When my parents’ generation was growing up, they observed Nov. 11 as Armistice Day, a day to commemorate the end of the Great War and to honor those who had died.
An especially important part of the day’s observance was two minutes of silence on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the time the Armistice went into effect in 1918.
The Armistice, while certainly something to celebrate, didn’t really end the war. Fighting continued in the east, and it remained to be seen if the war would turn out to be what President Woodrow Wilson and others promised — a “war to end all wars.”
Diplomats did their best. Many months of meetings at the Paris Peace Conference produced four treaties. One, the famous Treaty of Versailles, established terms of peace with Germany. Additional treaties made peace with the Austrian Empire, Bulgaria and the Ottoman-Turks.
Add these to the previous Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended the fighting between Russia and Germany, and the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 and one gets six supposed war-ending treaties — none of them particularly successful and some creating more problems than they solved.
The biggest problems facing the treaty makers was to decide what was to be done with the territories making up the three great multi-ethnic empires — the Austrian, Russian and Turkish empires — that came to an end with the war.
Some nationalist groups got what they wanted out of the fragments of an empire.
Welcome to the family of nations, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, and welcome back Poland and Ukraine! But small ethnic groups lost the protection an imperial system might provide, and, as the great empires came apart, atrocities against minorities were a constant problem.
Further, the attempt to get everyone into the “right” nation meant massive relocations of peoples and frequent wars. Before the ink on the Paris peace treaties had dried, there were wars between Ukraine and the Soviet Union, Albania and Italy, Greece and Turkey, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and Poland and Czechoslovakia.
And then there were the former Turkish territories. Immediate independence for the different people who made up the empire was bound to lead to ethnic violence. During the war, the Turks themselves conducted a genocidal campaign against their Armenian subjects, wiping out more than a million Armenians. Would other minorities suffer similarly when there was no imperial authority to mitigate ethnic tension?
The Paris diplomats kicked the can down the road. Under a League of Nations mandate, Britain and France took over large portions of the former Ottoman Empire, trying to keep order, and maybe enrich themselves, until a more permanent solution could be found.
Britain had troubles with its Mandate for Palestinian from the start. The British and the French had promised their Arab allies independence in return for Arab assistance against the Ottomans.
But, in return for Jewish services in World War I, they had also promised to create a Jewish homeland in part of the mandate territory — and the League of Nations mandate committed them to doing just that.
The British reneged on both promises.
Following World War II, the British at last kept part of their promise to the Arabs. In 1946, a substantial portion of the mandate became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, an independent Arab state.
But what of the rest of the mandate territory? While Britain dithered, the newly formed United Nations drew up a plan to create two states out of the remaining portion of the mandate lands, one for Jews and another for Arabs. The Arabs wouldn’t agree to the plan, and when Britain continued to drag its feet, Palestinian Jews declared their independence and set up the nation of Israel.
At first, the Arab world refused to recognize any Jewish state in the former mandate territories, no matter how tiny. Little by little, though, Israel’s situation got more secure. Jordan and Egypt made peace with Israel years ago, and, with the signing of the Abraham Accords of 2020, more Muslim countries agreed to end their conflicts with Israel.
But Hamas, Hezbollah and, most of all, Iran insist that the only solution they will accept is to turn Israel’s western border, the Mediterranean Sea, into its eastern border: no Israel at all.
Genocidal rage yet again.
Silence on Nov. 11 — a time to remember those who sacrificed everything.
It should also be a time to remember the long-term cost of not drawing the right lines, in the right place, at the right time.
Art Marmorstien of Aberdeen is a professor of history at Northern State University. His views are his own and don’t represent the university.
Art Marmorstein lives in Aberdeen and is a professor of history at Northern State University. His viewpoints are his own and do not reflect those of the university.