Is a world war coming, 100 years after the first?

Is a world war coming, 100 years after the first?
© Getty Images

One hundred years ago on Nov. 11, the First World War ended. But instead of living up to its promise of being “the war to end all wars,” it laid the foundations of fascism, Nazism, communism and a second, much more bloody world war. It wasn’t just the defeat of Germany and its humiliation that paved the way for the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich. In the 1920s and 1930s — similar to what we see happening today — the entire world became more tribal and authoritarian. This eventually led to the Second World War, just as this could bring about a new war soon.

ADVERTISEMENT

Let’s take Italy, a country on the winning side of World War I. Italy won the war but lost the peace; European powers didn’t give the Italians the land they asked for. When war veterans such as Benito Mussolini saw communists parading in the streets, they decided to build “fasci di combattimento,” or fascist militias, and make Italy great again. In their efforts to recreate a mythological past, they followed an authoritarian leader (Mussolini) who told them what to do and who the enemies were. The outside enemy was the Soviet Union, and the Italian liberals and leftists were the inside enemies, or traitors. In other countries, the Jews were considered the major internal enemy.

The fascism of Mussolini became an inspiration for politicians and movements in Germany, France, Poland, Spain, Argentina, Brazil and even the United States. The traumatic experience of World War I made Americans choose isolationism and protectionism. In 1921, Congress passed the Emergency Tariff Act that raised import taxes to protect American farmers and war industries. One year later, that was followed by the Fordney-McCumber Tariff. And in 1930, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act raised tariffs on 20,000 products. Migration also was restricted, with the Immigration Act in 1924, introducing quotas for immigrants. The law excluded migration from Asia.

The global rise of authoritarianism, isolationism and protectionism was dramatic for more than just international trade — it paved the way for World War II. Although we know that now, we see the same, destructive pattern happening again. Authoritarianism is popular again, be it under the name of illiberal democracy. Russian President Vladimir Putin is admired and imitated in countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland and Italy. Even President TrumpDonald John TrumpSarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor The US-Iranian scuffle over a ship is a sideshow to events in the Gulf South Korea: US, North Korea to resume nuclear talks 'soon' MORE doesn’t hide his admiration for Russia’s strongman. Since 2006, democracy and freedom in the world has been declining.

As in the 1930s, international trade is slowing. The United States is raising tariffs, this time on solar panels, washing machines, steel and aluminium, affecting the European Union, Canada, Mexico, India and China. These countries are taking retaliatory measures, while warning about the chances for a global trade war. The United States has walked away from the Paris Climate deal and several other international agreements, including the Iran nuclear deal. Two years after Russia withdrew from the International Criminal Court (ICC), U.S. national security adviser John Bolton has declared the ICC “already dead for us.”  

Another similarity to the years following World War I are the restrictions to migration. One of the European cornerstones, the Schengen Agreement, which excludes internal border controls, almost collapsed during the so-called “refugee crisis” of 2015. In some European countries, we see armed militias making a comeback to protect villages from migrants. In the United States, the Trump administration has restricted migration severely, this time not for Asians but for predominantly Muslim countries. One telling change is that in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, the world had 15 walls or fences between countries. Today, this number has risen to more than 70.

However, the most frightening similarity between the decades preceding World War II and the current era is the tribalizing political discourse. It’s happening worldwide: political opponents have become political enemies. And in our digital times, armies of trolls mobilize online to destroy the reputation and psychology of opponents, with results that are not unlike what happened with old-fashioned fascist militias.

A hundred years ago, after the horrors of the war, monuments were erected to warn people never to do this again. Then, we built monuments again, after the Second World War. It is good to look back to these world wars to understand how they started, in order to prevent the unimaginable: another one.

Koert Debeuf is a historian, a visiting research fellow at Oxford University, and Europe director for the nonprofit Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP). He is the author of “Tribalization: Why War is Coming” (ASP Editions, 2018).