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WW1 showed prosperity is no guarantor of peace

The last veteran of World War I, Florence Green, died two years ago at the age of 110. Today, as Europe commemorates the end of the First World War with Armistice Day, and the United States marks Veterans Day, the conflict appears increasingly remote in our popular consciousness. Many of us are now two or three generations removed from that war, and for the generation now coming of age in Western Europe, war in general is a distant prospect rather than the daily reality that our parents or grandparents had to live through. Yet the lessons learned from World War I ought to continuously serve as a reminder of the fragility of our political order, writes Charlotte Matthysen.

Europe is not always the beacon of peace and stability it likes to project itself as to the rest of the world. The 1990s saw war break out in the Balkans, from which lingering scars remain, and fresh armed conflict in Ukraine continues to smoulder. Wealth and prosperity might promote political stability, but almost all the countries involved in World War I were in the process of rapid industrialization and wealth creation. None of them anticipated the grave economic and social impacts of the Great War.

Both French President Francois Hollande and German President Joachim Gauck emphasized the importance of the European dream during World War I commemoration ceremonies in August.  Europe, they argued, should be playing a more active role in encouraging peace and conflict resolution on both the continent and globally. The common values and institutions that preserve peace and stability in Europe and across the transatlantic community, however, are under threat, as U.S. President Barack Obamasaid in his speech in Brussels this year. As World War I showed us, a seemingly small but powerful event can shake up an entire continent.

The aftermath of World War I was also important and its legacy still affects us a hundred years later. With the collapse of several empires in 1918, borders were redrawn in Europe and the Middle East and smaller nation states were created. In fact, the end of the Great War saw the creation of most of the geographic boundaries within Europe today, many of which were to remain disputed for decades. Decisions made in the aftermath of this conflict, it turns out, were not always made carefully—nor did they take into consideration foreseeable problems. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, most of the current borders in the Middle East were set largely based on Western interests. Ethnic divisions and historical ties were not fully accounted for, producing some of the many causes of today’s conflict in the region.

Finally, World War I saw the advent of several modern technological innovations that were used and experimented with on a massive scale. These developments included the introduction of chemical weapons such as mustard gas, armoured tanks, and the use of combat airplanes, all of which influenced modern warfare in unpredictable ways. Chemical warfare was banned after the war, but a hundred years later, we are still asking ourselves questions about where we ought to draw the line on using new technologies for military purposes. This assumes greater significance in current debates about deploying drones in combat zones overseas.

A hundred years on, World War I, its lessons, and its legacy, should not be forgotten. In a world today that appears much more stable and prosperous, we cannot afford to be complacent. The First World War shows us that prosperity does not always lead to peace. And it also shows us how important the transatlantic partnership is to maintaining stability in Europe, its periphery, and across the world.

Charlotte Matthysen is a program assistant in the Major Conferences divison at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels, Belgium. Follow her on twitter @MatthysenC. The GMFUS first published this article as part of its TransAtlantic Takes series

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