Looking backward, there is a great deal to be said for leaving well enough alone, which is more difficult than one might think. Western Europe in the 19th century is now generally looked back upon as having constituted a pinnacle of Western civilization. Certainly in literature, music and the plastic arts this was so, the last-named in the century’s final decade, when painting ceased its period as domestic decoration and exploded into a myriad of ways to perceive not only the external world but the interior universe as well.

The modern Western intelligence was invented then, and the world has since played variations on 19th century political themes: nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, populism, class liberation, revolution, anarchism, class and racial warfare. The Napoleonic wars began the century and transformed its political institutions. The Franco-Prussian War ended the century, setting the scene for the hyper-destructive 20th century.

Better to have stayed in the peaceful years of before.

The Ottoman Empire finished the century in decline, its political implosion impending, certainly with the West Europeans observing or actively promoting the Balkan and Crimean wars, trying to take the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires apart (the “Eastern Question,” to Western statesmen of the period), and finally succeeding in doing just that in what was appropriately named “the Great War” (it became the “First” World War only when the “Second” one arrived).

There was an article a few days ago in the International Herald Tribune by Anthony Shadid, writing in Gaziantep, Turkey — an old Hittite city, bordering Syria, strategic during the Crusader wars, center of Turkish resistance to the French occupation in 1920-21. He wrote of its people’s nostalgia for the Ottoman past when Turks and Syrians “were brothers.”

“What really divides us?” asks one of the people Shadid spoke with in Gaziantep, having been born across the border in present-day Syria, once an ancient Ottoman province and before that a center of the Arab Empire.

Shadid writes of the possibility of new (or resurrected) identities being established these days in what once was a single realm (the Turkish state replaced what had been the Ottoman polity in only 1923). Today Syrians crowd the Turkish borders in flight from their own president, Bashar al-Assad, and his family-controlled security forces and army. Prosperous modern Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights publicly decry this ruthless suppression of Syrian protest.

The Ottoman and Hapsburg empires were medieval in origin, the Ottoman being the eventual version assumed, under the invading rule of Central Asian Turks, of the Muslim Caliphates created when the desert Arabs explosively emerged from Arabia under the inspiration of Muhammad’s teachings, and rapidly conquered the eastern and southern Mediterranean peoples, invaded Spain, and were stopped only by Charles Martel and a French force in the Pyrenees. These “Moors,” as they were called, ruled Spain for seven centuries.

The Turks’ expansion into Balkan and Central Europe was stopped only at Vienna. The recent war of Yugoslav succession, in which Serbs and Croatians tried to drive Muslim Bosnians out of the former Yugoslavia, could be considered the most recent episode in this centuries-old war.

The Hapsburg Empire was more conventional in origin, a product of feudalism and dynastic wars, broken up, like the Ottoman empire, by 19th century nationalism, commonly thought a result of the French Revolution but probably more precisely described as a product of education. Back then, the peasants and townsmen of Europe knew who they were, as did the aristocrats. As literacy and education spread after the Reformation, a class of teachers and aspirant intellectuals came into being who were not content to be the passive subjects of undeserving monarchs and aristocrats, but who wanted to learn and embellish the origins and history of their native lands, to celebrate its ancient identity and alleged virtues, and eventually — why not? — to rule it themselves.

Their emigrant American relatives eventually agreed, and, by the early 20th century, American presidential candidates were promising to liberate oppressed lands in the “Old Country.” Woodrow Wilson and all of them. By mid-century, a Second World War objective of the Roosevelt administration was to put an end to French and British imperialism.

And so the European empires came to an end. Have their former subjects benefited? If you consider the Yugoslav War, the chaos produced by Israel’s Mideast presence, and America’s wars and other military interventions in the former Ottoman region, you can scarcely say yes. What formerly was the Hapsburg world is for the most part a different and peaceful place.

The Cold War kept Eastern Europe under Soviet occupation, but in the meantime the European Union was invented by West Europeans who had had enough of international and internecine war, and were convinced that above all Germany had to be fitted into a European system that could tame it. This succeeded (even if the Germans today are defying the world on monetary matters!). Twenty-seven European states, all at one or another time part of warring dynastic, nationalistic or ethnocentric imperial state systems, have now found peace.

It has been an astounding achievement that in 1945 few believed could succeed, and in 1939 none could imagine. Turkey has for years struggled without success to become a member of this European community of peace. Possibly the failure was destiny. There is a Muslim community of peace for Turkey to inspire.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.

© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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