Commentary Magazine


The Great War at 100

The 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, has come and gone, prompting a lot of reflections on the significance and implications of World War I. Even if Gavrilo Princip’s shots were only the excuse, not the real cause, of the Great War, it is hard to exaggerate their significance.

The conflict swept away the entire Ottoman and Habsburg empires along with the governments of Germany, Austria, Turkey, Russia, and other states. It led to the creation of the modern Balkans and the modern Middle East. Nazism, fascism, and Communism–all the great ideological ills of the 20th century–would never have become as virulent as they did absent the devastation wrought by the 1914-1918 conflict. There would have been no Stalin in power, no Hitler, and there would have been no World War II–and hence no Korean War or Vietnam War. It is impossible to imagine how history would have gone otherwise but it would have been incomparably different–and probably for the better.

Even now, with those terrible “isms” having all but disappeared (mercifully!) and with some of the post-World War I states either gone (Yugoslavia) or on the verge of extinction (Syria, Iraq), the legacy of the war lives on. It can be seen not just in the long, depressing rows of crosses to be found in military cemeteries from the Somme to Verdun, nor in the statues of Franz Ferdinand and Gavrilo Pricip now to be found in Sarajevo. It can be found, still, in the map of Europe and the Middle East which, for all of the recent turmoil, largely reflects the legacy of World War I. And it can be found in the way that warfare is waged, running the spectrum from terrorism (of the kind perpetrated by Princip and his comrades in the Black Hand) to the use of tanks and airplanes and fast-moving mechanized infantry maneuvered by radio–all technologies introduced during the First World War.

How did this cataclysm come about? The most popular interpretation, advanced by the most popular account of the war’s origins (The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman) claims it was an accident that no one wanted. That outlook, while still held by some, has been convincingly refuted by a host of historians including many influential German scholars who refused to accept a whitewash of their country’s responsibility for starting the First World War as well as the Second. The excellent British historian Max Hastings marshaled much of the evidence in his recent book “Catastrophe 1914″ (which I reviewed here).

He writes: “The case still seems overwhelmingly strong that Germany bore principal blame. Even if it did not conspire to bring war about, it declined to exercise its power to prevent the outbreak by restraining Austria. Even if Berlin did not seek to contrive a general European conflagration, it was willing for one, because it believed that it could win.”

There is an important implication to this conclusion: namely that wars are not generally the result of “arms races” or “misunderstandings” that can be prevented with international mediation. Rather they are usually the result of deliberate policies by capricious regimes which may not want to fight but are willing to risk conflict in order to achieve their power-hungry aims. It stands to reason that the best bet for preventing future conflict is not in sponsoring more diplomatic negotiations but rather in the forces of freedom keeping their powder dry.

That is something that Great Britain, the guardian of international order in the pre-1914 world, singularly failed to do: London was willing to maintain the greatest fleet in the world but its army was so small that it was not reckoned to be a serious factor in continental calculations and its willingness to stand up to German aggression was in doubt. This hesitancy and unpreparedness on the part of London gave Imperial Germany the opening it was seeking to launch a preemptive campaign of conquest against both France and Russia–something that even the German General Staff, arrogant as they were, might not have dared had they been certain of massive and timely British intervention.

Alas, today, the enemies of freedom, from Moscow to Tehran to Pyongyang, can no longer be certain in the readiness and resolve of the greatest champion of freedom in today’s world–the United States. Our president has allowed red lines to be crossed with impunity and our defense capabilities are deteriorating because of mindless budget cuts. That is a dangerous situation. We are unlikely, thank goodness, to see another conflict on the scale of World War I, but we are courting lesser conflicts that can still prove deadly and dangerous–like the wars now engulfing Iraq and Syria, those progeny of World War I.

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