A hundred years after the end of the Great War

On 11 November 1918 a “total” conflict ended

The First World War (1914-1918) is a war that involves many nations and is fought over a multiplicity of territories, almost all Europeans. It destroys millions of human lives, burns immense material resources, irreversibly modifies the political and social order of the belligerent states. It has its roots in the second half of the 1800s. It ends with numerous treaties. The general conference for peace opens in Paris on January 8, 1919, throwing a seed of hope imagining the League of Nations, which will be constituted the next April 28th. In the First World War two major Alliances face each other: on the one hand, the Triple Alliance with Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy; on the other, the Triple Entente with France, Russia and England. We come to this system of alliances because over time they developed profound rancor, but also different political and economic interests. France wants to erase the shame of 1870 which cost the loss of Alsace and Lorraine; Russia, allying with France, seeks support for its expansion in the Balkans; Germany feels strong with its industrial apparatus and launches into an aggressive foreign policy; Austria looks towards the Aegean, thus cutting the way to Russia, which acts as protector of the Slavs and does not hide its aspirations towards the Mediterranean Sea. The Austro-Hungarian Empire has serious internal ethnic problems because some populations that belong to it require independence. The German threat shifts the aim of British politics, always firm in its conviction to oppose the strongest or most threatening power in Europe, which is now no longer France but Germany. Italy aspires to expand in North Africa and to complete national unity in the North-East where irredentism in Trentino, Fiume and Dalmatia represents a problem within the Triple Alliance. France, on May 11, 1881, had occupied Tunisia with the approval of England that did not see favorably the fact that Sicily and Tunisia were in the same hands, as this meant having control of the western Mediterranean basin. Summing up it can be said that France and Great Britain, traditionally colonialist nations, try to maintain and expand the domination of African and Asian territories and to deny access to new emerging powers, such as Germany and Italy. The latter, on the other hand, want to expand and try to force the encirclement, even at the cost of creating new points of tension. In this situation the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of 28 June 1914 by the nineteen-year-old nationalist Gavrilo Princip is only a pretext to give free rein to the accumulated expectations: at the time of the attack in Sarajevo, the opposing alliances are taken. With some exceptions: for example Italy, initially neutral, complains that it has not been notified of the ultimatum of Germany and Austria to Serbia and suspects that it will not be reimbursed with the promised territories. Thus, on April 25, 1915, it signed the London Pact, changed coalition and passed with the Triple Entente, committing itself to enter the conflict within a month in exchange for all occupied lands, the island of Zadar, the Dodecanese archipelago and some colonies. Soon there will be oppositions that will characterize the whole course of this bloody war, which will end on 11 November 1918 giving the history of the disappearance of big Central Empires: the German, the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian and the Ottoman. Germany returns Alsace, Lorraine and some portions of territory to Poland; loses all the colonies. The imperial monarchy is replaced by the Weimar Republic. Austria is reduced to one-eighth of the territory of its former empire; Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia are formed and the division with Hungary is ratified. Russia re-establishes its rule over Ukraine and Belarus. The Ottoman Empire is divided between the victorious Allies: Syria and Lebanon go to France, Palestine, Transjordan and Mesopotamia to the United Kingdom (the new state of Iraq is constituted). It is a geo-political revolution: it is estimated that over 250 million Europeans see the state in which they live changed from one day to the next! Europe had never known a redefinition of its borders of such magnitude and in such a short time. As for Italy, it acquires awareness of not being an “equal power”, and this turns into the frustration of “mutilated victory” since the principle of nationality established by US President Wilson was in conflict with the agreements stipulated in London, not recognizing the natural Italian borders of eastern Istria and Dalmatia. That ended in 1918 is certainly among the bloodiest wars in history. Not even the civilians are spared: about 950,000 die because of military operations and about 5,893,000 people perish due to collateral causes, in particular, famines, diseases and epidemics (Spanish flu). The conflict is also known to have been: a “total” war, due to the global involvement of nations that left fourteen million dead on the field; a “trench” war; a “technological” war, thanks to the introduction of new weapons (machine guns, grenades), aviation as a military instrument, submarines, tanks and gas. During the Paris Peace Conference, the League of Nations was established on April 28, 1919, at the suggestion of US President Wilson, to ensure international cooperation, peace and security. However, in subsequent years new conflicts will undermine the peace of the populations and the League of Nations is formally dissolved on April 18, 1946 by a resolution of the Assembly. On October 24, 1945, the United Nations Organization will be born on its ashes.

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