November 11, 2008, marks the ninetieth anniversary of the end of one of the most cataclysmic events of human history, the First World War. At 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918, the guns that had been decimating soldiers for more than four years fell silent. Almost 10 million soldiers lay dead. Large areas of Europe, Asia, and Africa were scarred with craters produced by artillery and mines, and trenches dug by millions of soldiers. In Winston Churchill’s memorable words, “All the horrors of all the ages were brought together, and not only armies but whole populations were thrust into the midst of them.”1
The physical carnage produced by the war, however, paled in comparison to the moral and political carnage that the war created and that shaped the rest of the twentieth century. The American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan rightly called the First World War the “seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century. It marked the great divide between the old world and its religious and politically conservative values and customs and the new world, described so perceptively by the British historian Paul Johnson as “a world adrift, having left its moorings in traditional law and morality.”2
Four old world empires – Hapsburg, Hohenzollern, Romanov, and Ottoman – fell as a result of the First World War. Secular totalitarian ideologies, reminiscent of the Terror of the French Revolution, seized power in Russia, Italy, Japan, and eventually Germany, China, and smaller countries. Those secular ideologies produced what Johnson calls “gangster-statesmen” imbued with the “Will to Power” and willing and able to make “human sacrifices to ideology” on an unprecedented and monstrous scale.3
In a very real sense, the Armenian genocide, the Russian Civil War, Lenin’s “war communism,” Stalin’s forced collectivization and starvation of the Ukrainian and Russian peasantry, the Great Terror, the Gulag Archipelago, the Nazi Holocaust, the rape of Nanking, the 60 million dead of the Second World War, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the nuclear arms race, Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, the Middle East wars and conflict, Pol Pot’s Cambodian genocide, and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans are all offspring of the First World War.
The spark that ignited that great conflagration was the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the Hapsburg throne by a Serbian terrorist, Gavrilo Princip, on June 28, 1914. The European great powers had for decades been gradually splitting into two alliances on the continent, while Germany and Great Britain engaged in a naval arms race. In 1890, the steady, guiding hand of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was removed from the increasingly precarious balance of power. A more aggressive and reckless Kaiser Wilhelm II threatened to upset the balance of power and backed Austria-Hungary’s effort to punish Serbia and reclaim its dominance in the Balkans. Russia, invoking its self-appointed role as protector of the Slavs, mobilized in support of Serbia. France mobilized in support of Russia, and Great Britain eventually came to the aid of France. Old Europe started its path to suicide.
Germany’s war plan to swiftly defeat France then attack the Russians, based on ideas and concepts first formulated by General Alfred von Schlieffen, faltered on the Marne River. The course of the war soon proved that technology had outpaced strategy as generals on both sides sent wave after wave of infantry against entrenched enemy positions armed with machine guns. It was mass slaughter of the attackers, and was repeated time and time again throughout the war. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, the British army suffered more than 60,000 casualties, including about 20,000 dead, but little ground was gained. Similar offensives met similar fates throughout the war.
As Europe lurched toward suicide, the United States was brought into the war as a result of Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. America’s involvement tipped the scales in the Allies’ favor. In 1918, a final, initially successful, German offensive was halted. German military leaders, with Allied forces closing in, sued for peace and blamed the politicians for defeat.
The Treaty of Versailles blamed Germany for the war and imposed harsh conditions of peace on the German people and government, but it essentially left Germany intact. When French Marshal Foch heard the terms of the treaty, he remarked with, in Churchill’s words, singular accuracy, that “This is not Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years.”4
President Woodrow Wilson sought to impose a peace on Europe that would make the world safe for democracy. His utopian vision of a League of Nations clashed with the reality of aggressive totalitarian powers, fueled by secular, universal ideologies, that sought to impose their rule and expand their power as far as their armies and navies would take them. There was no escaping the consequences of the First World War. It shaped everything that came after it. Its shadow remains over us today.