Saturday, August 02, 2014

The Worst Hell: The Great War 100 Years On

Why did a prosperous continent, at the height of its success as a source and agent of global wealth and power and at one of the peaks of its intellectual and cultural achievement, choose to risk all it had won for itself and all it offered to the world in the lottery of a vicious and local internecine conflict?

--Sir John Keegan, British military historian

For nearly a century after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo (1815), Europe reaped the benefits of peace. Until the first weekend of August 100 years ago, that is, when it all exploded away, forever.

We know how the horrors of the Great War led directly to World War II. The two are of a piece; Germany punished by the Versailles Treaty but left still whole, rose again to tear Europe apart in 1939, just 21 years after the World War I armistice. When I first saw German cities in 1955, another 16 years on, great blocks of buildings remained in ruin, while war-ravaged Naples was still a poverty-ridden mess. Yet Western European recovery by 1955 had crossed over to early prosperity, the year of the Brussels Treaty which gave birth to the Common Market.

That was Western Europe. The Cold War, a legacy of World War II and World War I’s grandson, did not end for Eastern Europe until 1991. Europe wreaked for nearly a century, by its own hand.

Better leaders could have avoided the Great War and its subsequent European and worldwide disasters. Empires by 1914 had become too unwieldy to hold together, but fearful aristocrats residing in Berlin, Vienna, St. Petersburg, Paris, Rome, London, and Constantinople were far too unsure of their own rising middle and working classes (as well as their women) to relinquish the power of nationalism, the power that united all classes against a common enemy. Europe needed internal democracy, and Europe needed to accept the break-up of empires that would have accompanied democracy. Instead, Europe got war, along with internal democracy and empire disintegration anyway.

We have already noted Harvard political science professor Graham Allison’s insightful examination of why leaders are so unable to correct a wrong course of action until well after the “turning point,” why they persist even as the damage of their misguided actions rolls through their nations. Of such a nightmare, World War I is Example #1.

World Wars I and II formed a single, unrepaired disaster. That means no group of leaders ever did more damage to the world’s people than the small men who took us into the Great War. . . exactly 100 years ago.

We must learn from history.

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