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World War I: The War that Launched the 'Terrible Twentieth' Century

World War I: The War that Launched the 'Terrible Twentieth' Century

July 28, 2014 will mark the 100th anniversary of World War I, the first truly modern war that nearly destroyed European civilization. This terrible conflict, one that the intellectual elite of the time said could not happen, opened the door for the rise of totalitarian governments and set the stage for future wars and conflicts.

At the University of London in 1948, Winston Churchill said, “The advantages of the nineteenth century, the literary age, have been largely put away by this terrible twentieth century with all its confusion and exhaustion of mankind.”

The recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by historian Margaret Macmillan, “World War I: The War That Changed Everything,” explained how the war dramatically reshaped the world overnight; in just a few years ancient regimes crumbled, millions died on and off the battlefield, and the political map of the world was rearranged.

Macmillan wrote:

The conflict changed all the countries that took part in it. Governments assumed greater control over society and have never entirely relinquished it. Old regimes collapsed, to be replaced by new political orders. In Russia, czarist autocracy was succeeded by a communist one, with huge consequences for the rest of the century.

The “War to End All Wars” ended in 1918, but its impact extended for years into the later twentieth century, most notably sowing the seeds for World War II. The Treaty of Versailles at the end of the war drew up political lines in Europe that left many nations and individuals angry and frustrated. Macmillen noted:

The end of hostilities in 1918 also brought the challenge, one we still face, of how to end wars in ways that don’t produce fresh conflict. The First World War didn’t directly cause the second, but it created the conditions in which it became possible. President Wilson was for a peace without retribution and a world in which nations came together for the common good; his opponents, such as Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, thought that only a decisive victory over Germany and its allies would lay the groundwork for a lasting peace. 

The lack of a clear cut defeat led many Germans to believe that they had been betrayed by their leaders who had been sent to negotiate the treaty–even though they had no bargaining power. Since most of the war’s battles had been fought in the countryside, many German citizens never saw how close they were to total defeat. Worse, the harsh reparations on Germany led to the frail Weimar Republic’s economic collapse, and opened the door for Adolph Hitler’s National Socialist Party to exploit the country’s frustration on the road to political power.

While the “Great War” unleashed unspeakable horrors upon civilization, it is easy to forget just how improbable such a catastrophe appeared to be in the years before. The incredible, growing prosperity of advanced nations at the close of the nineteenth century had made war almost unimaginable. The last large-scale war, the Franco-Prussian War, had been fought nearly a half century earlier in 1871 and most conflicts had been minor colonial wars at the edge of European civilization.

War historian Gordon Martel explained in his Oxford University Press book, The Month that Changed the World: July 1914, how major thinkers in the early twentieth century believed the prosperity and material wealth produced by a world engaged in free trade and international cooperation had made war “obsolete.” For instance, Norman Angell’s incredibly popular 1909 book The Great Illusion explained how modern wars were “expensive, wasteful, divisive, and counter-productive.” Angell wrote that the modern capitalist had no country and knew “that arms and conquests and jugglery with frontiers serve no ends of his, and may very well defeat them.”

But there was great danger lurking under the veneer of seemingly perpetual peace. The complex system of diplomacy that provided stability in the late nineteenth century was becoming more ossified and military planners had laid the groundwork for mass mobilization of their nation’s armies. A recently unified and rapidly growing Germany was far surpassing France in military strength and challenging Great Britain’s status as the preeminent world power. German war colleges and generals like Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, prepared intricate plans of how to defeat their enemies when the next great war came.

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of the late nineteenth century was proved correct that the next great war would stem from some “foolish thing in the Balkans.” The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist set off a chain of events that ended in four years of earth-shattering warfare practically unmatched in human history. The Austrian Empire delivered an ultimatum to Serbia, a province that believed Austria was eying it for conquest. When Serbia and Austria went to war they dragged in all of Europe’s great powers through treaty obligations to defend allies if attacked.

Modern weaponry and the sheer material capability of advanced countries created a battlefield stripped of humanity, an almost literal hell on earth. The stalemated meat grinders of the Western Front, fought in mud-covered, corpse-filled trenches approached something out of Dante’s Inferno. Historian Paul Jankowski noted in his book, Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War, that soldiers would write similar descriptions of the battlefield to family back home: “horror, furnace, butchery.”

One French officer in the Champagne region of the Western Front said of the war: “There it is, the scientific war of the 20th century, stripped of all that lent beauty, élan, enthusiasm, the ideal, sweeping maneuvers, heroic charges. We are waging a war of miners.”

The aftermath of the war continues to be relevant even in the twenty-first century, and the lessons of that catastrophe remain pertinent. For instance, the recently resurgent Al Qaeda movement in Iraq, ISIS, in many ways threatens the national boundaries drawn up by France, Britain and the decaying Ottoman Empire during the war. This tumult caused by the war’s influence in the Middle East stirred up the forces of radical Islam at that time, and this clash with the West has intensified a century later.

The rise of China as a great power, one that sees the United States as its primary rival, in many ways parallels the rising Germany of the late nineteenth century. The strongly nationalistic Chinese military that continues to push hard against American dominance on the high seas could be pressured into a major war despite the damage done to trade and their economy. This, combined with Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s aggressive attempt to control Ukraine and re-unite the old Soviet Empire creates a troubling set of circumstances that looks eerily like the early twentieth century.

Today, the world must look back and understand that the War to End All Wars was one that few expected and did not prevent the world from being plunged into an even worse bloodletting a few decades later. Although there has not been a global military conflict since 1945, and the likelihood of massive, wide-scale war seems remote, it should be remembered how most of the world thought the same thing in 1914. As legendary WWI historian John Keegan once wrote, “…war came, out of a cloudless sky, to populations which knew almost nothing of it and had been raised to doubt that it could ever trouble their continent.”

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