From Gavrilo Princip to ISIS: How The Nationalism of 1914 Poisons the World Today

Earlier this month, a swarm of fighters bearing the black flags of the jihadi militia known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, busy invading a large chunk of northern Iraq, decided to pause and link their cause to the First World War.

On that Tuesday, the Sunni fighters seized a bulldozer and some military vehicles and plowed a rough roadway through the earthen berm that divides Syria and Iraq. After dancing on the newly erased border and firing automatic weapons into the air, the ISIL fighters took to Twitter and YouTube to make a historic boast: By moving aside this pile of sand and earth, they said, they “are demolishing the Sykes-Picot borders. All thanks due to Allah.”

Our world, those Sunni insurgents reminded us, is still very much governed by the ideas that were blasted into global prominence with Gavrilo Princip’s pistol.

Read full essay in The Globe and Mail

They saw themselves reversing a decision made only a few months after Princip’s bullet killed the future leader of Austria-Hungary, one of the huge empires that controlled much of the developed world in 1914. Soon after the Great War’s battles began in earnest that August, leaders of the Allied powers realized that those empires – Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian Czarist and German Hohenzollern – were likely to collapse. They set about inventing something new to replace them.

Seeing that Constantinople was on the verge of losing hold of the huge expanse of the Ottoman Empire and worried that this territory (and the petroleum beneath it) would fall into the wrong hands, the Allies dispatched two diplomats, Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France, to figure out how to divide the remains between the future victors. Two years later, their governments accepted a line those diplomats had drawn across the Middle East. In the years after the war, that line would define the borders of the newly created post-Ottoman countries: Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and, later, Israel.

You might think that, by trying to create a Sunni Muslim theocracy stretching across a wide swath of the Arab world, those ISIL fighters saw themselves as undoing one of the great consequences of the Great War: the replacement of empires with scores of newly formed and largely arbitrary nations; that they were putting an end to the postwar world.

From another perspective, though, groups such as ISIL are the true heirs to the ideas of June 28, 1914. Their beliefs, and their way of organizing those beliefs into terrifying action, are very direct copies of those that launched the Great War – and which had really not existed, to any significant extent, before Princip brought them to life.

Are we living through the long tail of 1914, or experiencing its even longer antithesis? The difference depends on how you weigh the two forces unleashed a century ago – one a new form of nation, the other a new form of nationalism.

The new nations

The modern idea of the nation – that is, a political entity claiming to represent people united by language or ethnicity – had existed only for a few decades before 1914, and at the time was regarded as something of an anomaly. Europe had been nothing more than 200-odd kingdoms and a handful of empires a century earlier; in June, 1914, it contained just three republics (Switzerland, France and Portugal). And it had only recently witnessed the birth of Germany (which is four years younger than Canada) and Italy (seven years older), both cobbled together from diverse collections of somewhat-similar kingdoms.

At the same time, 1914 Europe was teeming with nationalist movements, most of them without nations: Armenian, Georgian, Lithuanian, Jewish, Macedonian, Albanian, Ruthenian, Croatian, Basque, Catalan, Flemish, Sardinian and Irish. Few had widespread popular support: The nationalist idea was an elite one.

It was also almost entirely fictional. European states in 1914 were far more multicultural and multilingual than they are today; the idea of finding a common language, culture or ethnicity within any of them was implausible, and could be accomplished only by using extreme force.

On the eve of the Great War, barely more than half the citizens of France spoke the French language or considered themselves ethnically French, as historian Eugen Weber famously illustrated; it was the war itself that replaced France’s regional languages and identities with a national one.

And France was one of the more unified nations. In 1914, less than half the population of Romanov Russia was ethnic Russian. In post-unification Italy, only 2.5 per cent of citizens spoke Italian on a daily basis.

Multiculturalism was the prewar norm: For every 100 soldiers in the Hapsburg army in 1914, historian David Reynolds observes, “there were on average 25 Germans, 18 Magyars, 13 Czechs, 11 Serbs and Croats, 9 Poles, 9 Ruthenes, 6 Romanians, 4 Slovaks, 2 Slovenes and 2 Italians. … Many units operated with two languages, some as many as five.”

It wasn’t the war that changed all that, but the peace. In the postwar wreckage of Europe’s empires and economies, the Treaty of Versailles attempted to create a new peace by granting independent statehood to virtually anyone who sought it and asked loudly or forcefully enough. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the man most responsible for shaping the postwar world, famously declared, in early 1918, that “all well-defined national aspirations shall be accorded the utmost satisfaction.” He took the phrase “self-determination” – a Bolshevik idea popular with Lenin – and gave it a much wider meaning.

