100 years since World War I: Could it happen again today?
One hundred years ago today, Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia in retaliation for the assassination one month earlier of his heir apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by a Serbian pan-Slavic nationalist. What might otherwise have remained a regional conflict between the dying Hapsburg Empire and one of its former holdings instead became, through a tangle of alliances and a global power imbalance, two world wars that began in 1914 and ended in 1945, with a 21-year intermission for the Jazz Age and the Great Depression. Civilian and military casualties for the two wars approached 100 million – roughly the entire population of the United States as of July 1914.
Histories of World War One often portray its beginning as a tragic accident resulting from a sequence of blunders committed by both the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Germany, the Ottoman Empire) and the Allies (Serbia, France, Great Britain, Imperial Russia, and, after the Bolshevik revolution removed Russia from the conflict, the United States). Certainly no one could have anticipated a war lasting four years, except perhaps hawkish British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, best remembered for saying, in August 1914, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” (What is seldom mentioned is that Grey’s eyesight was quite literally failing at the time.)
Though the magnitude of the Great War was unforeseen, its likelihood was not. The Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck, who engineered Germany’s 1871 unification, famously predicted before his death in 1898 that a “great European war” would be set off by “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” The ascent to the German throne in 1888 of Kaiser Wilhelm II established that German belligerence would be the driving force, no matter what the proximate cause. Thus it was that Austria-Hungary’s’s declaration of war rapidly triggered Germany’s declaration of war on Russia (Aug. 1); France (Aug. 3); and on neutral Belgium (Aug. 4), the pathway to France, which Germany hoped to conquer before Russia could fully mobilize. Instead, Allied and German troops entered a long trench-warfare stalemate on the western front.
Could it happen again today? Writing in an Atlantic commemorative issue, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen suggests that it could, imagining that intensifying conflict between the Ukrainian government and Russian fifth columnists led to similar rebellion by the Russian minority in Estonia and that, simultaneously, China decided to assert territorial claims on uninhabited Japanese islands in the East China sea. (For some reason Cohen leaves out the Middle East, whose current map is an artifact of World War One.) The best hope for restraint, ironically, is the terrifying prospect of nuclear war, which didn’t exist 100 years ago. But that prospect also raises a possibility, however dim, of global annihilation that could make the 20th century’s two world wars look like a street-corner brawl.
Germany, whose militarism created untold misery in World War One and turned pathological (and genocidal) in World War Two, is now arguably the sanest and most peace-loving nation on the planet. Its dream of dominating Europe has been partially realized within the safely circumscribed realm of economics, where in the process of wrangling with debt-burdened European Union partners, prosperous Germany has learned that hegemony isn’t as much fun as it looks – something Americans have known for seven decades. Meanwhile, Germany recently channeled its more nationalistic impulses quite healthily into winning the World Cup. If only that outlet had been available to Kaiser Wilhelm II.