FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

We Remember the Great War, While Palestinians Live It

Photo Source Jordi Bernabeu Farrús | CC BY 2.0

There was something gruesomely familiar about the way we commemorated the supposed end of the First World War a hundred years ago. Not just the waterfalls of poppies and the familiar names – Mons, the Somme, Ypres, Verdun – but the almost total silence about all those who died in the First World War, whose eyes were not as blue as ours might be or whose skin was not as pink as ours might be or whose suffering continues from the Great War to this very day.

Even those Sunday supplements that dared stray from the western front only briefly touched on the after-effects of the war in the new Poland, the new Czechoslovakia, the new Yugoslavia and Bolshevik Russia, with a mention of Turkey. The mass famine – perhaps 1.6 million dead – of the Arabs of the Levant under Turkish looting and Allied blockade in the First World War received not a word. Even more astoundingly, I could find not a single reference to the greatest crime against humanity of the First World War – not the murder of Belgian hostages by German troops in 1914, but the Armenian genocide of a million and a half Christian civilians in 1915 by Germany’s Ottoman Turkish ally.

What happened to that key document of the First World War in the Middle East, the 1917 Balfour Declaration which promised a homeland for Jews in Palestine and doomed the Palestinian Arabs (a majority in Palestine at the time) to what I call refugeedom? Or the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement which chopped up the Middle East and betrayed the promise of Arab independence? Or General Allenby’s advance on Jerusalem during which – forgotten now by our beloved commentators – he initiated the first use of gas in the Middle East. So smitten are we by the savagery of modern Syrian and Iraqi history, that we forget – or do not know – that Allenby’s men fired gas shells at the Turkish army in Gaza. Of all places. But gas in the collective memory last weekend was confined, yet again, to the Western Front.

First World War Allied war cemeteries in both the Middle East and Europe contain tens of thousands of Muslim graves – Algerians, Moroccans, Indians – yet I did not see a photograph of one of them. Nor of the Chinese labourers who died on the Western Front carrying shells for British troops – nor the African soldiers who fought and died for France on the Somme. Only in France, it seems did President Macron remember this salient feature of the conflict, as well he should. For more than 30,000 men from the Comoros, Senegal, the Congo, Somalia, Guinea and Benin died in the Great War.

There used to be a monument to them in Rheims. But the Germans launched a ferocious racist attack on black French troops who participated in the post-First World War occupation of Germany for raping German women and for “endangering the future of the German race”. All untrue, of course, but by the time Hitler’s legions reinvaded France in 1940, the Nazi propaganda against these same men had done its work. Well over 2,000 black French troops were massacred by the Wehrmacht in 1940; the monument was destroyed. It has just been reconstructed – and reopened in time for the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice.

Then there are the sepulchral ironies of the dead. Of the 4,000 Moroccan troops – all Muslims – sent to the Battle of the Marne in 1914, only 800 survived. Others died at Verdun. Of General Hubert Lyautey’s 45,000 Moroccan soldiers, 12,000 had been killed by 1918. It took the little French magazine Jeune Afrique to note that the graves of many of the Moroccan dead are today still marked with the star and crescent of the Turkish Ottoman caliphate. But the Moroccans, though notionally inhabitants of the Ottoman empire, were fighting for France against Turkey’s German allies. The star and crescent have never been the official symbol of Muslims. In any event, Moroccans had by the Great War already got their own flag.

But of course, the real symbols of the First World War and its continuing and bloody results are in the Middle East. The conflicts in the region – in Syria, Iraq, in Israel and Gaza and the West Bank and in the Gulf – can mostly trace their genesis to our titanic Great War. Sykes-Picot divided the Arabs. The war – only days after the Gallipoli landings – enabled the Turks to destroy their Christian Armenian minority. The Nazis, by the way, loved Mustafa Kemal Ataturk because he had “cleansed” his minorities. When Ataturk died, the party newspaper Volkischer Beobachter edged its front page in black. The division of Lebanon and Syria and their sectarian systems of administration were invented by the French after they secured the post-war mandate for governing the Levant. The post-First World War Iraqi uprising against British rule was partly fuelled by disgust at the Balfour Declaration.

Mischievously, I delved into my late dad’s library of old history books – he of the Great War, Third Battle of the Somme, 1918 – and found Winston Churchill, with rage and sorrow, writing about the “holocaust” of the Armenians (he actually used that word) but he could not see the Arab world’s future even in his four-volume The Great War of 1935. His only disquisition on the smouldering ex-Ottoman empire came in a two-page appendix on page 1,647. It was entitled: “A Memorandum upon the Pacification of the Middle East”.

As for the Palestinians who wake up every morning today in the dust and filth of the camps of Nahr el-Bared, Ein el-Helwe or Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon, Balfour’s pen scratched his signature on this document of dispossession not in 1915, but only last night. For these refugees, still in their hovels and shacks as you read these words, the First World War never ended – not even now, today, on the hundredth anniversary of the “end” of the First World War.

 

More articles by:

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas
Kerri Kennedy
This Holiday Season, I’m Standing With Migrants
Mel Gurtov
Weaponizing Humanitarian Aid
Thomas Knapp
Lame Duck Shutdown Theater Time: Pride Goeth Before a Wall?
George Wuerthner
The Thrill Bike Threat to the Elkhorn Mountains
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Selfhood and Her Ability to Act in the Public Domain: Resilience of Nadia Murad
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
On the Killing of an Ash Tree
Graham Peebles
Britain’s Homeless Crisis
Louis Proyect
America: a Breeding Ground for Maladjustment
Steve Carlson
A Hell of a Time
Dan Corjescu
America and The Last Ship
Jeffrey St. Clair
Booked Up: the 25 Best Books of 2018
David Yearsley
Bikini by Rita, Voice by Anita
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail