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When wars end without recognized victors and vanquished

Curiosity seekers exploring remains of a tank at the Hindenburg Line some time after the November 11, 1918 armistice that ended the World War I (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Curiosity seekers exploring remains of a tank at the Hindenburg Line some time after the November 11, 1918 armistice that ended the World War I (Image: Wikimedia)
When wars end without recognized victors and vanquished

How wars end is at least as important as how they begin, although that aspect of conflict seldom attracts as much attention. When there is a clearly defined and recognized victor and an equally clearly defined vanquished, peace is possible. When one or both of these is lacking, any such war is not really over but only put on hold.

World War II ended in the first way with an unconditional surrender of the vanquished and a celebration of triumph by the victors, an end that forced the former to reject forever the past that had led them to war and that also caused the latter to work hard to help the vanquished do that and be absorbed back into the international community.

But World War I, which came to an end 100 years ago today, did not conclude that way. It ended with an armistice not a peace, and thus contained within itself the seeds for another war only a generation later. Those who clearly “lost” were not compelled to admit that and instead felt they had been “stabbed in the back,” leading them to seek enemies at home and abroad.

And those who equally clearly “won” did not see their victory as requiring them to work to change and then re-integrate those who lost but simply to punish those they were in a position to punish, thus exacerbating the situation of the other side and ensuring that the two would have to resume the fight all too soon.

Something similar happened at the end of the Cold War. The West went out of its way to avoid proclaiming victory lest it provoke a negative reaction in a nuclear-armed Moscow but then engaged in a policy which increasingly looks like weak neglect rather than tough love and so opened the way to revanchist attitudes that have now come to flower in Russia.

The Russians were not compelled to reject the Soviet past; and because they were not, they are increasingly turning back to it. Perhaps worse still, they are seeking scapegoats for their defeat at home and abroad, the kind of search that in and of itself so wounds a society that many see a new war as a means of healing rather than of destruction.

Many in the West frightened by what they saw in the post-Soviet space after 1991 talked about “Weimar Russia,” about the way in which the collapse of empire and reduction in status was breeding revanchism. But few argued that this reflected the lack of clarity about what happened in 1991 because to do so would open issues the West preferred to ignore.

Obviously, the Cold War was not a conflict exactly like World War I or World War II; but the way it ended − with triumphalism and neglect on one side, and anger, humiliation and suffering on the other − is less different from what happened at the 11th hour of the 11th month of 1918 than many want to admit.

On this centenary of the armistice intended to complete “the war to end all wars,” we should reflect upon these similarities, lest the old conflict be resumed in a world where another war could really be the last one, not because it would have victors and vanquished but because it would leave no one uninjured or even alive.

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