When Canadians mark the centennial of the end of the First World on Nov. 11, they will do so with the knowledge that the last veteran, who fought in the First World War, John Babcock, died almost a decade ago.
This fact threatens to rob the centennial of its significance, suggests David Zimmerman, professor of military history at the University of Victoria.
“In one way, it’s not relevant because we have lost that personal connection to those, who have served,” he said.
But on the other hand, the event is relevant, because the four-year-period that start with the centennial of the war’s outbreak in 2014 leading up to next week has renewed public interest in the sacrifices during the war and its long-term consequences, he said.
Zimmerman said they include among others the current state of the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman empire, which had fought alongside the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. It lost its possessions in the Middle East and their respective transformations into French and English mandates set the stage for the current political geography of the Middle East, which shows little respect for pre-existing ethnic and religious divisions.
While the Second World War re-scrambled the changed European borders that had emerged after the First World War, recent and current tensions between the various successor states of the former Yugoslavia in Europe’s Balkan region, remain a legacy of the First World War, said Zimmerman.
The First World War also established the idea of an international organization to resolve international disputes, he said.
While the League of Nations failed following its creation, the idea behind it has survived in the form of United Nations, he said.
Finally, for Canada, the war represented a coming of age, during which it forged its independence from the United Kingdom, he said.
The First World War, along with the Second World, and the Cold War, represents one of the three events that defined the 20th century, said Zimmerman.
While the current political period has inspired many to draw parallels with the 1930s defined by militarism and fascism, Zimmerman also points out that the eve of the First World War also featured many elements present today.
They include the breaking of national borders through mass migration, conflicts in eastern Europe and the Middle East, as well as nationalism and jingoism.