The now arrived year 2014 will contain the centennial of the beginning of the central event of the 20th Century – what I and a few other historians might call the Eighty Years War, or maybe the real Great War. The war from 1914 – 1918, or “The World War” has more commonly been called “World War I” to distinguish it from the 1939 – 1945 war. In effect, both were phases of a global war that really did not end until the month it began, eighty years later.
August 1994 saw the last Russian troops leave Germany and Poland, giving full effect to a Peace Treaty signed in 1990. That Treaty was meant to end the Cold War, and return full sovereignty to a united Germany, which it did. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the Cold War, which included several hot conflicts between principals and client states or other principals, and several times seemed to brink on total hot war, was but the third phase of the world wide conflict that began in 1914.
Maybe an argument can be made that it still might not be over. The current conflict between the Islamist world and, it seems, all the rest, ostensibly has grown out of the colonial experience of the Middle East as it was cut up and parceled out to Britain and France after the Ottoman Empire was dismembered after 1918. There are important differences, though. The Islamists, except maybe for Iran, do not control a sovereign state and their aggression consist of terrorist activity, making them more akin to the anarchists of 100 years ago, than any of the belligerents in the 1914 -1994 conflict. Their cause also does not flow from the same disputes and does not focus upon conquest or control in the traditional sense. Thus, it is not really another phase.
What was this Great War all about? Part of the answer has to do with the nature of war. Two hundred years ago, the Prussian officer Carl von Clausewitz gave a partial answer in his treatise On War, which he wrote in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Clausewitz’s thesis is that “war is not merely an act of policy, but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.” That description is accurate, so far as it goes. The harder question is why do nations go to war. What was the object of the “political intercourse”? Was it money — or wealth – by control of land, people, and other resources? Abstract ideals like liberty, equality, fraternity? How about making the world “safe for democracy”? Or power for the sake of power? All of these possible reasons bear examination.
The causes of the Great War are all the more mysterious because it followed a century of peace and material advancement that suddenly came crashing down. As for peace during that time, it is true that apart from brief wars between Russia and a British-French force in the Crimea, the Six-Weeks War between Prussia and Austria, and the Franco-Prussian War, the European powers did not resort to violence toward each other like that characterized the better part of the 17th and 18th Centuries. There were plenty of colonial wars of varying length and intensity, and the American Civil War was not without consequence across the pond. Nevertheless, while imperialism and colonialism gave some moralists heartburn, the colonial powers, which after 1899 included the United States had few conflicts within their empires and virtually no quarrels with each other over colonial territories.
Observers early in the century theorized that no war between European powers would occur because they have become so interdependent upon each other, and a war would be ruinous. There were certainly correct about the latter, at least in the short term, but that did not stanch the coming war.
As far as the acquisition of wealth is concerned, war generally destroys, rather than creates it, though it has been observed that there can be as much money to be made in the destruction of an empires as in the building of one. There were undoubtedly technological advances like had never been seen before or, really, since like those that occurred in the century before 1914. An article in a 1993 issue of American Heritage magazine points out that, though there have been many changes, the London, Paris, New York, or Saint Petersburg of 1993 would be recognizable to one who lived in those cities in 1914, but in 1914 would not have been so to an inhabitant from 1814. In that century, the discovery and application of energy sources that were previously unknown transformed the World, or at least that of the West. The tyranny of distance had been overthrown by the power of first the steam and then by the internal combustion engine and the electric motor, or had been made irrelevant by the electric telegraph and then the radio. The sun no longer dictated when human activities requiring light could occur. The century following 1914 saw further developments, some truly epochal, were nevertheless refinements of the breakthroughs in the Nineteenth.
The result of the technological advancements was material betterment for all classes, though much more for some than others. Consequently, there was quite a bit of social disruption and economic displacement during the 19th and early 20th Century. The immediately preceding decades to 1914 saw plenty of agitation for political reform by socialists and anarchists that occasionally erupted into class violence, usually during times of economic adjustment. No one, however, seriously contends that the Great War was precipitated by class conflict. Any such hypothesis fails when one considers that the working classes of all of the belligerents enthusiastically flocked to the colors of their respective nations when war broke out despite socialist and anarchist leaders urging that it was not their fight.
Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian chancellor who unified Germany in 1870, and presided over its imperial government for the first twenty years, once opined that the next war, if there is one, will be the result of some damn fool thing in the Balkans. He did not live to see it, but he was right.
There have been numerous books and other works published in anticipation of this centennial, and will doubtless be many more to come. It is a fascinating story, and all the more because of the continuing controversy as to the causes.
More to come.