This was not at all an inevitable development – in fact, both countries best poised to determine the peace, the United States and Britain, were opposed to (and sometimes threatened by) ethnic and linguistic nationalism. But, as historian Eric Hobsbawm once observed, the postwar explosion of new countries “was the result of two unintended developments: the collapse of the great multinational empires of Europe, and the Russian Revolution – which made it desirable for the Allies to play the Wilsonian card against the Bolshevik card.” Ethnic nationalism was ugly, but it trumped communist internationalism.

These new postwar nations were of a very different flavour from those created in the nationalist fervour of the 19th century. “Whereas Italy and Germany had been created through the unification of various local polities with similar language and culture,” David Reynolds writes in his superb history, The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century, these nations were created “through secession from dynastic empires that had hitherto controlled a volatile mix of ethnic groups in various stages of national self-consciousness and political mobilization.”

Even before the war was over, more cautious people warned that this thrust to create ethno-states was a ticking bomb. Wilson’s secretary of state, Robert Lansing, expressed alarm: “When the President talks of ‘self-determination,’ what unit has he in mind? Does he mean a race, a territorial area, or a community?” The phrase, in Lansing’s view, was “simply loaded with dynamite,” and would “raise hopes which can never be realized” and “cost thousands of lives.” He was certainly correct.

These newborn nations were destined for further violence: None was actually uni-ethnic or uni-linguistic, despite their claims; most contained competing nationalities and faiths seeking self-determination. Some, such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Iraq, were purely artificial hodgepodges of groups that had ancient rivalries. Arab states such as Jordan and Syria were essentially gifts to tribal families that had favoured the old empire. The Israel-Palestine conflict was the most inevitable conflict arising from the borders of this post-1914 world, but there have been hundreds of others – including, most recently, ISIL’s Sunni-imperial challenge to the Sykes-Picot line.

“Although nationalist frenzy was more consequence than cause of the Great War,” Mr. Reynolds writes, “the war-makers had let the genie out of the bottle and the peace-makers could not put it back.”

The new nationalism

That nationalist frenzy was not merely the product of top-down peace treaties and diplomatic deals, though. What Wilson and his allies unleashed was a new form of thinking, and a new form of politics and violence, that had filled the air in 1914.

It is important to distinguish these nationalist movements from the liberal states that were created in their name. They were different things, with different consequences.

The term “nationalism” was not coined until the final decades of the 19th century; prior to that, the notion that people should form an independent political entity strictly on the basis of their language or ethnicity was confined to a few radical philosophers, especially in Germany. Unleashed, it spread like a disease.

The decade before 1914 was pocked with scores of assassinations, bombings, kidnappings and violent riots on every continent as the new nationalism took hold. Princip’s bullets were the first acts of nationalist violence of the war, but the first to succeed in creating a new country was Ireland’s, which erupted in the middle of the war, overwhelmed Britain with exceedingly bloody conflict, and created the first of dozens of new nations to be born as a result of the war.

The new nationalism, unlike the new nations, did not pretend to be orderly or rational. Whether applied by Serbians, Arabs, Basques, Jews or Sunni Muslims, it was a self-sacrificing, totalizing ideology that placed the imaginary nation above all else. Today’s ISIL fighters would recognize, in every detail, the beliefs and motives of Princip, and the nature of the Serbian ultra-nationalist organization to which he belonged. Historian Christopher Clark, in his new work The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, makes this vividly clear:

“What must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914,” he writes, “is its raw modernity. It began with a squad of suicide bombers and a cavalcade of automobiles.

“Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organization with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge; but this organization was extraterritorial, without a clear geographical or political location; it was scattered in cells across political borders, it was unaccountable, its links to any sovereign government were oblique, hidden and certainly very difficult to discern from outside the organization.”

Princip and his co-collaborators were far from being rogue extremists: They were selected by organizations that received funding and support from within the Serbian state. But they were a type of nationalist we would recognize today: harsh ascetics, they rejected alcohol and sexual relations with women, “they read nationalist poetry and irredentist newspapers and pamphlets … sacrifice was a central preoccupation, almost an obsession,” Mr. Clark writes.

