Last weekend saw the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo by Serbian nationalists. In response to this act of aggression Austria-Hungary declared war. Russia had long considered Serbia under its protection and was also concerned with the potential for increased Austro-Hungarian influence in the Balkans. It mobilized and declared war on Austria-Hungary soon after. Concerned with Russia’s mobilization and required to come to the defense of its ally, Germany declared war on Russia. Germany, believing it impossible to sustain a two-front war and assuming that France would soon join in favor of its ally, Russia, attacked France first, conquering neutral Belgium along the way. This prompted Great Britain to declare war on Germany in an effort to preserve Belgium’s neutrality and contest German aggression.
The end result was a “Great War” between the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire – and the Triple Entente – Great Britain, France, and Russia (the United States later joined on their side). It lasted from 1914 to 1918 and is now known as World War I. Before the assassination all countries in Europe were involved in various alliances and understandings. Many observers felt that this made war inevitable, but they foolishly believed that such a war would be quick and decisive and even necessary to realign power.
The war was worse than anyone could have imagined. A combination of terrible military tactics (think U.S. Civil War maneuvers with 20th century weapons), deadly new technology, and civilian targeting shattered the illusions many held of a prosperous, conflict-free, near-utopian future for Europe.
While World War II established much of the geo-political power structure we know today, it’s essential not to overlook the huge importance of World War I. Some kind of innocence died with those millions of people. Scientific advances that intellectuals thought would cure all disease, provide full employment, and guarantee happiness and peace ended up being used against other humans with deadly effect. It was the first war in which poison gas was used, a legacy we’re still living with today in which they’re now known as “chemical weapons.” It empowered the extreme Left in Russia, leading to the Bolshevik Revolution and the world’s first Communist state. Following the war, the breakup of the Ottoman Empire provided an opportunity for the incredible arrogance of the victorious European nations to assert itself. This was best seen in the partitioning of Africa and the Middle-East (creating numerous problems there we’re still dealing with today). While it’s impossible to overlook the tremendous damage done to European economies (particularly France) by the war, the imposition of near-despotic reparations upon Germany was a primary cause of World War II.
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had grand ambitions for his office during this time. As a former president of Princeton University he was a brilliant academic thinker, maybe the smartest president the country’s ever had. He was determined to spread the U.S. model of liberal democracy around the world and saw the aftermath of the war as a great opportunity to do this. However, while he was an effective orator and a grand thinker, he was a very poor political bargainer and diplomat. At the Paris Peace Conference he was totally outgunned by British and French leaders determined to make Germany, the only remaining Central Powers state, pay for the war. Without any regard for President Wilson’s declarations for self-determination, Great Britain and France carved up every available European colony around the world and took control for themselves. The keystone of Wilson’s vision for the new world order was the League of Nations, forerunner to the United Nations. He saw it as the solution to future international conflict, a forum where all nations would stand as equals and discuss disputes like civilized people before resorting to bloodshed. It was one of his few ideas that the conference actually approved, however the treaty rendered the League toothless and incompetent. It had zero real power and required unanimity to do anything at all. Its total failure is best represented by its complete paralysis in the face of fascist aggression leading up to World War II. And even with his limited success in forming the League, the U.S. was never a member, as Wilson never managed to get it approved by Congress.
World War I stands today as one of the worst events in human history and a monumental failure in the capacity for people to live with each other. It would be comforting to sit here today and say that we learned many things from it, many mistakes that we will never make again. Yet sadly we remember it not as “The War to End All Wars” as it was first known, but instead as World War I. It was not the end, but rather the beginning of the most deadly century human history has ever seen. A century in which more people lost their lives than all other centuries combined.