Very soon now we will be into 2014 and marking the centenary year of the first world war. It must have been wonderful a century ago today to be looking forward to a New Year in which most people in the western world feared that conflict might soon break out between Germany and Britain, if not more countries, but safe in the belief that the power of the British Empire would soon crush any military threat from Kaiser Bill. We were invincible in those days, or so we believed, and could see no further into the future than a week or so ahead because the world was not going to change and we ran it. What lessons have we learned since then?
To start with, we forgot that our power and wealth were based on the money we had accrued from our great days of industrial invention which spanned the century from 1770 to 1870. From then on, approximately, we were living off the wealth which our lead in the means and the source of everything we needed to maintain our place as top nation were, by 1914, dependent on owning our colonies and sitting back and enjoying the fruits of our forefathers’ labours. The Germans, on the other hand, had spent the whole of the previous 100 years from Waterloo in 1815 to the start of 1914 in gaining supremacy in continental Europe where only the French could keep up with them, and again only because of their colonial possessions . The Franco-Prussian war of 1870 to 1871 should have told us to stamp on the German threat then. But as most of our rulers had German relations we had neither the interest nor the inclination to do this. When the United states produced the first working aeroplane at the turn of the century the whole world should have seen that the New World was about to become the New Top Nation as well. But those who did just sat back, again, and lived well off what they had. It was obvious to a blind man that the balance of power was moving but those who could have made sure this balance was carefully monitored and controlled for the good of everyone did nothing. And then there was another element that effectively changed the world in the last half of the nineteenth century.
Industrial wealth and colonial exploitation of sources of wealth were only made possible by the use of very poorly paid workers or slave labourers. Two works which changed the world’s approach to the poor appeared in the 1850’s and 1890’s. The first, Das Kapital, by Karl Marx advocated a complete change in the world order and the levelling of all social orders under what came to be known as Communism. But this was a doctrine opposed to the possession of money or almost any property and thus also was against any religious teachings which allowed people to hold what they had. The great encyclical of Pope Leo XIII in 1891, Rerurm Novarum, (concerning the new order of things) laid down for the whole world the first sensible rules governing the rights of workers and their duties to their employers, and the duties of these employers to treat their workers humanely and pay them a negotiated living wage. This idea that a trade union need not be anti-capitalist, but on the contrary a tool for making capitalism work better for the good of all, ultimately became the central idea of all political parties which used the word liberal in their names. But it took a war which killed millions of working men, but very few rich employers, to awaken the average citizens of all countries to the plight of workers globally. Unfortunately it also stigmatised the people who owned and controlled the means of workers’ earning their living and, by being ignored by too many governments for too long, led to the forty five years of dreadful Communist oppression in Asia and Eastern Europe from 1945 to 1990. If a Tory government had been returned to power in Britain in 1945, instead of a Labour Party with a huge chip on its shoulder and no concept whatever of world affairs, it is most probable that Communism would never have been allowed to survive in Eastern Europe and possibly even China.
Yet today we can look with hope upon a different world map to that of 1914. Islam controls the majority of the world’s wealth, and for the same reason as we and the United States, did 100 years ago. The ethos behind its method of ruling the countries it controls does not allow for the inhabitants to have a say in what is or is not right concerning how the ordinary citizen conducts their own life. We did this in Asia, Africa and the West Indies especially, but today we do it nowhere. Islam has another 623 years to go to catch up with our concept of democratic government and we can only hope that it will not take this long for it to change its ways. If it does not I greatly fear that the third world war will be between Muslims and the rest of the Industrial countries. But personally I suffer from optimism and do not believe that the average Muslim would let this happen. At least it is my fervent hope and prayer for the next hundred years, even if I will not be around to see whether I am right or not.