OPINION

Commentary

In May 1914, the British foreign secretary wrote to his ambassador to Berlin: As you will understand from the attached documents, nothing is going on in Europe at this time, and were it not for the turmoil in Mexico we would suffer from boredom. Within months, Europe was plunged into the inconceivable catastrophe of World War I. Unfortunately for the peoples of the world, the vast majority of predictions made by political elites are no more than projections of the recent past into the future. For a whole century – from the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, which marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars, until the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in summer 1914 that triggered World War I – the Old Continent enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace, with the exception of some minor local conflicts. Britain, the sole superpower at the time, had more economic, military and political superiority than any other empire since the time of Rome. Naturally there were problems, but they were generally far from the vibrant industrial cities of the old and new worlds. Suddenly, the terrorist attacks of nationalist Chinese boxers on the Western embassies brought about an entire crusade of the Christian West against the yellow threat. Even socialist-minded authors like George Bernard Shaw wrote that any state that constitutes an obstacle to international civilization has to be eliminated from the face of the earth. In the House of Commons some hot-tempered politician, referring to the underdeveloped native populations of the colonies, said that These beasts have to understand the force of the great civilizer, the sword. At this same juncture an emergent power, Germany, tested its ultra-modern weapons in South Africa, developing the dogma of the optimal killing ratio – the greatest number of victims with the lowest possible loss. No one could imagine at that time that the peripheral wars of the big powers waged on smaller states foreshadowed infinitely more destructive wars between the big powers themselves. All these, of course, are distant historical memories. The world today bears no relation to that of the early 20th century. And besides, experience is the mother of wisdom. Or is it?