Here we are, the summer of 2014, and the remembrances have begun. One hundred years ago this week, Austria declared war on Serbia, ending a month of inchoate diplomacy that followed the June 28 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, by a nationalist Serb. What began in a Balkan backwater cascaded, through a series of overlapping treaties, miscalculations, and misplaced loyalties, to sweep much of the world into war. Germany and its imperial allies were pitted against the British, French, and other empires – joined late in the game by the United States.
The idea that World War I can be viewed as something that happened between 1914-1918 is absurd: It is the war that has never ended. A few weeks ago in what used to be Mesopotamia, a group called ISIS cited the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement as a source of their many twisted grievances. A year earlier, Syria’s use of chemical weapons broke bans instituted after greater horrors during World War I. The Israelis and Palestinians, trading rockets and missiles anew, trace much of their dispute to the war.
The list of modern travails birthed in those four years goes on: The 1914 British unification of their Christian colony, South Nigeria, with the Muslim-dominated colony of North Nigeria; the global financial dominance of the United States, the birth of Soviet communism, the rising that led to the division of Ireland, not to mention the existence of most of the nations of Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Historians reckon 37 million people perished, many of them soldiers, but importantly, for the first time ever, civilian non-combatants died in almost equal numbers. World War I, as it came to be known, marked the true beginning of modern, mechanized warfare that showed no care for such distinctions. The submarine, the tank, chemical warfare, bomber aircraft and the aircraft carrier, among many other innovations, debuted during the conflict. These advances in the technology of mass killing caught generals and admirals by surprise: None of these weapons had a decisive effect on the war’s outcome because military commanders failed to integrate them properly into the battle. But we humans do eventually figure things out – and did.
The war also saw modern artillery and automatic weaponry reach their full destructive potential. Generals locked in pre-war doctrines of infantry maneuvering and mass cavalry charges adapted no less well to these new realities. Thus could tens of thousands of troops from all sides and multiple countries fall in a single day – July 1, 1916 – in the Battle of the Somme.
The results shocked the world and shook the faith of average citizens in the elites who ran their societies. That most of the units of that time hailed from the same towns and villages magnified further the social impact of the casualties.
In geopolitical terms, World War I set in motion changes that would remake – and continue to remake our planet. Entire empires crumbled: Austria-Hungary splintered into the Central and Eastern states that would endure Nazi occupation and then Soviet communism for much of the 20th century.
For the multitudes ruled in the name of “civilization” by Britain, France and other European powers – millions of them sucked into the war to fight for their colonial rulers, the war would bring into ever clearer focus the hypocrisy of imperialism. World War I’s collapsed empires freed millions from the losing empires, but also accelerated demands for self-rule in far-flung colonies like India, Vietnam, Algeria, Indonesia, Iraq and the Philippines.
The Ottoman Empire shattered into the half-formed nation states of the Middle East, many of which to this day struggle with their national identity. It also divorced Islam and its sects, the Sunni and Shia, from the Ottoman Caliphate, leaving doctrine open to local, more radical reinterpretation. The restoration of the caliphate lives on today in militant propaganda.
In the midst of the snow- and blood-choked battles on the Eastern Front in 1917, the Romanov dynasty that had ruled Russia for four centuries fell, ultimately to be replaced by a Bolshevist regime that itself held sway throughout the Cold War. In its first decades, the resulting civil war and Stalinist purges would eliminate a further 40 million people from the planet. Stalin then signed a cynical deal with Adolf Hitler to divide Poland in 1939, setting up a betrayal that would cost another 20 million Soviet lives as the two tyrannies turned on each other during the second “great war.”
Historians endlessly debate the causes of World War I, but only the obtuse can doubt where the second one had its origins. Germany and its allies (Italy, Japan) were the clear aggressors, yes. But the seeds of World War II’s even greater bloodletting sprouted from the punitive, ultimately self-defeating demands imposed on the Germans in 1919 by Britain and France in the vindictive peace at Versailles.
It’s quite easy to write off all the remembrances as irrelevant, just dusty relics of a bygone era, or the preserve of history boffins. It is not: the Great War still defines and poisons our time. A hundred years later, the casualty count continues…