The War That Could Not End All Wars
One hundred years ago an assassination in Europe sparked World War I and began a seismic shift in human history. The parallels with today are chilling. When will war end?
European nations are embarking on a four-year-long commemoration of the centennial of World War I, a catastrophe that remains poignantly relevant today. It was perhaps the pivotal event of the 20th century, ripping apart a continent and setting the stage for our modern world.
Though the combatants have long been in the grave, the renewed interest is expected to generate 150 new books in Germany alone, with nearly double that in France.
While official ceremonies will strive to convey how far unity and integration have come in recent decades, the horrific memories of “the war to end all wars” may also tear open old wounds. As the events begin, national tensions are already rising.
The First World War undoubtedly changed Europe and the world, but are there echoes of 1914 in events happening today? The Wall Street Journal reported on March 3, 2014: “In the Balkans, Serbs chafe at what they see as attempts to blame them for the war. In Belgium, the national government is rebuking its Flanders region for allegedly seizing on the anniversary for separatist purposes. Some critics complain about Germany’s relative lack of remembrances, while the British are battling over whether the country’s war effort was noble or bumbling” (Naftali Bendavid and Frances Robinson, “New Fissures Over Old War,” March 3, 2014).
The present generation of European leaders approach the topic awkwardly, unable to link Europe’s bloody past with its ideal of perpetual peace.
The so-called Great War tested the limits of man’s inhumanity to man. The legacy it left was an atmosphere of shattered ideals and widespread suffering, fed by hatred and resentment between nations, ethnicities and classes—all of which led, just 20 years later, to the war’s sequel.
Historian Martin Gilbert said, “The war changed the map and destiny of Europe as much as it seared its skin and scarred its soul” (The First World War: A Complete History, 1994, p. xv).
The Balkans dilemma was not solved, and new problems in the Middle East were generated. No less than four empires present at the beginning of the war—the Hapsburgs of Austria-Hungary, the Hohenzollern regime in Germany, the Romanov dynasty in Russia and the Ottomans in Turkey—disappeared, to be replaced by republics, Nazism, communism or fascism. As for victorious Britain, the exhausted empire carried on despite entering the war as the world’s creditor and exiting as a debtor.
The futility of total war
Gruesome and controversial developments of total war—poison gas, aerial bombing of civilian locations, death camps and ethnic cleansing—all made their debuts. The Industrial Revolution brought the modern age of warfare, introducing tanks, machine guns, flamethrowers, aircraft and submarines.
The weapons became deadlier, but human nature remains the same. As Hans Morgenthau aptly explained in his classic textbook Politics Among Nations, “Men do not fight because they have arms. They have arms because they deem it necessary to fight. Take away their arms, and they will either fight with their bare fists or get themselves new arms with which to fight” (sixth edition, p. 436).
The human cost passed a threshold beyond previous experience of warfare. More than 60 million soldiers mobilized from 20 countries on five continents. Fighting nations put 50 percent of their male population aged 18 to 49 in uniform, with France and Germany reaching 80 percent. An average of 6,000 soldiers were killed every day. Millions of men returned home crippled, maimed or scarred. Another 6 million civilians perished from hunger, disease or bombardment.
Carnage without victory epitomized the war, as both blocs of nations—the Triple Entente (France, Russia and the United Kingdom) and the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy)—attempted to break the political and military stalemate by bleeding the enemy dry of men. For Western Europeans specifically, the bloody tally of death was greater than any war prior or since. In the battlefields of the Maas and Somme alone, nearly twice as many Britons, three times as many Belgians and roughly four times as many Frenchmen died as in the entire Second World War. Half of all Frenchmen aged 20 to 32 at the war’s outbreak were dead by the time of the armistice.
Winston Churchill later described the futility, calling World War I “the hardest, cruelest, and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought,” because the unparalleled brutality had been traded for just yards of mud. So desperate were the armies to not be outflanked, their zig-zagging trenches totaled 25,000 miles in length—enough to circle the earth.
The bitter end
The final day of the war is especially instructive on the sheer brutality of war. Though officers knew of the planned 11 a.m. cessation of hostilities, there were more than 11,000 pointless casualties—more than occurred in the D-Day invasion of Normandy—in the hours immediately prior to the armistice, as both sides wanted to inflict maximum punishment on the enemy.
