but necessary sacrifice. But for many it is simply a measure of the character of the time — a world in which shared public meanings are collapsing, by virtue of changes to social life, and collective identities with it. Ritual becomes reinvented, and at that point it becomes “obvious” to many that the “truth” of what could once be judged dispassionately is in fact a moment of heroism, specialness and pride. In its way, the repurposing of World War I mimics the process that led to World War I itself, reconstructing as necessary, a process that was willed and courted throughout. Catastrophes take a while to organise; those presented as inevitable take a little longer.

Most of the elements of World War I were laid down in the middle of the 19th century, although their roots go back earlier. To that point, Europe had been a collection of multinational kingdom-empires — Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottomans, Russia — with only two powerful nation-states, France and the United Kingdom. Both were in the process of turning the collection of ad hoc and private colonies and trading posts into state-run empires, France invading Algeria, Britain extending direct and brutal rule to India after the 1857 uprising (known as a “mutiny”). Parallel to this, the states that spoke German and those that spoke Italian were being consolidated into nation-states themselves. The process was a retroactive one, inventing shared language and tradition from mutually unintelligible dialects and different histories, often applied by intellectuals keep on shaping national myths.

There was an occasion for national consolidation in the empires. Universal education systems, national presses, invented “ancient” traditions were all geared to one thing: to building a sense that a nation was somehow ordained and pre-political, a natural rather than historical entity. Nationalism coincided with the hardening of “race” as a category, the beginnings of theories of essential racial difference, and superiority, and the spread of crude ideas of “survival of the fittest” — from the sociologist Herbert Spencer, influential on Darwin rather than vice-versa — which powered both the quest for empire and competition between rival nations building them.

By the mid 1870s, both the UK and French economies had shifted into depression as the raw accumulation of high capitalism began to run down. The extension of empire for the gaining of cheap raw materials became a passion, and at the 1875 Berlin conference, Africa was shared out. There, Britain and France soon came into competition and conflict; in Asia Britain feared that Russia’s expansion would threaten its holdings in India and central Asia. Increasingly, the Ottoman Empire was seen not as one potential ally among others, but as outside a race- and religion-based club. Britain took Egypt on a pretext in the 1880s; Russia threw the Turks out of Romania and Serbia in the 1870s. Though imperialism was driven by power and economic concerns, many liberals began to attach themselves to it, seeing it as means by which enlightened countries could break up despotisms such as the Ottomans and Tsarist Russia, and bring enlightenment to places such as India. This occurred in parallel with the development of colonies that were nothing other than tropical work gulags and death camps on a vast scale, such as the Belgian Congo.

The new imperialism benefited Britain the most, with its large navy, and by the 1890s, it had become clear that it would use such to limit the expansion of other empires — particularly Germany, whose economic growth was outstripping the UK’s annually. Britain’s limitation of German colonies in Africa was simply imposed by the UK, and led to fears that the country was attempting to control world trade. The response was a German naval building programme.

As the 20th century turned, the new empires were beginning to jostle and clash. Flash points occurred between Britain and France (at Fashoda in Africa in 1898), and in Morocco between France and Germany in 1911. New empires dictated a shifting set of alliances. The existing entente between England and Germany was sundered by German’s naval ambitions, just as a Russian-German compact ended due to Russian fears of a German move eastward. France and Russia created an alliance seen as hitherto unlikely — the one republic and an absolute monarchy — and a central alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy was cemented.

By now, the Ottoman Empire was seen as ripe for dismemberment. Its old style of pre-capitalist multicultural empire left it exposed to these new consolidated outfits, increasingly powered by a sense of racial and national superiority and ordainment. The rise of the “Young Turks” — the Committee for Union and Progress — had been a failed attempt to modernise the empire along some western lines, and by 1911, when Italy invaded Libya, it was clear that it was going. In 1909 Austria had taken Bosnia, and in 1912 Serbia, Bulgaria and Russia had taken Albania and Macedonia. The Russians had demanded a special autonomous status for Armenians in the heart of Turkish Anatolia. The Turks had presumed they would lose their western empire and looked eastward. Now they wondered if they would be carved up and consumed entire.

Their worry was based on the degree to which empire had now become not means of creating large markets, buffer zones, and integrated suppliers, but had become objects of racial triumphalism. International relations was taking on the exterminatory character hitherto applied to indigenous peoples. The Italians killed 20% of the Libyan population during their invasion and occupation; the US a million Filipinos while taking that country from the Spanish. More than 350,000 Balkan Muslims had been murdered when the Ottomans were thrown out. Racialism, social Darwinism and the new pseudo-science of eugenics gave these killings a justification and even a celebration that earlier acts of simple predation had lacked. Whole peoples and cultures were now seen as bound to die out, and to be squeamish about it was to betray race and nationality, shifting terms. What had once been the jockeying of elites was now a mass process, with a mass media, its proprietors interlinked with power elites, pumping out a steady diet of exceptionalism and chauvinism for its given populations. As rivalries escalated, military growth became a public cause. The public began to demand a military culture — such as the mass enthusiasm for “dreadnoughts” heavily armoured battleships, which seized the British public in the early 1900s. “We want eight and we won’t wait” became a popular slogan chanted at marches.

