1914’s Long Tail

The second Hundred Years War started with a slew of bad decisions a century ago, and there’s no end in sight, writes Sol Gittleman

a destroyed town in France in 1918

Once upon a time in a long-forgotten history course, you may have come across the phrase “Hundred Years War.” You might vaguely remember that it had to do with a conflict in the 14th and 15th centuries over who would rule France, which the English kings believed was ceded to them through William the Conqueror.

Why exhume this ancient history? Because in 2014, the phrase has returned to modern memory as we commemorate what seems to be a century of uninterrupted conflict. It began with the guns of August in 1914, when Europeans stumbled into a conflict one historian would dub “the war that never ended.”

The treaties that concluded the Great War set the stage for every war that raged over the next century, from Israel and Iraq to Afghanistan; from Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia to Ukraine; from India to Cambodia; from Vietnam to China; from Korea to Japan.

At Versailles in 1919, a young Vietnamese nationalist petitioned in vain for recognition of his country. The European powers had no intention of weakening their colonial authority, and the man later known as Ho Chi Minh returned to his homeland to begin the revolution. In fact, during the “peaceful” interlude between 1918 and 1939, there was not a year without significant fighting in some part of the world, often led by petitioners who had come back from Versailles embittered and ready to rid themselves of their European masters.

Wrong maps were being drawn that would assure perpetual conflict in the former Ottoman Empire and Africa. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, incorporated into the peace settlements, created artificial states in Syria, Iraq and Jordan, so that Great Britain and France could maintain control over the oil fields of the Middle East. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 acknowledged Great Britain’s support for a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. Versailles left the British Raj in South Asia intact.

Resentment over perceived injustice simmered after the peace treaties until it boiled over into aggression in the 1930s. Radical regimes took power in Italy, Germany and Japan to redress the wrongs. Marxism, held in check by the entrenched powers at Versailles, spilled over into China. Twenty years after the first global conflict, the world was plunged into another.

But even after the conclusion of World War II, there was no letup to the effects of decisions made and not made in 1919. India achieved its independence in 1947, followed by the fighting that brought Muslim Pakistan into existence. The next year, Israel declared its independence, only to experience more than 60 years of armed conflict with its neighbors. Wars erupted on the Korean peninsula and in the former French colonies of Southeast Asia.

While the United States and the USSR faced off against each other without pulling a trigger, surrogate European revolutions in the divided Germany and ethnically rebuilt Hungary and Czechoslovakia kept the pot boiling. Toward the end of the 20th century, what the earlier treaties had built as “Yugoslavia” began to unravel. The ethnic hatreds that had led to the assassinations at Sarajevo in July 1914 emerged once more.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the U.S. military and various allies have been fighting uninterrupted wars, often against an insurgency without borders. Now, ISIS is trying to reestablish the eighth-century enlightened caliphate that stretched from beautiful Baghdad to Córdoba and taught the world city planning, science, mathematics and medicine when Paris and London were mud-covered villages—only this new “caliphate” lacks any hint of enlightenment. Wars in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are threatening to redraw the maps of the region first created by British and French diplomats at Versailles nearly a century ago. Those redrawn maps, in turn, will likely lead to new conflicts.

The original Hundred Years War differed in at least one important respect from the century of hostilities we are marking in 2014: it ended after a hundred years. Perhaps what we are in the midst of now is the first Two Hundred Years War.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Tufts Magazine.

Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, has been a professor of German, Judaic studies and biblical literature and is a former provost of the university.

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