A Peace to End all Peace by David Fromkin

The author is professor of International Relations at Boston University. The Amazon blurb describes this 600+ page book thus: The Middle East, as we know it today, emerged from decisions made by the Allies during and after the First World War. This extraordinarily ambitious, vividly written account tells how and why those decisions were made and the devastating effect they had.

It goes on to say:

Peopled with larger-than-life figures such as Winston Churchill (around whom the story is structured), General Kitchener and T.E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, Atatürk, Emir Feisal and Lloyd George, the book describes the showdown with the Ottoman Empire which erupted into the devastating Eastern Campaign of World War I and led to the formation – by bureaucracy and subterfuge by Americans and Europeans – of the states known collectively as the Middle East.

The years 1914-1922 were the creative, formative years when everything seemed possible, but the events of 1922, the pivotal year, set the course for a future of endless wars and acts of terrorism that became the legacy of this period. Issues such as The Allenby Declaration establishing nominal independence for Egypt, the Palestine Mandate and the Churchill White Paper (from which Israel and Jordan sprang), the installing of Hashemite leaders of predominantly Shi’ite territories, new leaders for Egypt and Iraq, the Russian declaration of a Soviet Union intent on re-establishing her rule over Moslem Central Asia – David Fromkin shows how all these changed the Middle East (and Europe) forever.

So, what did we think of it?

The group found the amount of information in the book highly interesting but quite challenging due to the length of the work and an absence of maps and a timeline.

Besides the horrendous arrogance of the Allies one reader remarked that everyone in the Middle East seems to have been better off under the Ottoman Turks as they were more or less allowed to do what they liked, particularly in view of the Allied politicians and military figures who never demonstrated an understanding of local conditions, only of their personal and national ambitions. The group agreed nothing appears to have changed in the West with regard to either arrogance or ignorance, not to mention the incredible duplicity and racism the Allies demonstrated at the time.

After this the discussion briefly turned to WWI in general, at the end of which a member noted that tangentially the book once again underlined the enormous changes WWI brought about not only in the Middle East, due to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, but also across the northern hemisphere. The collapse of the Austria-Hungarian Empire changed the map of central Europe. Russia’s collapse brought about the Bolshevik revolution. Great Britain never recovered politically, socially or financially, allowing the United States to become the dominant Western power without really having fired a single shot.

The group then discussed the question posed by the facilitator, namely what would have happened in the Middle East if the Ottoman Empire had not entered WWI. One argument put forward was that Britain, namely Churchill in particular, was sufficiently concerned about the existence of oil to have explored its availability in Iraq through an expeditionary force, the implication being that a way would have been found. However, the facilitator suggested that even if so it was unlikely that Britain could have gone to war after the end of WWI, as its subsequent involvement with Greece suggests, not to mention it had always backed the Ottomans to protect the land route to India against Russia.

The discussion moved on to the availability of telecommunications and the disregard all members of the military showed for orders communicated by telegraph, when it did not suit them. This brought to the fore the role Gallipoli played with regard to the emergence of Australia and New Zealand, as well as of course Turkey. In turn this led to the group discussing the incredible loss of life all the nations involved in WWI suffered not only on the various battle fronts but also through the famines and epidemics that raged during and after. It was pointed out it was curious that nobody appears to have made a study of the effect of WWI as they have done with that of the Black Death on the social structures of those countries involved, particularly as countries remained by and large agrarian until after WWII.

The moderator then asked what the group thought of the influence of religion in all that appears to have happened in the Middle East after WWI, pointing out that due to their ignorance of Islam, which Christians at the time tended to regard as Mohammedanism, to this day the Allies do not seem to have grasped that Moslems do not want to be ruled by Christians or Jews. Another member took up the argument, pointing out that the assumption always seems to have been that the Middle East (as well as other non-western peoples, such as in China, India and Africa) would be more than happy to adopt the concept of the democratic nation state, as evidenced by Atatürk’s Turkey. Consequently one conclusion was that religion was a tool/justifier – whatever one wants to call it – for politics.

All in all, the group thought the book both interesting and rewarding and decided to read Stephen Kinzer’s THE BROTHERS as a follow up.

Aziz Başan

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