Rhyming or Repeating, History Lessons May be Lost

Published on June 28th, 2014


Today is the 100th anniversary of what’s considered the start of WWI. On this date, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was visiting Sarajevo, the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with his wife, Duchess Sophie. As in future years, Sarajevo in 1914 was a trouble spot, and the cauldron was heating up against foreign rule.

Five Serbians and one Bosnian Muslim, part of the Black Hand movement to liberate Slavs and unify ethnic Serbian territories, plotted an assassination, and succeeded in murdering the royal couple. “Sophie, Sophie! Don’t die! Live for our children!” were among the last words the father of three children said after being shot.

Four years later as a result of the Great War, there were 16 million people dead and 20 million wounded. “The war to end all wars” didn’t. While empires collapsed, the roots for the next major confrontation were taking hold, with Germany’s “need” for Lebensraum and Japan’s for raw materials. After six years, WWII ended with deaths somewhere between 60 and 85 million people, leaving a devastated Europe, a nuked Japan and more seeds for more trouble ahead in an emboldened Russia, uh, USSR, and a carved-up Middle East.

Interestingly, despite European and Russian efforts to keep Germany in check through two world wars, it has emerged as the powerhouse of the European Union. And despite massive loss of life and sweeping devastation, we humans learn little. Lives lost to war continued after WWII from Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia to Afghanistan, Iraq and more.

President John F. Kennedy in 1963 talked of “not merely peace in our time, but peace in all time” (the first reference to British appeasement in WWII). Peace too often seems fragile, unattainable and in more recent times not that much referred to as a global goal. Look at a world map of ongoing armed global conflicts, and it’s easy to think WWIII could break out at most any time. (If not that, we do seem to be in George Orwell’s perpetual war.) It would not be so easy to put Humpty Dumpty back together again were that to occur. Post WWII, we relatively quickly rebuilt Germany, the rest of war-scarred Europe and Japan, but that would be more challenging in today’s world of declining natural resources.

James Franco, Seth Rogen, Kim Jong UnAdd to this too many examples of poor leadership and corrupt leadership, and our geo-political world seems even more fragile. (For the height of ridiculousness, see Kim Jong-un threatens the U.S. administration for comedy flick: “If the U.S. administration allows and defends the showing of the film, a merciless counter-measure will be taken,” said a North Korea spokesperson this month. Yeesh! Besides developing a sense of humor, maybe North Korea’s boy leader needs to think about how to feed his people.)

While the causes of war and the reasons for escalating conflict are numerous, the demand for resources usually is at play (again, think Germany and Japan in WWII). We seem to be pretty clearly on a trajectory that the pressure for resources will only escalate since our population has continued growing well past sustainable levels.

At the start of WWI, world population was about 1.8 billion. Even with the tremendous, horrific loss of life, population continued to rocket up. After WWII, world population was around 2.5 billion in 1950. Today, it’s closing in on 7.2 billion, nearly a tripling in just over six decades. (As a side note for the ill-informed and morally bankrupt who would say war is a way to keep population down, clearly it’s not.)

It’s said, “History repeats itself,” or that’s been modified to, “History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” As we observe the 100 years since the start of the devastating First World War, we’d do well to pause and consider how addressing population growth would help contribute to not repeating, or rhyming, with our war past.

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