100 years ago, the “July Crisis” occurred in Europe which resulted in all major world powers at that time engaged in a protracted and bloody conflict we now call the First World War. At this moment 100 years ago, the crisis grew from the deadly actions of a terrorist organisation against a representative of a major power, who had strong alliances with other powerful nations and powerful suspicions towards others. 100 years ago, despite the previous 40 years characterised by negotiated peace even during moments of crisis, something gave way in the character of powerful individuals and the nations they represented that led to four years of mud, blood, tragedy. However, at this moment 100 years ago, this was neither inevitable nor was it what the leaders of most nations wanted at the time.
When my students watch present events, filtered as they are through the work of journalists and others, they see groups of people causing or supporting conflict. They see others using various methods to quell that conflict and tension. They see others – often women, children and families – stuck in a violent purgatory as chance and choices made by others determine their destiny.
Why, some students ask, do we let ourselves get into this situation?
Why, some ask, do these conflicts begin?
How, some query, is it possible to stop such violence?
The short answer is that on the one hand, it requires those people in the situation to end the immediate violence. On the other, history has proven time and again that external consensus between large bodies is required to sustain a lasting peace. On another hand still, history also shows us how easily it is for such violence to be reborn with different faces, motivations and goals.
Frustratingly, there are myriad complexities in situations such as those we witness in Gaza, in Syria and now Iraq, in Urkaine, and other places forgotten by outrage-weary communities like Australia. It is not as simple as putting sanctions on Russia or criticising Israel. It is not as simple as supporting the Palestinians or the Ukrainian government.
There are so many pieces to the puzzle which have to be addressed that when answering my students’ questions I feel quite unable to do so, except to reassure them that not only has history proven that crises can lead to intolerable war.. it has also proven that humanity has the capacity for amazing feats of compassion and healing.
So as we move past the present, let’s avoid making the mistakes of the past whilst still learning from it. This takes active and thoughtful analysis and comparison, not a simplistic and superficial bolting-on of “then” to “now”. Historians and students of history, as well as the general public, will witness the wave of new research and revision of the past as we enter the 100th anniversary of the Great War. We just need to be wary of our own contexts and how this affects our viewing of and use of history.