Lest we forget, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the war that shaped the 20th century. The first of three world wars (two hot and one cold), this conflict is remembered once a year as a lesson in human suffering, as a reminder that the war to end all wars was only the beginning of the human cost of the past century.
But do we really remember? Or do we merely pay lip service to memory, an absent-minded nod to the past while we continue to relive and rescript its greatest tragedies?
Wars make good stories, and the First World War in particular lends itself to a certain kind of narrative; the wastage of a generation, the death of optimism, Europe’s loss of innocence. But this war also marked the beginning of something, a spectre that would haunt the margins of the 20th century and dominate the narrative of the 21st. The First World War was also the first global war on terror.
‘Terror’ as a tactic has a long history, as all forms of war can also be seen as forms of terrorism. The breaking of an enemy’s morale through aggressive and violent offensives remains an integral aspect of military strategy to this day. It is not so much the tactic of terror, but rather the concept of it, which can trace its roots to the early 20th century.
Political assassinations and public bombing campaigns by small networks of non-state actors matured as tactics of anti-governmental resistance in the second half of the 19th century. It is during this period that English-language sources really began to use the word ‘terrorism’, but there is a flexibility to its usage at this point, an uncertainty in its exact meaning and application. By the 1920s, however, this uncertainty had been replaced by the iron-clad conviction of administrators like Lord Lytton, the Governor General and Viceroy of India, that terrorism was “a thing entirely apart by itself, a danger that must be faced and got rid of because of its own intrinsic evil”.
How did these revolutionary networks, previously described in the language of sedition or anarchism, come to be redefined as existential threats to civilised society? It was partly a consequence of the global frame within which the First World War was fought. In the context of a global war, regional resistance movements took on a global significance. Financing and promoting unrest in the far-flung imperial possessions of Britain, France, and Russia became an important part of German strategy, with agents being despatched to places like Persia (Iran), Afghanistan, and North America.
At the same time, previously existing revolutionary movements took on new life as Irish and Indian radicals attempted to use the distraction of the war to overthrow their imperial governments. These movements were countered by the creation of transnational intelligence services and strict wartime legislation, as the magnitude of the war provided the opportunity for states (even those that prided themselves on civil liberties) to arm themselves against the threat of internal unrest.
The postwar settlement allowed sovereign states to (temporarily) suspend hostilities against each other, but no settlement was reached with the anti-colonial ‘terrorists’, whose regional grievances continued to be bolstered by transnational networks of arms, money and ideas. While sedition had previously been understood as a breach of the established law, terrorism came to be considered a thing apart from the law entirely, which could consequently be met only with extralegal powers of surveillance and detention, previously reserved for times of overt war.
The First World War was thus a total war, not only in its scope, but in its pervasiveness as well. Not because it was the war to end all wars, but because of the way that it extended war beyond geographical or temporal limitations, introducing a global battlefield on which everybody was a suspect and everybody was a target.