Aiming to change the outcome of World War One
- 11 November 2013
- From the section Magazine
Even at moments of remembrance the origins of World War One seem as distant as the fall of Rome. The steps in the doomed diplomatic dance in the summer of 1914 are hopelessly remote to the modern mind.
It's not just the imperial ambitions and the strategic balances - this was a world where politicians still wore frock coats and the seditious syncopations of ragtime were an affront to Christian decency.
But there are places where the furtive manoeuvrings of the politicians - which went on in parallel with the fighting - still feel like unfinished business.
Very few Western Europeans could tell you what the main result of World War One really was - except that it led directly to World War Two.
It brought countless indirect changes too of course, but they are hard to measure.
The role of women in parts of Europe and North America at least, was transformed. And, perhaps, a habit of deference vanished too.
Before the Great War domestic service was the biggest employer in British society. After it everyone but the very rich had to learn to make their own tea and iron their own jodhpurs.
In Irbil though, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, everyone knows what the main result of World War One was - and everyone sees it as unfinished business.
When the guns fell silent the Kurds were left without a homeland. And they're still without one. The Kurds were divided between Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, their dreams of statehood crushed.
But as the rest of the world prepares to remember the start of the war, there are people in Kurdistan who think it's possible that they might be about to change the outcome.
The principal architects of the post-world-war order in the Middle East were a pair of British and French diplomats, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot. To them fell the task of dividing up the empire of Germany's most important ally - Turkey, an empire which included much of the Middle East.
The goal was not, of course, to improve the lot of the Arab peoples struggling under the Turkish yoke - it was to make sure that Britain and France emerged from the costly carnage in Europe with some sort of tangible benefit.
Their secret talks were concluded about a month before the Battle of the Somme began in 1916. In many ways the world still lives with the consequences of the decisions made and the promises given around that time.
There were assurances to Arab leaders about the post-war rewards Britain could offer in return for fighting the Turks. And there was the Balfour Declaration, which committed the British to the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people.
It could have been even more complicated. If Imperial Russia had survived to take a share of the spoils, it might have got Istanbul.
But for the Kurds there was to be nothing.
Now though, 100 years on from the Great War, the self-serving map on which the victorious powers sketched out new countries like Iraq and Syria is fraying at the edges.
Syria, which was given to the French, may not survive the grinding misery of its own civil war as a unitary state. And the prosperous Kurdish part of Iraq feels more and more like a different country from the troubled Arab south.
It has a flag, an anthem, armed forces and it's got oil too. Businessmen who trade there compare it to the Dubai of 20 years ago. Might that growing autonomy one day crystallise into statehood?
In a smoky tea room, dug like a cave into the heart of the ancient market in Irbil, the disappointments of history have made men cautious.
But a sense of optimism now pervades the atmosphere as palpably as the thick fug of tobacco smoke, which stains the old photographs on the wall a darker shade of sepia.
Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot - largely forgotten in their own countries, and not much admired by those who do remember them - would blush to know how often their names crop up in conversation in Kurdish cities like Irbil.
At times of remembrance in Western Europe most of us, perhaps, tend to focus on the small things and the personal - the fighting, for example, brought the first of my relatives to Britain to fight its wars and then dig its roads.
The bigger questions - was there anything to show for all that suffering? - are just too big and too bleak.
But in Irbil, and in other Kurdish cities too, there's a growing feeling that a change in the outcome of the fighting which has been a century in the making might finally be within reach.
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