There is some nonsense being talked at the moment about keeping politics and history separate, sparked off by the not altogether subtle Gove, Hunt and Johnson contributions to the WW1 debate. I was reminded this afternoon, though, that the effects of the Great War are still a pressing and immediate political issue in some parts of the world.
I went to the hairdresser’s for an overdue trim. The barber was Middle Eastern, and chatted to his assistant in a language I did not know. When the assistant left I asked what the language was, and he said: “Kurdish.” and then, with the tone of one expecting the answer no: “You know about Kurds?”.
Luckily, I am currently reading David Reynolds’s excellent recent book on the aftermath of the War, The Long Shadow, and his chapter on “Empire” was fresh in my mind. Reynolds gives the clearest short account I have read of the carve-up of the Middle East after 1919; he explains the confusions caused by the conflicting promises made by the British to the Jews, the Hashemites and other Arabs, and to the French. When the French decided they did not want Feisal ruling Syria, the British gave him Mesopotamia as a consolation prize. Straight lines were drawn on the map, Iraq was born, and the Kurdish people was chopped in half.
My hairdresser was well-versed in the history of his native land. He wanted to know why Britain and America intervened over Kuwait but did nothing when Saddam used chemical weapons on the Kurds. And why had we not finished off Saddam in that first war? I didn’t really have answers for him. He came to Britain just before the second Gulf War, and is an Anglophile. He thinks that in 1919 there should have been a nation of Kurdistan that was part of the British Empire.
Talking to him makes me think about how parochial our debates about the Great War are, and how different its meanings are in different parts of the world. For the Kurds the postwar settlement was a disaster; for the Latvians a triumph.
I shall probably write a full review of The Long Shadow when have finished it.
If we’re debating the school syllabus, maybe we should be considering less time spent in the trenches and more on the ways in which the War changed the map of the world with effects that are still felt today.