It’s Flanders and Verdun, not Auschwitz

Bibi Netanyahu makes a big deal about Ahmadinejad being Hitler and the year being 1938 etc. I submit, without respect, that Bibi, the son of a historian, has got his history all mixed up. He should backtrack by about 25 years.

The current situation is nothing like the lead-up to World War II, but it is uncannily similar to what happened in 1914, when hubris and brinkmanship precipitated the disaster that was World War I. Four years on, England, Germany and France had each lost a generation of its youth, That’s the historical precedent that should be staring the prime minister in the face.

Bibi would have made a perfect European statesman circa 1914. He’s arrogant, smug, out-of-touch and horrifyingly secure in his small-mindedness – the sort of politician who causes wars because he thinks he’s a lot smarter than he really is and who turns out to be incapable of handling the chaos that he so mindlessly unleashes.

At the risk of simplifying things, World War I erupted because politicians thought the other side would back down if they only ratcheted the tension up high enough. But the other side didn’t back down and Europe found itself at war within little more than a month of the event that triggered the initial crisis: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a young Bosnian-Serb student.

The assassination in Sarajevo came at the peak of a European arms race that had been in progress for the previous decade. Military expenditure in Europe virtually doubled between 1908 and 1913, as the powers jostled for colonies, sea domination and influence over disputed areas, such as the Balkans. All that was needed was a match, which Gavrilo Princip, the student assassin, gladly provided.

In quick succession, Austro-Hungary delivered an ultimatum of 10 demands – what might be called “red lines” in modern terminology – to Serbia and then declared war when Serbia accepted only eight of them. The Russian Empire mobilized in support of its Serbian protégé, followed by a German mobilization one day later, a French mobilization one day after that, a German declaration of war on Russia and, finally, the declaration of war by the United Kingdom.

One after the other, like skittles.

Modern historians are at a loss to explain how supposedly advanced societies resorted to war at such little provocation and with so little consideration for the consequences. The common wisdom holds that there had been countless petty provocations over the previous decades, the tension had been rising steadily for years and the powers were locked into anachronistic strategic concepts and ill-advised alliances. Human nature did the rest.

The most widespread war the world had yet experienced (it became a world war through the involvement of the colonies) erupted because the countries were traditionally bellicose, the strategic thinking was outdated, national pride clouded judgment and politicians were loath to climb down from their trees.

Which brings us back to Bibi. He’s been ratcheting up the tension with Iran for years. He has alliances with the US and Europe which enable him to play the bully. He is determined to maintain Israel’s strategic position as the only nuclear power in the region at all costs (think colonies 100 years ago). He’s bombastic and impetuous (remember Kaiser Wilhelm II?) and he’s betting that the other side will climb down first.

They didn’t and they won’t. If World War I taught us anything, it’s that every mule-headed politician has his counterpart and together they are capable of tearing the world apart. The idiots that ruled the European powers in 1914 did not need nuclear weapons to cause death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. Bibi and Ahmadinejad are more than capable of doing likewise.