The Single Most Important Event in Human History –by Peter Eisenstadt

The Single Most Important Event in Human History
Peter Eisenstadt

What was the single most important

event in all of human history? There certainly are a number of plausible candidates, but I had to pick a discrete “event” happening at one particular time, it might be the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the somber centennial of which we are remembering this weekend. (Somber except in Sarajevo itself, where the local Serbs, demonstrating that they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing in the intervening century, decided it was a good occasion for a party.)

The assassination of Archduke and his wife begat the First World War (they were the first two of the 20 million war deaths), which begat the post-war settlement in Europe and the Middle East, which begat the Second World War, with its 55 million war-related deaths, which begat the Cold War, which started to break down in 1979 with the overthrow of the Shah, which begat the world we live in today.

The New York Times, the day after the assassination, stated in a headline “Tragedy May Alter Politics of Europe” which was certainly true, even if their explanation of what its impact would be was rather far from the mark. The article concluded that “a couple of revolver shots probably never before formed a connection between a line of complicated causes and such an infinite variety of still more complicated effects.” The anonymous author of that article had no idea how right he was, and how long-lasting those infinite variety of complicated effects would prove to be.

Let me just speak about the impact of the war on two groups, the Jews and the Arabs.

As for the Jews, it is easy forget, given what was to happen in the next war, how devastating World War I was for the Jews—a quarter of a million Jewish civilians were killed in eastern Europe, and many more left homeless. It certainly led to a rise in anti-Semitism among the rickety nation states that were left in the war’s wake—such as Hungary, Rumania, Poland—and at best an ambiguous attitude towards Jews in the new Soviet Union. It was the war that made the Protocols of the Elders of Zion an international bestseller. Which brings us, inevitably, to Germany; defeated, sullen, looking for a target for their anger. However shaky the situation of the 11 million Jews in Europe was in 1914, by 1920 it had become more precarious. The Jews, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the contrary, had no power, and no secure home.

But then on November 2, 1917 came the deus ex machina; Lord Balfour promising the support of His Majesty’s Government to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This brings us to the Middle East, and the salivation of the European powers at the prospect of carving up the remainder of the Ottoman Empire, which they did after the war, and the promises they made to Arab potentates about the post-war settlement, and the very different agreements they made to themselves, as in the Sykes-Picot on how they would divvy up the Ottoman spoils. In the end, despite all of the talk at Versailles by Woodrow Wilson about national self-determination, almost of the Arab world, including the newly fledged nation-colonies of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine, remained other-determined. And the Balfour Declaration and subsequent events ensured that the mess the European powers would create in the Middle East after World War I would never be unraveled

This is not the place to dally with counterfactuals; what if Archduke Ferdinand, like any sensible archduke, after the first attempt on his life on 28 June, 1914, had beat a retreat to the nearest palace in Sarajevo, and considered himself lucky; what if the chancelleries and diplomats of Europe had earned their pay in July 1914 and avoided a war; or if there had been short war that Germany won, or if there had no Balfour Declaration, or if a certain German corporal had somehow managed to get himself blown to bits or otherwise killed during the war. Who knows? What happened, happened, and what didn’t happen, didn’t.

There is no moral to this story. Greed, shortsightedness, hatred, and stupidity, and a willingness to resort to violence led to World War I, allowed it to fester for four foul years, and ensured that the ensuing peace would be nasty, brutish, and short. Every generation inherits the blunders of their ancestors, and though many try to make things better, they rarely do. In case I am accused of cynicism, I should say that there is so much that is good in the world, so many wonderful people, so many people dedicated to improving the lot of humanity, to redressing old quarrels, to creating lasting peace. And that is certainly true in both Israel and Palestine. But since 28 August 1914, all the good people in the world having been trying to get out of the hole that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand created. And we are not out of the hole yet. And we seem to be digging ourselves deeper into it.