Indeed, their act of June 28, 1914, was meant to be a suicide bombing. It isn’t remembered that way – because the bomb exploded beneath the wrong car and a handgun was used instead, and because Princip’s suicide capsule failed to kill him – but the language of martyrdom used by these young men would be entirely recognizable to the foreign fighters of ISIL and al-Qaeda.

This new ideology had dire consequences. The previously polyglot countries of Europe discovered the new language of uni-ethnic nationalism: supremacy, xenophobia, ethnic cleansing. In the years before 1914, anti-Semitism, previously a Christian hatred of spiritual rivals that had peaked in the pogroms of the Middle Ages and gradually faded (though certainly not vanished) after the Enlightenment, burst back onto the scene in a new form: the Jew as disloyal, unpatriotic outsider, as civilizational invader.

The war gave new licence to this ideology. In 1915, as the Ottoman Empire began to collapse, the Turks expelled and slaughtered Armenians in a mass atrocity widely considered genocidal (they would later also expel millions of ethnic Greeks). Then, starting in 1916, the Irish rose en masse against their British occupier. As the decades of war and extremism unfolded, the ethnic cleansings and expulsions became more intense: While the Great War and the Versailles Treaty did not authorize the hateful movements of the 1930s and 40s, they provided a welcoming climate for their gestation. In the years after the Second World War, the movements would spread with equal vehemence across Asia and Africa.

We are left, a century after those bullets in Sarajevo, with two lasting consequences: a set of lines in the sand, damningly difficult to erase, and a set of ideas etched into countless minds, even harder to obliterate. Ours is a much more peaceful, well-ordered world, but its last remaining threats and menaces are almost all traceable to the dark origins of 1914.

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Negotiate With Terrorists? Of Course We Do

Canada does not negotiate with terrorists, for any reason” – Maxime Bernier, Canada’s foreign minister, 2007.

The United States does not negotiate with terrorists,” Victoria Nuland, U.S. State Department spokeswoman, 2013.

Despite such oft-repeated denials, Canada and the United States very much do negotiate with terrorists. And sometimes we give them money, or prisoners, to meet their demands.

This weekend provided evidence of both governments striking deals with organizations widely considered terrorist.

On Sunday, news broke that Canadian nun Gilberte Bussière, 74, had been freed by the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram after almost two months in captivity.

Read full column in The Globe and Mail



It was clear that her release was negotiated. And it was clear that the negotiations, which also freed two Italian clergymen, involved the Canadian government and Boko Haram, infamous for the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls and classified as a terrorist organization by Canada and most other Western countries.

The Italian government referred to “an operation conducted brilliantly,” thanking Canada and Cameroon for their assistance. And the Agrence-France-Presse wire service, citing military sources, reported that the nun along with two Italian clergymen were freed “as part of a prisoner exchange with a fee being paid.”

So, while Canada’s foreign-affairs department repeated its claim that “Canada’s policy is clear. We don’t pay ransoms,” it is all but certain that a ransom was paid, by someone, at the behest of the Canadian and Italian officials who were conducting the negotiations.

And on Saturday, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, America’s only prisoner of war, had been freed by the Taliban after nearly five years in captivity – in exchange for five of “its most prominent figures,” according to The New York Times, who were released from Guantanamo Bay to freedom in Qatar in exchange for the prisoner.

So both Canada and the United States do indeed negotiate with, and pay, terrorists. Neither of these deals was unprecedented. Negotiations with the Taliban around a potential settlement to the 13-year-old war in Afghanistan have taken place, on and off, for years, involving both the Obama and Bush administrations and NATO forces, including Canada.

And the Harper government has previously negotiated with terrorist groups and had ransom paid to them in exchange for prisoners. That’s what they did in 2011 to free diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay from their captivity in the hands of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who were paid $1.1-million (through an intermediary, possibly Libya) for the diplomats. Leaked internal memos made it clear that AQIM used the money to buy weapons – as Boko Haram will likely do.

On one hand, these are dangerous precedents: such deals will only encourage Boko Haram and the Taliban to continue to kidnap people, and Boko Haram, like AQIM, will continue to finance itself substantially through such ransom payments. By striking deals, life becomes even more dangerous for Westerners in Nigeria and Afghanistan, and the pace of kidnappings and payments threatens to escalate.

But does any Canadian prime minister want to see a nun murdered by terrorists on his watch? Would an American president resist the opportunity to free a popular and well-regarded military man (and father) from unspeakable captivity?

