Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The war that shaped the 20th century

It all starts with World War I. Well not really, because human history always stretches backward through old cultures, old knowledge, and old hurts. But that first great war of the past century, which embroiled peoples all over the globe in a conflict begun in Europe, did set the stage for much of what everyone born through the 1990s thought was a durable reality. We may indeed, in this season when decline of U.S. empire has become more visible, be living in another turning point when old truths will be overthrown. But I remain convinced that the more we understand what we've come out of, the better we can understand where we are today. So. I'm reading a series of books about World War I and will be writing a good deal about the 1914-1918 "Great War" in the next few months.

First up is David Fromkin's 2004 volume Europe's Last Summer: Who Started The Great War In 1914? The question in the title has been much argued over in subsequent historical writing; essentially Fromkin brings the state of the debate up to date, incorporating archival discoveries from the 1980s and 1990s that in his view settles the question very simply: the German Army Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke thought war was Germany's only chance for continued world power and he ensured war came when a chance presented itself.

This is not how we usually think about great historical events -- that one man could have maneuvered many states into actions that eventually killed over 20 million people and ended up with a redrawn map of the world. Here's Fromkin's conclusion in a nutshell:

The peculiarity of the First World War is that, even though it occurred in modern times, somewhat democratic and, to an extent, responsive to the voices of the public, its origins involved so few people: a handful in a handful of countries. It is not just that a tiny number of individuals made the decisions; it is startling that few people even knew that anything was happening or that decisions were there to be made or were being made. It was a crisis that arose and was played out in secret. ... In suggesting that one or more individuals started the First World War, I am using words in their most everyday and ordinary sense. I mean that there were men who wanted to start a war, and who deliberately acted in such a way as to start one, and who succeeded, by what they did, in starting a war. So the detective in a murder mystery, summing up the evidence for the house guests in the library, might point a finger accusingly and say: "There is the person who did it." In the case of Germany we point to Moltke. He started the world war, and he did so deliberately.

... It was no accident that Europe went to war at that time. It was the result of premeditated decisions by two governments. Once those two countries had invaded their neighbors, there was no way for the neighbors to keep the peace. ...To repeat, it takes two or more to keep the peace, but only one to start a war. And that means that it could happen again. An aggressor can start a major war even today and even if other great powers desire to stay at peace--unless other nations are powerful enough to deter it.

...The decision for war in 1914 was purposeful; and the war itself was not, as generations of historians have taught, meaningless. On the contrary, it was fought to decide the essential questions in international politics: who would achieve mastery in Europe, and therefore in the world, and under the banners of what faith.

I simply am not well read enough in the historiography of the Great War to know whether I accept Fromkin's conclusion that Moltke "did it." But I do take the warning implicit in his conclusions; a determined man in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead nations into dumb wars. After all, we've just seen what Dick Cheney, his sidekick David Addington, and a compliant George W. did in Iraq.
In untangling the threads of causation of the war in 1914, Fromkin has a lot to say that casts a fascinating light on that world and ours. Some tidbits:
  • There's nothing new about what we call "globalization." The emerging capitalist global system was on track toward full economic integration. In this light, the nationalisms of the 20th century seem almost a detour.

    Even more than today, it was a time of free capital flows and free movements of people and goods. An outstanding current study of the world as of 2000 tells us that there was more globalization before the 1914 war than there is now: "much of the final quarter of the twentieth century was spent merely recovering ground lost in the previous seventy-five years."

  • Prominent politicians died by violence in that world with a frequency that makes our our time seem orderly by comparison.

    Kings, presidents, prime ministers, and other leaders of government and society were murdered promiscuously, without exciting as much surprise as such events would cause today. ...During the twenty years of [before an Austrian archdukes's murder in Serbia was made a 'cause' for war], assassination had been a frequent and characteristic manifestation of the split between society and its underworld. Among those killed had been the President of France (1894), the Shah of Persia (1896), the President of Uruguay (1896), the Prime Minister of Spain (1897), the President of Guatemala (1898), the Empress of Austria (1898), the President of the Dominican Republic (1899), the King of Italy (1900), the President of the United States (1901), the King and Queen of Serbia (1903), the Prime Minister of Greece (1905), the Prime Minister of Bulgaria (1907), the Prime Minister of Persia (1907), the King of Portugal (1908), the Prime Minister of Egypt (1910), the Prime Minister of Russia (1911), the Prime Minister of Spain (1912), the President of Mexico (1913), and the King of the Hellenes (1913). On average, one head of state or head of government was murdered every year.

  • War itself was thought to be a virtuous activity, at least among the ruling elites.

    Today, we take it for granted that governments hope to keep the peace. It is our often unarticulated assumption. Since the development of weapons of mass destruction, everybody would lose, we say, if war were to break out among the Great Powers. ... It would be a mistake, however, to assume that a century ago world leaders would have shared such a view. Their thinking at the time was well expressed in what has been called "the first great speech" in the political career of Theodore Roosevelt, newly appointed assistant secretary of the navy in the incoming administration of U.S. President William McKinley. Addressing the Naval War College in 1897, Roosevelt claimed: "No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war." War, he declared, was a fine and healthy thing. "All the great masterful races have been fighting races; and the minute that a race loses the hard fighting virtues, then. . . it has lost its proud right to stand as the equal of the best." He argued: "Cowardice in a race, as in an individual, is the unpardonable sin."

  • Even the more evil among our rulers seldom promote this kind of moral imbecility publicly these days. Roosevelt sounds like Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer.
  • Fromkin stresses the extent to which the war launched in 1914 set the stage for events throughout the last century.

    The conflict that Germany's military leaders initiated by declaring war on Russia August 1, 1914, did not come to an end until the last Russian soldier left German soil on August 3 I, 1994.

    On this, I've prepared to believe him, being reminded of the long running and incalculable consequences of "hostilities" lightly begun. Wonder if President Obama has had time to notice this yet with regard to his little Libyan foray?


Kay Dennison said...

I have to read this book!!!! Thanks!!!

sfmike said...

Iraq and Afghanistan today stem from the mess of World War One. Though Gertrude Stein, in her book "Wars I Have Seen" claims that the19th century was still dying fitfully up through the Second World War, I'd disagree. World War One was a serious break in 19th century history into a new time which we still haven't resolved, something very much on the mind of our new Nobel laureate Doris Lessing who is also obsessed with The Great War.

And yes, we're at another "breaking" point in time/history.

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