Frank Johnson

The armchair historians are wrong: this isn’t Munich or Suez; it’s Sarajevo

The armchair historians are wrong: this isn't Munich or Suez; it's Sarajevo

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We are either at Munich, 1938, or Suez, 1956. Depending on whether we are for or against this coming war, one or the other is the favoured comparison.

President Bush and Mr Blair, even more so Mr Rumsfeld, would have us believe that we are at Munich. Mr Bush, Mr Blair and, again even more so, Mr Rumsfeld each thinks that he is the Churchill. Except that he is already in office, which Churchill was not yet in 1938, and the West does not give in. We stand up to the dictator, go to war and win decisively. The dictator and his evil regime fall. Democracy and human rights reign in the region concerned.

Opponents of the coming war have equally little difficulty in placing us at Suez, 1956. Mr Bush is Eden. Saddam is Nasser, except that Saddam has not seized anyone's canal. Mr Bush becomes convinced that he must destroy the dictator. Otherwise British/American influence in the Middle East, and in the world at large, will be gone. He is encouraged in this belief by ministers with stronger personalities. He goes to war.

Here, the Suez party of 2003 departs from the real Suez of 1956. They do not deny that Eden/Bush this time wins. They say that the victory will have consequences for the nominal victors which will eventually amount to a defeat, and the eclipse of American power in the Middle East and perhaps elsewhere. America will not to be able to bring 'democracy' to Iraq, and will eventually flee the region just as it fled Vietnam.

Both Iraq, 2003, as Munich or Suez have, as analogies, their weak and strong points. But another comparison can be offered for consideration. We are neither in 1938 nor in 1956, but 1914. Not that we are about to see a world war, but that we are seeing the difficulty that a great power can have in wanting the world to think the worst of a small country and to regard it as a threat.

At this point, anyone who tries to illustrate the present by reference to the past must endure a hazard. It is that of historians, and the worldly-wise, assuring us that such comparisons are useless, that history does not repeat itself, and that each crisis is solely of itself. But such objections overlook human nature. The past is our only guide to the future, and sometimes our only guide to the present. We live our present lives according to our past experience. There seems to be something in our natures which makes us look into the past to understand the present. The Munich and Suez analogies, which have been in the newspapers and in politicians' mouths for months, are not flights of ignorance on the part of those of us who are not professional historians. They are inevitable attempts to make sense of the present crisis by resort to the only guides available to us, and the guides which we prefer: the crises of the past. Except, as I suggest, both sides might at present be looking back to the wrong crisis.

The Austria-Hungary of the situation is the United States. The Iraq is Serbia. The Twin Towers? There are none. But there is something which bears a resemblance, and is the event that precipitates the crisis. The nearest we have to the Twin Towers is the assassination of the Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. This, like the attack on the Twin Towers, is an act of terrorism carried out by mortal enemies of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and on the empire's soil. That is, in the province of Bosnia, which so many Serbians believe should be part of Serbia since its population is Serb.

The Emperor Franz Josef is Mr Bush. He is affable and reasonable, and prefers a quiet life, preferably as much of it as possible on his estates/ranch. (The popular theory that Mr Bush is a crusader for Christian fundamentalism does not persuade me. There is something too easygoing about him for that.) But the somewhat passive head of state is surrounded by ideologues and nationalists willing him to be strong and convincing him that dangers beset the empire. There is the Mr Rumsfeld figure: the chief of the general staff, Hoetzendorf. He is in league with the vice-president Cheney figure: the foreign minister Berchtold. But there is also the Colin Powell figure. He is the prime minister of Hungary, Tisza - the empire in 1914 being a dual monarchy in which Hungary has almost a power of veto over anything that Vienna does which might be unpopular in Budapest.

Here we come to an aspect of my historical comparison which mockers of historical comparisons do not take into account. The comparisons are as interesting for the personalities as for the events. History, we concede, does not repeat itself, but human nature does. Among the rulers and politicians involved in any crisis, there are always doves, hawks, and a majority hovering between the two and hoping to end up on the side that wins. That is what is happening in Washington and Westminster now, just as in Vienna in the summer of 1914.

So Serbian terrorists are immediately discovered to have committed the outrage. The equivalent of al-Qa'eda is the nationalist Serbian terrorist organisation, the Black Hand, to which the terrorists belong. But is the Serbian government behind the Black Hand? Did the Serbian government know about the assassination or even order it?

Austro-Hungary/United States seeks to convince the world that Serbia/Iraq is directly involved in September 11/Franz-Ferdinand's assassination. But Washington/Vienna knows that the link is hard to prove. Why do they want so much to prove it? Because Hoetzendorf/Rumsfeld and Berchtold/Cheney believe that Serbia/Iraq poses a 'long-term threat'. It is now or never. September 11/the assassination is the last, best chance. Delay, and Serbia/Iraq will be too strong - Iraq because it will have nuclear weapons, Serbia because it will have made an alliance with an ever more powerful Russia. At a deeper level, this standard figure in any country at a time of international crisis embodies a faction which is always present. That is, the faction of national assertiveness: in Vienna, the Slavophobes; in Washington, the neoconservatives and Republican right-wing internationalists, as opposed to Mr Patrick Buchanan's Republican right-wing isolationists who oppose the Iraq adventure.

Austro-Hungary tries to convince the closest thing to the UN: 'the Powers' - the combined authority of Britain, France, Germany and Russia. But the Powers are divided. Each has its own interests and alliances. Vienna demands that Belgrade allows it to conduct its own investigations on Serbian territory into the assassination - the equivalent of the UN weapons inspections. Serbia feels it has no alternative but to agree. Vienna sends Serbia an ultimatum demanding all manner of apologies and obeisances, and assumes that there will be at least one which Belgrade cannot accept. But Belgrade accepts nearly all, and stalls for time. Belgrade's sticking point is the participation of Austro-Hungarian officials on Serbian soil in Belgrade's judicial inquiry into the conspiracy. No sovereign state can agree to that. Vienna now has the excuse for war.

Washington will soon have its excuse, or, as it would prefer to put it, just cause. Unlike Vienna in 1914, it will not drag the Powers to world war. But much that is short of a world war can also be bad for the world. Let us hope that Washington does not drag us to that.