Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The importance of international law - a note

In my train reading I have finally finished Edmond Taylor’s The fall of the Dynasties, the collapse of the old order 1905-1922.

The last part of the book deals with the end of the First World War, the "peace settlements" and the collapse of the old order. I have put "peace settlements" in inverted commas because these were war settlements, revenge for perceived past wrongs that laid the basis for an even bigger conflagration.

We all read from our own perspectives. In my case, the history I studied at school was written from a British perspective in that it was Empire, Commonwealth and Australian centric. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, all histories are centric in one way or another. However, it does limit understanding.

Looking at the period from the perspective of Australian writing, the war ends, the troops come home, life resumes. Then, suddenly, war clouds loom again in Europe and Asia.

I knew about the peace settlements and the troubles that followed the end of the First World War. I had no real idea of their complexity and savagery, things that laid the basis for the rise of Hitler.

There is something very "modern" about this period.

The use of propaganda and dirty tricks on all sides during the war intended to damage the enemy while maintaining home morale created a climate that both prevented peace moves during the war and then poisoned the aftermath. Attempts to destabilise Governments in other countries exported revolution and later civil strife in ways none foresaw.

Old grudges die hard. Led by Georges Benjamin Clemenceau, the French in particular played a significant role in creating war and then through their actions during the peace treaty negotiations laying the basis for a second war.

I do not have time to tease these issues out here. At this stage, I simply wanted to note the importance of international law in constraining blind national self interest as well as human savagery.

I should note that I am using the phrase "international law" in a very broad sense.

I claim no special expertise in this area. However, I think it worthwhile looking at the topic from an historical perspective because of its current importance. Here World War One provides a useful entry point.


Thomas said...

I was surprised to read this Jim. It's an extremely starck difference to what constitutes history now in high school. Even going to the end of year 10 you are provided we a basic knowledge of why Hitler rose to power with the collapse of Germany. And Modern History, there's a whole component about it which something like 83% of all students end up doing for the HSC.

And, depending how it's taught, the Allies from WWI are not absolved of having a hand in bringing about WWII due to the Treaty of Versailles.

How things change, eh?

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting comment, Thomas, because it reveals subtle differences.

I did a lot of history at school. It was a compulsory full year unit in the A stream in years 7-9. The first major essay I did was on the causes of the First War. I got 100%, the only time I have ever managed this.Then I did Modern History for the leaving.

In all this, we did a lot of Euopean nineteenth and twentieth century. I also read things like Mein Kampf.

I suppose that I am really talking about differences in focus.

Here's a test for you in terms of the current curriculum. How much is taught on the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its collpase?

Thomas said...

In high school I suspect a teacher with intent to educate students on Austro-Hungary would be able to incorporate it into the preliminary syllabus in the final section (designed to prepare students for the HSC content) called 'The World at the Turn of the 20th Century'. But it isn't mandated.

Otherwise, Archduke Franz Ferdinand just appears and gets assinated in year 9 history, starting the WWI. And when the Axis loses the war, you find out that the Austro-Hungarian empire gets broken up. That's everything about that.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks Thomas. That's exactly what I wanted to test.

When I did history at school we only did a little on the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then really in an earlier context of the settlement after the Napoleonic Wars. As you put it, Archduke Franz Ferdinand just appears and gets shot. From an Australian perspective, this really left open the question as to how the death of such an apparently insignificant figure could set in train a series of events leading to war.

Then, at the end of the war, the break-up of A-H is really just mentioned.

So while many things may have changed about school history classes in NSW over forty or so years, the focus still appears to be the same.