World War I: 1914-2010

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In a bit of news that probably only I find wildly interesting, Germany will clear its reparation debt from the Treaty of Versailles, which ended hostilities in The Great War. This will happen Sunday, October 3, 2010. That’ll be 91 years, three months and five days after the treaty was signed.

It seems totally crazy, but actually, in 1953 the Western Allies put a hold on some portions of the debt until Germany was reunified, and a bond matures on Sunday, the 20th anniversary of German reunification. I’m guessing at the time that deal was made, however, the Allies’ timetable for reunification was likely running somewhat in advance of 1989.

Still, reparation debt is hardly alone when it comes to holdovers from the First World War. Ever wonder how Iraq came to be? After the war, the Brits had three cities they wanted to hold on to in Mesopotamia, so they drew some lines around them and created a country over which they would hold a mandate. Shockingly, the results ended up being less than ideal.

That’s just one of many instances of the how the war and the botched peace are still just below the surface of today’s world. Part of the reason for the enduring scars was that the war was completely unprecedented and the rules were made up on the fly; nobody knew how to fight it, and certainly nobody knew how to end it when the time came. It helped make it the most transformative event in modern history, and one that is criminally underrepresented in the standard U.S. history curriculum (probably because we sat it out until 1917, entered in a ham-fisted manner, and essentially set the Bill of Rights on fire at home to get the nation “war ready”…but I digress – “Woodrow Wilson, Worst President Ever” is another post for another time).

There’s the famous opening scene from The Guns of August (you should just go ahead and buy it) that depicts all of Europe’s royalty gathering for the funeral of King Edward VII in 1910 – and less than nine years later all the empires (save the British) were, for all intents and purposes, gone; the Soviet Union had come into being; and the United States emerged as a global power broker. It’s a mind-blowing amount of political realignment in less than a decade, trumping World War II by a wide margin.

Enough from me – read more from some pros. Other books I highly, highly recommend include Europe’s Last Summer, which shows how Germany manipulated the continent into war and Paris 1919, which shows how incredibly messy, compromised and consequential the peace conference was.

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