It was expected that it was the war to end all wars. Instead, it created new rivalries and conflicts that would only erupt two decades later in another global conflict.
The meeting of world leaders this weekend in Paris for the centenary of the Armistice of the First World War serves not only to remember the millions of deaths and the enormous destruction it has caused, but also to reread the hard lessons that that conflict has been gained.
World War I changed the political map of Europe and changed the concept of the world order forever. It overturned ancient monarchies and established new states from the ashes of the dead empires.
Self-determination, in theory and practice
Immediately after the end of the war, Professor Aviel Roshwald of the University of Georgetown, it seemed as if a new era had arrived where nations could claim their fate and determine their future.
"In the immediate period of 1918-19 it seemed that the proponents of self-determination of the smaller peoples of Europe, as the great multinational empires such as the Habsburg Empire, the Romanov Empire, in the Middle East had won the Ottoman Empire, either collapsed, were overcome or both, and made way for new entities, "he said.
"But each of those emerging or extended new nation states that came from the rubble of the rich, was born in conditions of international chaos, economic disturbance born of war, and their apparent victories already bore the fruits of future conflicts and future defeats. "
Although victorious, the newly minted countries were far from peaceful or stable. Their sovereignty was disputed from the outset by the ethnic minorities they were processing in their new borders. It was a hard lesson in the shortcomings of self-determination, Roshwald said.
"Self-determination offers no solution to ethnic problems, it is a formula that raises questions that can only be solved – all too often solved – by mass violence," he said.
Historian John Lampe, global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, said that when President Woodrow Wilson suggested his fourteen points that would inspire the founding of the League of Nations, self-determination is not what he had in mind, especially not in the way it was years has been interpreted.
"It is a phrase that has been widely used," Lampe said. "If self-determination is a constitutional government, an opportunity for all citizens to vote, that's one thing, that's fine." If it means self-determination for our ethnic group alone, then it's clearly not a recipe for success. "
Alienation of ethnic minorities
Post-war Europe has proven this well. While the victors claimed their territories and punished the defeated nations, waves of ethnic cleansing and human rights violations ensued, hostilities were deepened and the affected population was polarized.
"The result was a near-instantaneous alienation of the large ethnic minorities who had taken up each of these states on their territory," said Roshwald. "Had there been a greater willingness to grant meaningful autonomy to regional minorities, perhaps some of these conflicts were rendered harmless."
The historian said that these post-war traumatic events allowed radical ideologies to maintain and dictate events in the world over the following decades.
Without the violent disturbance of the First World War he said: "the kind of radicalization and polarization that we associate with communism – and of course on the other side of the spectrum with Nazism and fascism – it is difficult to imagine that those who from the margins of the political spectrum to become key factors in European and global history as they did. "
Like many other historians, Lampe sees a direct connection between the abuses and accusations that followed after the First World War and the even more deadly war that followed.
"This Second World War … is basically a sedimentation of World War I scores that Hitler can play on," Lampe said. "Also, the Bolshevik party would not have come to power in Russia without the First World War and the punishments imposed there."
Need for tolerance, respect, dialogue
Roshwald says that the concept of self-determination for nations raises more questions than it solves in the contemporary world of mixed populations and changing identities. And if it results in re-drawn edges, it often produces more upheaval.
"In too many cases, boundary changes create new sources of blame and irredentist claims in later years," he said.
Historians said that the lessons learned from the two world wars are today anchored in powerful transatlantic organizations designed to facilitate cooperation and dialogue between Western powers.
VIEW: John Lampe: learning the lessons of the Second World War
Such connections have enabled Germany and France – bitter enemies in the two world wars – to be at the helm of the European Union today as allies.
The lessons include a better understanding of the need for tolerance, the rule of law, compromise and dialogue, and respect for the rights of others. The world can only hope that those lessons will not be forgotten.