In the end, fighting concluded with a bitter armistice, with a beaten Germany agreeing to huge reparation payments that were not completed—believe it or not—until 2010.
The complacency of peace
The First World War undoubtedly changed Europe and the world, but are there echoes of 1914 in events happening today? It’s been said that history never repeats itself, but it rhymes. Numerous historians are noting the disturbing parallels between 1914 and 2014 and sounding a cautionary warning.
In 1914 Europe had not experienced a war involving more than two of its great powers in 60 years. Having grown comfortable in an affluent age, many concluded that war, at least a major conflagration, might never be seen again as nations had too much to lose.
Britain had, for many decades, served in an international leadership role to maintain the balance of power and relative peace in Europe. But after the devastation of two world wars, the costs and demands became too burdensome, and the role was relinquished by an exhausted British Empire.
The United States, as the arsenal of democracy and an economic powerhouse, then assumed the mantle of leadership. But, while America has been a superpower for much of the last century, it no longer has the will to act as the world’s policeman or financier. “China,” warns military scholar Victor Davis Hanson, “like the Westernized Japan of the 1930s, wants influence and power commensurate with its economic clout, and perhaps believes its growing military can obtain both at the expense of its democratic neighbors without starting a war” (“Lessons of World War I,” National Review Online, Feb. 18, 2014).
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Hanson continues, “dreams that the Russian imperial world of the 1950s can live again, through coercion, Machiavellian diplomacy, and the combined lethargy of the EU and the U.S.” As Russia’s recent land grab of the Crimean Peninsula shows, Putin has taken measure of America’s declining leadership role.
Regional threats to peace in the Middle East, North Korea and increased friction between Japan and China over rival territorial claims, complicate matters further. As the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand by a young Bosnian Serb in Sarajevo 100 years ago shows, it only takes a tiny spark to ignite an inferno!
The promise and peril of globalization
Like today, the prewar world of 1914 emphasized the power of technology, with major advances in communication and transportation leading to the first significant push toward globalization. The telephone, telegraph and wireless had changed that age much the same as mobile phones, the Internet and social media have changed ours today.
Global trade and industry surged, with exports of coal, iron and steel from Germany leading the way. Despite competing globally for colonies, Germany (the world’s strongest land-based power) and Britain (the greatest worldwide naval power) were, nevertheless, each other’s biggest trading partners.
Influence of Germany
In 1914 Germany was both the newest and strongest nation in Europe. Berlin was the hub of science, education and culture. Already wealthy and blessed with a rapidly swelling population, Germany envisioned a Mitteleuropa with influence from Belgium to Baghdad, shielded from British or American competition.
Sentiment today in many European Union nations, particularly in southern Europe, has turned decidedly sour on a resurgent Germany because of its fiscal rigidity on economic issues. According to the German newsmagazine Spiegel Online, a recent poll found that 88 percent of Spanish, 82 percent of Italian and 56 percent of French respondents stated that Germany has too much influence in the EU (Klaus Wiegrefe, “The Disturbing Relevance of World War I,” Jan. 8, 2014).
The same Spiegel Online article states that “today’s equivalent of the mobilization of armed forces in the past could be the threat to send a country like Greece into bankruptcy unless its citizens comply with the demands of European finance ministers.”
Human nature still the same
World War I shaped the century and was a seismic shift in human history. But while nations and viewpoints change, human nature remains the same. In his book detailing World War I’s conclusion, Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour, Joseph Persico notes how “the same impulses—gain, glory, fear, pride, honor, envy, retribution—coupled with short collective memories will continue to propel mankind into a never-ending cycle of conflict occasionally interrupted by peace” (2004, p. xix).
Man’s nature lies at the very heart of conflicts like the First World War. Modern historians appear to merely restate the apostle James’ insights about human nature nearly 2,000 years ago: “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war” (James 4:1-2).
The apostle Paul, repeating the words of the prophet Isaiah, also declared: “Destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known” (Romans 3:16-17).
While man is still plagued by war as part of his nature, the good news of the Kingdom of God is that men will soon learn the way to enduring and lasting peace.
Those who choose to not repeat the mistakes of the past can be encouraged by that promised future. Learn about that wonderful Kingdom in our inspiring free booklet The Mystery of the Kingdom. Download it now!
This article appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Discern.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons