This Summer marks the centennial of The Great War starting in 1914. As an amateur historian I have been interested in WW I since grade school looking at books on weaponry in the local library. As a teenager I read “All Quiet on the Western Front” and discovered that maybe war wasn’t all John Wayne in “The Sands of Iwo Jima” or more appropriately, “Sergeant York” with Gary Cooper. As my interest in military history grew and I delved into warfare from ancient to modern, I came to the conclusion that the 20th century and now the 21st has been cast from the blast furnaces that consumed millions of soldiers and civilians across the globe from 1914-1918.
The causes of the war are more complex than an anarchist’s bullet. Max Hastings gives a blow by blow account of all the government actions and decisions in “Catastrophe: 1914.” In “Europe’s Last Summer” David Fromkin treats the causes as a murder mystery and calls out the principal antagonists as Austro-Hungary vs. Serbia and Germany vs. Russia with their varied alliances drawing in the other European nations. Understanding how such a group of “civilized” countries became embroiled in a costly war is crucial to understanding our own times and the conflicts we have seen and that continue on a depressingly regular basis.
From my personal perspective, I see WW I as a failure of men to appreciate or comprehend that the technological progress of the industrial revolution should have brought about a commensurate change in attitude towards class, empire and the role of government. Nationalism was on the rise. Colonialism was being attacked as exploitive and even racist. The race for European countries to acquire geo-political property wherever they could was ending. After the war, few could afford to maintain them. The saga of India and Indo-China are just a couple of examples that had far reaching ramifications for their colonial masters. Robber Barons vs. the trade unions was fraying the social fabric. Progressive movements initiated the English welfare state. Women were enfranchised in Finland and Sweden before the war, and not until 1928 were all women allowed to vote in England. My point is that the early 20th century had the making of a new Renaissance. Science, technology, art, literature, music all were advancing, but it seems our destructive human nature, our “will to power,” won out. Dr. Paul Kengor uses a religious metaphor and makes the case for the conflict as “the second fall of man.(“wwi-and-the-second-fall-of-man)
Much talk is made of new weapons of war being used with old tactics and the subsequent slaughter. I think the same thing occurred with respect to the diplomatic and government decision making process. Where once messages and ultimatums would takes days or weeks to arrive by courier they were now delivered by phone or telegraph. Time to think, strategize and prepare measured responses was greatly reduced by technology. This improved technology also allows mass communication to become more effective. An informed (or misinformed) public makes for public pressure on government officials, politicians and at this time even kings or queens.
In my FBI crisis negotiator trainings there was a warning we always heard: “Beware the Action Imperative!” When in a crisis situation, say after an archduke and his wife are murdered (or a group of militants declare an Islamic State in a country you just “freed”), people feel a need to do something. Action of some kind makes us feel like we have control. We are not helpless. We can “fix” the problem. And we act. Under stress, full of emotion, rationality compromised, we act. Acting often with wrong or incomplete information, poor planning, preparation and/or execution. The results? You decide. Ruby Ridge, Waco, The Patriot Act, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again? Has any of us NOT made a bad decision or done something we regret “in the heat of the moment?”
So we have monarchs, diplomats and elected leaders under pressure/stress making decisions. Decisions that can be implemented by technology faster than ever before. Technology that makes keeping secrets like troop movements and mobilizations almost impossible. You have to act and you have to act now or be vulnerable. From everything I have read it seems many of the leaders involved were bluffing and posturing to save face and appear strong, never thinking a serious war would result. Serbia would be punished, maybe weakened enough to be controlled and everyone would enjoy the beautiful Summer. No, the mobilizations went on, the trains moved troops to their border positions and soon the guns of August were heard. The train set in motion on June 28, 1914 by Gavrilo Princip gathered speed as leaders blustered and harumphed. Positioned their armies on the European chess board, each thinking they would get the “en passant” without loss to themselves. The train was a runaway. No one manned the brakes and the world saw four years of carnage.
After four years of global conflict what was accomplished? Millions died. Millions more were wounded physically and/or psychologically. National treasure spent, the war financed largely by bonds, most countries were deeply in debt. (What if you wanted a war and nobody would finance it? A topic for another time) The war gave a sad, mediocre artist the path to Fuhrer. In a desperate strategic gamble Germany unleashed a radical who went by the name of Lenin on Russia. The war changed a devout ranking socialist named Mussolini in Italy into a nationalist. Japan went from a debtor nation to creditor, supplying munitions to the allies and building up an industrial, manufacturing economy. Japan also gained a number of Russian and German territories and consolidated operations in Manchuria and elsewhere in China. The war resulted in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Great Britain ended hostilities in control of a large portion of the middle east. The results?
The seeds for another conflict are already in place at the armistice. Were the terms of the Versailles Treaty unfair? A whole lot of PhD.’s have been earned making the case. Saddling Germany with reparations it has little hope to repay is not the best way to lasting peace. Add a world wide depression and things only get worse. My view is the world map and economic conditions at the end of 1918 were a cauldron of instability with an ill fitting lid. It was going to boil over at some point. Hindsight makes it obvious. Virtually every conflict since 1918 we can trace roots to the Great War. What trouble spots have we seen in recent history or the present day? Bosnia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Russia all have have roots of conflict back to 1918.
How can we stop these conflicts? It may not be possible, depending on your views of human nature. I think the first step in dealing with the present crises is to study the history. Understanding the precursor events, the historical context, is the best chance we have of developing workable solutions to world conflicts.