Who Needs World War I?

Who Needs World War I?

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Publishers are celebrating  the centennial year with a slew of books on the origins of World War I and modern historians are  giving us a new perspective on that classic topic.   When I first studied the subject the conventional wisdom said a Great War in Europe was probably inevitable. Sarajevo was just the spark.  The explosives had been set for a generation. A continent divided into two hostile blocks, generals on each side pathologically focused on speedy mobilization, once any country put troops on trains, a major war was unstoppable. Europe was tied to the tracks, waiting to be cut to pieces. This attitude resonated during the cold war, when we felt ourselves under threat of nuclear destruction. These days that is no longer the consensus view. Contemporary historians like Sean McMeekin and Christopher Clark don’t have nearly as fatalistic a perspective.

History books tell us as much about the time they were written as the time they were written about. With chaos theory now in vogue, historians today remind us that had a few butterflies flapped their wings slightly differently, a general war could have been avoided. If Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s driver not made a wrong turn, if Wilhelm II not been a close personal friend of the Austrian heir, if the Austrian Hungarian foreign ministry not been so dilatory, if the wife of the victor of the most recent French election not shot a newspaper editor because he published her husband’s salubrious love letters (no, really), if the British establishment not been distracted by the probability that Irish home rule would spark a civil war, Europe would have dodged the bullet in July 1914 and if a general war not broken out then, there is little reason to assume it would have become more likely later. 

By 1914, great power rivalries were waning.  The British had decisively won the dreadnaught race and Germany was beginning to accept continued British domination of the high seas. More and more Britons saw Russia, not Germany as the primary threat to their empire.  Franz Ferdinand was the leader of the peace faction in Vienna and had he lived and become Emperor, he would have vetoed any attack on Serbia. The Great War, most historians now tell us, wasn’t inevitable, its outbreak just unspeakably bad luck.

Few events are more central to the history of the 20th century than the First World War.  Without Sarajevo, Tannenberg and the Somme, we have no Hitler, no Lenin, no Hemingway.  The history of the past hundred years flows directly from the happenstance series of events that led to Europe destroying itself for little reason between 1914 and 1918. 

And yet, if we imagine a German diplomat or general falling asleep in February 1914 and waking up today to see a prosperous Germany dominating a peaceful Europe, he would be pleased but not be surprised. The fall of the multiethnic Austrian Hungarian and Ottoman empires and their replacement by nation states was also predictable. No one in 1914 would have been astonished to learn that 100 years later Russia would remain an exporter of raw materials and its politics would be authoritarian, oligarchic, and corrupt. Britain’s half-hearted relationship towards the rest of Europe would startle no one.   What would shock our German general is the realization that it took two brutal world wars and the rise and fall of communism to achieve this outcome. Disastrous defeat twice over did not impede Germany’s rise.

So we have a conundrum.  On the one hand, even deeply important historical events can be seen as accidents or flukes.  On the other, over the longer term history seems tied to the profound processes of demographics, technology, culture and institutions that have little to do with the actions of mere men.  To put it another way, even if Christopher Columbus had never gone to sea, cassava would nonetheless be a staple crop in Africa today and a Nahuatl speaking emperor  would not be ruling Mexico.  If we explore the counterfactual and assume that World War I had not broken out in 1914 and so the Russian Revolution  not occurred in 1917 and Hitler not come to power in 1933, we might still end up with a world pretty close to what we have today.  I’m not sure what that tells us about the value of the study of history.


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