We Fail To See History Repeating in Our Own Time

(Originally Published by Howey Politics Indiana)

On October 11, 1912, George and Ollie Risley weren’t concerned with the Italo-Turkish war. On that Friday, they were concerned with the difficult task of childbirth on a small family farm in Knox County, Indiana. Lucky for your columnist, all went well, and they welcomed my great-grandfather Miles in to the world. My best guess is that the poor, Knox County farmers never heard of the small conflict that would one day impact their family.

Only seven days later would the small regional conflict come to a close with the signing of the Treaty of Ouchy. For the past 13 months, the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Italy had waged war on the lands destined to become modern-day Libya.

What caused the Italo-Turkish War? One must look back 34 years to the Congress of Berlin.

The once-great Ottoman Empire was flashing weakness as its institutions of government began to erode. As a result, the surrounding powers began to annex their lands. Especially antagonistic were the Russians, who repeatedly tried to nibble away at the northern edges of the Balkans and the Caucuses. This sparked the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78.

The policemen of the world, Great Britain and the rest of the 19th century G8, had to intervene to end the conflict. The British went as far as sending a fleet of battleships to Constantinople to stop the Russians from entering the city. At the Congress of Berlin, the Great Powers carved up foreign lands lost by the Ottoman Empire. The “sick man of Europe” was humiliated and broken by the loss. At the end of the Congress, the Italians felt they had not been received their fair share of the ailing Empire.

This was a wrong they intended to right. In 1902, the French signed a secret treaty with the Italians that offered them a consequence-free invasion in to Tripoli on the northern shores of Africa. After an extended propaganda campaign by the Italians, the public shifted their support for the invasion that came on September 29, 1911. (Notably, the most outspoken critic of the war was a young journalist and activist by the name of Benito Mussolini. In September of ’12, he participated in a riot against Italy’s “imperialist war.” For this, the young socialist spent five months in jail.)

Fast-forward 13 months, and the Treaty of Ouchy is signed. The Italians were given the lands of Libya, and the Turks once again humiliated and weakened. This set off a sense in the Balkans that liberation could be theirs for the taking. A sense of nationalism spread, and Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria formed the Balkan League and launched the first Balkan War. This then led to the Second Balkan War. And that led to the Great War.

Pop history teaches that the Great War, or World War I, was caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914. The assassination then led to a crisis that led to the invoking of dozens of treaties that entangled the Great Powers in a war that killed 15 million people. If including the Spanish flu, or the Great Influenza, the toll is 65 million.

The spark that led to the killing of 3.6% of the Earths population in 4 years may have been the death of Ferdinand. The cause was imperialism and intervention of the previous 100 years. The Great Powers chose for other nations and states what paths must be followed. This led to revolts. The revolts led to wars. The wars led to treaties that failed to respect those living in the new boundaries. And the cycle began anew. For instance, the Treaty of Versailles led to World War II.

It was in World War II that George and Ollie lost a son, and Miles lost a younger brother. George Risley Jr., 25, was a fighter pilot flying over Normandy on June 7, 1944. He was killed in action.

History has two groups of people. The first are the world-shapers, the heroes and villains, and the notable exceptions. The second are the vast majorities of those in-between that fail to see history happening in their time. The first group rarely sees the effects of their decisions on the second group. And it is the second group that allows it to happen.

Any honest observer of world events today can see that history is happening around us. The governments created by fall of the Ottoman Empire now are crumbling themselves. The Arab Spring was set off by one particular moment. Mohammed Bouazizi was a Tunisian making less than $10 per day. On December 17th 2010, a female inspector slapped him, confiscated his scales, and he snapped. Outraged, he lit himself on fire outside of the local government building. Protests erupted across the nation, and his death two weeks later made him a martyr in the fight over corruption. Tunisia’s leader of 23 years, Ben Ali, fled the country two weeks later.

Was the Arab Spring set off by just this one incident? Do the dictatorial rulers that are being overthrown exist in a vacuum? Or does the imperialist and interventionist mindset still exist today?

I argue that it is softer than in the past, but the Great Powers of the 20th and 21st century manipulated lands they did not own and people they did not have the authority to control. The Great powers toppled governments. Propped up murderous regimes. Provided chemical and conventional weapons to rebel groups that eventually used them on us in future wars.

Now we are told that we “must do something” again. We should not ignore history. Let’s do nothing, and empower those in the second group to become their own world-shapers.

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