The moment the modern world went wrong

26 December 2020

5:30 PM

26 December 2020

5:30 PM

Spectator contributors were asked: Which moment from history seems most significant or interesting? Here is Jonathan Sumption’s answer:

The Paris Peace Conference of 1919-20 was where the modern world went wrong. The consequences of France’s vindictive determination to marginalise Germany are well known, and were denounced at the time by John Maynard Keynes in one of the most biting political pamphlets ever written. It took 30 years to undo its effects.

The dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in the Near East by comparison was an authentically British mess, less well known, whose consequences are still with us. At the end of the Great War, Britain dominated the region, militarily and politically. It could do more or less what it wanted. What did it do? It promised large parts of Turkish Anatolia and Thrace to Greece to satisfy the philhellenism of Lloyd George. The result was to sow the seeds of the current hostility between Greeks and Turks, who had lived together in peace for eight centuries.

It created mandatory regimes for Britain and France in the Levant, which were the origin of most of the current problems of the region. The Arabs, to whom Britain had made vast promises during the war, were betrayed and left to fight it out over the remainder.

It created an inherently unstable new state of Iraq out of a combination of three minorities, ostensibly controlled by the Sunni Arabs, actually by Britain. The Kurds were divided between three states, most of them being lumped in with Iraq to satisfy British designs on the oil reserves of Mosul. It left Iran bruised by and resentful of years of British military occupation and economic exploitation which continued until the 1950s.

The British High Commissioner in Constantinople minuted at the time that all this ‘would perpetuate bloodshed indefinitely in the Near East’. And so it has proved.

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This is an extract from 'The highlights of history: a Spectator Christmas survey'

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