If countries really want to pursue a “no negotiations with terrorists” policies – and reap the potential benefits of greater security – they need to do what Britain did in Iraq: Allow a number of innocent civilians to die at the hands of terrorist kidnappers.

That’s what happened to Kenneth Bigley, a British engineer who was kidnapped in Iraq in 2004. Videos began appearing showing him begging for his life; his family and friends mounted a large-scale campaign to have him ransomed. Britain’s Labour government stated that it was doing everything possible to free Mr. Bigley, short of negotiating or paying ransom (though this probably means they conducted at least preliminary negotiations). This led to a video, broadcast on British TV, in which a beaten-looking Mr. Bigley declared: “Tony Blair is lying. He doesn’t care about me. I’m just one person.”

Less than a month later, Mr. Bigley was decapitated – followed a few weeks later by British-Irish aid worker Margaret Hassan, who was killed in November after London refused to negotiate ransom.

Some believe that the Blair government paid a steep political price for its rigid no-ransom policy. This may be why it was one of few modern Western governments to actually stick with such a policy – rather than simply claiming it doesn’t negotiate, as Canada and the United States have done.

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From Kiev to Cairo, The New Protest: Not For Democracy, But Against its Rotten Fruits


It seems as if the world has broken out in mass, government-threatening protests: Caracas, Ankara, Bangkok and Kiev are among the capitals that have erupted in flames and clouds of tear gas in recent weeks.

But these aren’t the democracy protests we’ve known during the past two and a half decades. Two things distinguish them:

First, they are mass uprisings not against dictatorships but against governments that came to power through reasonably fair elections in existing (if young) democracies, but then turned against the principles of democracy – by suppressing media and opposition forces, by rewriting laws and by altering constitutions to partisan advantage. These people are protesting against the rotten fruits of democracy.

Second, these protesters are generally not interested in using democratic politics as their instrument of change. New political parties and candidates aren’t emerging from these movements, whose members often see representative democracy as a sideshow. They’re not anti-democratic, but they’ve come to believe that the protests themselves are more democratic than elections.

Read full column in The Globe and Mail

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How Europe is Using Immigration to Bring Back Entrepreneurship


Germany is probably the only country that could produce a hip-hop hit about the buzz-killing nature of full employment. Yet Rostock-born rapper Marteria’s song Kids, which bitterly laments the boring, thrill-free world where everyone has a good job, says something important about the sub-zero unemployment rate:

All my people are playing golf, driving new Passats
Nobody’s getting Wu Tang tattooed on their ass …
Riot and uproar, those days are long gone –
What happened to my homies who were once everywhere?

As Europe shifts from crisis to recovery, its governments are beginning to express, albeit in rather different language, Marteria’s lament: Everybody’s looking for a job (and, in Germany, getting one), which means that nobody’s doing anything creative or interesting. Specifically, they’re not starting companies: Jobs are returning to established corporations in droves, but there’s little effort to create anything new. This has become a continent full of people who want to work for somebody else.

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Inside the Far-Right Movement That’s Become the Sharp Edge of Ukraine’s Protest


For the thousands of protesters camped out in Kiev’s Independence Square, there is a commonly understood rule: stay away from the fifth floor.

Inside the Soviet-era office building that has been seized as a barracks for protest organizers and guards, the fifth floor is blocked, from the moment you attempt to step off the elevator, by a phalanx of grim-faced men in camouflage fatigues, brush cuts and Mohawks, many of them holding iron bars or other improvised weapons. They don’t want visitors.

Photo: Doug Saunders

Photo: Doug Saunders

This is the headquarters of Pravy Sektor, or Right Sector, the ultra-right-wing movement, described by some as fascist, whose hundreds of soldiers (they call themselves an army) have become the sharp edge of the two-month-old protest movement that has upturned the politics of Ukraine, cost several lives and forced President Viktor Yanukovych to dismiss the government and promise to reform the constitution.

The great majority of the hundreds of thousands of “EuroMaidan” protesters – who have rallied against Mr. Yanukovych’s rejection of a European Union treaty and his moves toward a deal with Russia – appear to be either supporters of conventional, centrist or liberal opposition political parties, or pro-European citizens without much interest in party politics at all.

But the physical organization of these protests, the building of barricades around squares, much of the camp construction and policing, and the pitched and sometimes deadly battles with police are almost entirely the work of the extreme right. In some of Ukraine’s smaller cities, the local protests and seizures of government buildings appear to have been entirely the work of Pravy Sektor.

Read full article in The Globe and Mail

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