Such a massive fleet — the Germans had one such ship — demanded not only more empire (for more ports) but a different way to run them, as they could not carry sufficient coal. Winston Churchill proposed petrol oil, discovered in Persia in the 1880s, and this made the argument for the wholesale carve-up of the Ottoman Empire irrefutable. Russia might soon want the oil fields and India; Germany had lent large sums to Constantinople and was building a railway through the empire that would make it possible to move materials from Baghdad to Berlin without interruption. Germany itself has developed a hybrid military-civilian public culture, in which northern Protestant notions of duty and abnegation were rolled over into one of national purpose. The core elite viewed the world defensively, seeing Germany as encircled and cut off from world trade, yet there was a cultural strand that asserted Germany’s right to world domination.This latter was seized on by Britain — public and elite — to an extraordinary degree. Germanophobia became a near manic affliction of a country that had once been Germanophile. The judgement relied — and still does — on the notion of a British right to rule the world. By 1910 it was clear to many that some sort of war was in the offing, though between whom and how it would start was unknown. But everyone was either grabbing what they could or consolidating. The Young Turks had decided, in that respect, that mass deportation and killing as necessary of Armenians was essential to their security; when they were charged with Asiatic barbarity, they noted that the methods had been taken from Western empires. Austria-Hungary’s conquest of Bosnia, and resultant conflict with Serbia, had been a drive to get sea access. Political struggles between hawks and doves in ruling elites had been to the advantage of the former; in Britain, anti-war and “limited empire” factions within the ruling Liberal party had lost out to imperialist, militarist liberals such as Lloyd-George, Asquith and Edward Grey.

In Germany, Moltke, the new head of the armed forces, had argued that a pre-emptive creation of war was necessary for national survival. And ironically, the most anti-war figure in the Austro-Hungarian elite, Archduke Ferdinand, was killed by the event that started it. The month of July 1914, in the weeks following Ferdinand’s assassination by Bosnian-Serbian patriots, all these forces come together: imperial conflict, a racialism-nationalism, a doctrine of preventive attack, an engineered public mood — minority, yet vocal, which had become unstoppable, and a force against its own elites, and finally the character of the elites themselves. Moltke, Grey, Poincare, the Romanovs, had all come to bear the contradictions of the age within them, and bodied forth a form of political hysteria. Diplomatic cool had been superseded by political hatred of other nations that their one elites had engendered, but by now had forgotten they had done so.

Austria-Hungary presented impossible subjugating demands to Serbia (just as the West did during the Kosovo conflict); the first time around Serbia surprised everyone by accepting them. That would have been one moment for Russia to avoid being drawn into a war; the Kaiser’s attempts to override Moltke and talk to Britain directly was another, stymied by the joint action of Moltke and Edward Grey, British foreign secretary. Fast approaching point of no-return, Britain, France and Germany all dusted off their plans to violate the neutrality of Belgium in order to achieve rapid victory; Germany moved first, and that action retrospectively became a casus belli, and an early ground to try and turn the conflict into a moral encounter. By the second week of August, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, France and the UK tumbled into war as a series of “honoured” treaties, and the war as we now know it had taken shape.

Yet the events being marked this weekend arise from the fact that the war started twice, and that it was April 1915 that was as crucial a month as the 1914 July crisis, and the guns of August. From August through the winter and into March, the combatants tried to wage a 19th-century European war, each trying to outflank the other northwards in a “race to the sea”. The battles, such as Ypres, though weeks-long events with sub-battles, were not yet as annihilatory as those that would come; the trenches were built lightly because it was presumed that they would not be needed long. By February it was becoming clear that this war would not be a quick series of feints and concessions.

For the Ottomans, things were rather more dire. Early catastrophic losses of their backward army had left them exposed to Russia. The latter were supplying Armenian groups with bases to attack the Turkish heartland, even though many Armenians remained loyal. Co-ordinated attacks from Russia and the Allies, the Ottomans concluded, could not be withstood — the core country would be split in half. The conclusion was that the Armenians would have to be systematically exterminated as a people. This new phase in what was already substantial persecution, began with the mass arrest of Armenian leaders and spokespeople the day after it was clear to the Turks that an invasion of the capital region was underway, with ships heading for the Gallipoli peninsula (landing had been scheduled for April 23rd but was held off due to bad weather).

The Gallipoli attack marked a lurch into total and all-encompassing war — world war — out of frustration at the stasis into which the “old war” had fallen. But it was not the only such moment of the new that month. Italy, ostensibly obligated to come in on Austria-Hungary’s side, had remained neutral but was being torn apart by the decision, on right and left. That month, two Italian socialists called a conference of all European socialists — who had pledged to oppose their own countries’ drive to war — at the Swiss town of Zimmerwald. It was to be the occasion when the left split down the middle, with mainstream socialist parties retreating to national feeling, and radical and internationalist factions — such as the Russian “majority”, or Bolsheviki — splitting off into separate parties, now less inhibited by “moderate” elements. And it was the month Germany, out of its own military frustration, first made use of an invention hitherto applied, by the British, to colonial subjects — mustard gas.

National annihilation, the beginnings of the radical historical force of Communism, the political and personal breakdown of Italian socialism, and its fervent anti-war leader Mussolini, into a pro-war obsessive, spruiking a national form of socialism, founded on will, and above the treatment of European whites the way colonial subjects had been treated — this month a century ago is when it all began at once. The ships full of Australians sailing up the straits to land on a beach in Turkey with a Greek name were one small part of that enormous shift and of the process that continues still — to license unbounded killing through the mobilisation of identity myths on a vast scale. Anzac Day, that paradoxical celebration, refuses all attempt to co-opt it to such. At its heart is a nullity, which is not without advantage. But there is no chance that anyone will cease trying to fill it afresh. Which will be taken up on Monday.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey