BRADLEY R. GITZ: 100 years after disaster

The year 2018 represents the 100th anniversary of the end of perhaps the worst calamity to visit mankind--the Great War (we didn't call it World War I until we had a second that the consequences of the first did so much to cause).

The Great War was especially tragic because it was stumbled into by the European powers without any clear goals and no sense of the horrors that were waiting ahead. The only "accidental war" that I'm aware of killed 18 million people.

Because Europe had enjoyed a century of relative peace between Waterloo and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, political leaders and military strategists had no conception of how bloody war in the industrial age could be (the American Civil War might have provided some useful lessons, but European elites were too arrogant to learn from the rubes across the Atlantic).

Military strategy would therefore take several years to adapt, as human wave attacks were mowed down by machine guns and the fields of northern France came to resemble the denuded surface of the moon.

War would lose any semblance of allure or romance after Passchendaele and the Somme, and Europeans, after such senseless slaughter, would never view the idea of "progress" the same way again.

The United States, with a population of more than 310 million, has suffered slightly more than 7,000 battle deaths since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). The French, with a population of just 40 million, lost 27,000 on just one day in August 1914.

Despite a century's worth of scholarly investigation, the causes of World War I remain obscure; the consequences, including the instillation of a lingering historical pessimism, are, however, still with us.

The most obvious of those consequences was the notorious Versailles Settlement, with its treatment of a defeated Germany the result of frustrating compromise at Paris between Woodrow Wilson's goal of a non-punitive peace and France's desire to undo the handiwork of Bismarck and dismember its hated rival altogether.

The result was the worst possible kind of peace treaty--sufficiently damaging to provoke a German desire for revenge, but not damaging enough to prevent the Germans from later pursuing that desire.

The seeds of World War II were therefore sown on that day in November 1918 when a young Austrian corporal in hospital after a poison gas attack heard the crushing news that the Kaiser had abdicated and a new German government (Weimar) had sued for peace; that Germany had suddenly lost the war he had so confidently believed it would win just a few months earlier.

Wilson had promised upon America's belated but decisive entry into the conflict that we were fighting a "war to end all wars" and "to make the world safe for democracy."

To be sure, the outcome of the Great War finished off what was left of European autocracy, in the form of the German, Austrian, Russian and Ottoman dynasties. But democracy wouldn't be the beneficiary, as the number of democratic states would actually be cut in half by the late 1930s.

Rather, the outcome of the war left crucial parties--not just Germany, but also Italy and Japan, the future Axis--profoundly dissatisfied with the post-war global order and determined to undermine it.

In the place of archaic monarchies there sprouted aggressive and vastly more powerful totalitarian regimes, built on profoundly anti-Democratic ideologies like fascism, National Socialism, and Marxism-Leninism.

The war didn't just provoke the rise of Mussolini and Hitler; it also gave us communism in the form of the Bolshevik Revolution and eventually, after the thug Vladimir Lenin's death, Joseph Stalin's murderous Soviet Union.

If the Cold War can be viewed as World War III, albeit fought largely through different means, it can be properly said to have begun with a midnight seizure of power by a ruthless band of ideologues in Petrograd in October 1917.

The Great War thus set us on the path toward virtually all of the horrors that followed--dekulakization in the Ukraine, the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by nearly a half-century of Cold War that featured a dangerous nuclear arms race, superpower confrontations in places like Cuba, and wearying proxy conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.

With hindsight, the two world wars should probably be more properly viewed as a single European "civil war," with a tenuous two-decade-long cease fire between episodes. Indeed, the further we move through time, the more the two conflicts get crushed together, and the causes of the second seem to flow even more directly from the results of the first.

Perhaps the biggest "what if" in the bloody 20th century is what if Gavrilo Princip had missed his targets a second time that June day in 1914 in Sarajevo.

Steven Pinker's new book Enlightenment Now represents a plea for perspective and seeks to convince us that life is better than ever--to, in essence, restore our faith in the idea of "progress" derived from the Enlightenment.

That he feels the need to make that argument, and that it is such a tough sell in so many respects, is because of what the Great War unleashed.


Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 03/12/2018