Divvying Up the Caliphate: The Long-Term Causes of the War

A hundred years later, the dominoes are still falling from the First World War, and people are dying as they fall -- some, in Iraq and Syria, pretty gruesomely.

In analyzing how a disaster of this magnitude could have happened, it’s the short-run causes that are critical.  If no one lights the fuse -- to switch metaphors -- the stick of dynamite doesn’t explode.

So it’s fair to say that the war was caused by decisions made during the final week of July 1914. Germany and Austria, set on war, rejected repeated offers to negotiate the trivial differences between Vienna’s ultimatum and the conciliatory Serb reply, while Russia decided it would not permit Serbia to be invaded, occupied, and reduced to a vassal state. In the end, some 9.7 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died because Austria, backed by Germany, insisted that it had the right to conduct on Serbian soil an investigation into the assassination of the Archduke Francis-Ferdinand, and that any conference to resolve the dispute -- to establish an international commission to investigate the crime -- was incompatible with its dignity.

On July 31, Russia, alarmed by the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia and the shelling of Bagdad, and discouraged by repeated refusals to negotiate, mobilized as a way of exerting pressure on Vienna. Just as Russia’s leaders hadn’t realized two days earlier that a partial mobilization against Austria was an impossibility -- if Germany decided to back its ally, the Czar’s armies would face a logistical nightmare -- so they weren’t aware that the dilatory Austrians had no plans to attack Serbia until August 12, that mobilizing along the German frontier would trigger an immediate countermobilization, and that for Germany, as for no other country in Europe, mobilization meant war.

But if they are precipitated by the decisions of individuals -- in this case the obstinacy and blundering of fewer than two dozen men -- great events do have great causes, and in this case they go back to the misty recesses of prehistory.  The stick of dynamite was a long time in the making.

Ancient Roots

Around the 7th century B.C., Iron Age warrior tribes began descending on the Danube valley from the north and proceeded to spread in all directions, sometimes as mercenaries, sometimes as conquerors. They were the Celts, and they ravaged Rome in 386 B.C. The Romans were impressed by their long blonde hair, their blue war paint, and their ferocity in battle. But the Celts were disorganized and would sometimes lose heart or panic if there were reverses.

Under Julius Caesar the better organized, better disciplined Roman legions systematically conquered what had become the great Celtic homeland, Gaul.  Meanwhile, new tribes descended from Scandinavia and menaced the Gallic Celts from across the Rhine. These were the Germans, and their raids provided the original pretext for the legions to head north.

The Romans considered subjugating the Germans, but a disastrous ambush in 9 A.D., when three legions were annihilated, changed their mind, and they secured the Rhine as the Empire’s border.

The Gauls prospered under Roman rule. The upper classes enjoyed the comforts and pleasures of civilization: roads, aqueducts, baths, marble temples, marketplaces, good food, and, especially, good wine.

But Rome declined and fell. Forts along the borders were abandoned. On the last day of the year in 410, a confederacy of eastern German tribes surged across the Rhine, overwhelming the defenders. Some western German clans stood side-by-side with the legionnaires, defending the aqueducts and the baths. By this point, some individual Germans had gained high positions within the Western Empire, and most of the invaders wanted simply to move into the Empire, not overthrow it. 

The most important of the Germanic tribes defending Roman rule that day were the Franks, who had settled in what’s now Belgium. They would eventually get their revenge on their barbarian cousins.

In 496, one of their kings, Clovis, converted to Catholicism and became the defender of the pope, the successor to the emperors. The alliance was sealed by Charlemagne, who defeated and subjugated the German invaders of Italy, and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by another grateful pope. He was now the successor to Augustus Caesar.

Charlemagne took his new office to heart, and year after year crossed the Rhine with his armies, conquering the German tribes, leveling their shrines, and converting them to Christianity. The Germans would never forgive the Frankish renegade.

Charlemagne’s great empire did not survive his death by many years. Viking invasions ravaged the great coastal ports. Meeting at Verdun in 843, Charlemagne’s harassed grandsons divided the empire into three parts. Eventually other dynasties would take over the Western Frankish Empire, and, after several centuries, chase out the English, whose Norman rulers had acquired large slices of what would become France. German tribal chiefs inherited the Eastern Empire after the last Frankish heir died in 899. The wealthy middle kingdom, which included the Rhine valley and northern Italy, fragmented. Down to the 20th century, rulers of the former Western and Eastern Empires would fight over Lotharingia, the middle kingdom, the inheritance of Charlemagne’s second grandson.

The king of the Germans, who was actually elected -- though not by one man, one vote -- was also the Holy Roman Emperor. Unfortunately, the title invariably went to his head. Instead of unifying his realm and modernizing its government, the Emperor repeatedly headed across the Alps to threaten or replace a pope (and in one case submit to the pontiff) and to secure his Italian territories and the revenue they provided.

And so Germany was not united until 1871. It quickly became the wealthiest, most industrialized, most powerful nation in Europe. In the process of becoming a nation, it had snatched two former Lotharingian provinces. As the 20th century opened, the French, though the statues of Alsace and Lorraine were still draped in black in the Place de la Concorde, recognized they had no prospect of recovering the provinces. Outmanned and outgunned, they watched nervously across the Rhine, where the sword was rattled repeatedly from 1905 on. Many in Germany awaited “Der Tag,” the Day, when France would be overrun and Charlemagne at last revenged.

Enter Islam

Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel, had defeated Arab invaders near Tours in 732. The victory was decisive. Though Muslims ruled nearly all of Spain, they would never again cross the Pyrenees.

Islamic armies had flooded out of the Arabian peninsula after Mohammed’s death in 632, eventually conquering Persia, the Middle East, and North Africa. The Byzantine Empire, the former Eastern Roman Empire, ruled by Greeks, was devastated by the Islamic invasions, but eventually recovered parts of the Middle East and Anatolia.

The Empire fared less well during the second wave of Islamic invasions. The conquerors this time were the Ottoman Turks, and they managed to get into Europe, sweeping around Constantinople, the great Byzantine capital. The Serbs were defeated in 1389, the Bulgarians in 1393. Two Crusades were launched by French, Flemish, German, and Hungarian knights to save Eastern Christianity. They met with defeat, and in 1453, Constantinople itself fell to the Turks.

For over four centuries, the Balkan peoples, and the large Christian populations in Anatolia, would be ruled by Muslims. 

The cruelest of the Ottoman institutions was the devșirme, in which the most promising sons, and sometimes daughters, of Christian families were taken from their homes and sent off to Constantinople to serve as Janissaries, or in the harem. 

Still, the suffering is sometimes exaggerated. There was no concept of “citizen” or “individual rights” at that time, and villages and towns were governed by their own communal leaders, and worshiped in Orthodox churches. There was no pressure to convert, as there would be under Catholic rule. The rulers in Constantinople only wanted their jizya, the tax paid by infidels, the rayah, sheep to be sheared.

But the economic and intellectual stagnation under Ottoman rule was oppressive, and retarded the development of the South Slavs. Even in the middle of the 18th century, there were only a handful of printers in the Ottoman Empire, and they were all Greeks. What trade existed was carried on by Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. 

In 1683, the Turks, for the second time, massed outside the gates of Vienna. This time their defeat was decisive. In the rout that followed, Austria reoccupied territory lost in the 14th and 15th century. And east of the Carpathians, the Russians, strengthened and united by Peter the Great, began marching south.

The dates of the battles and treaties are not important, but slowly Russia moved down to the Black Sea. There were defeats; it was often two steps forward, one step back. The Turks were fortunate that they faced the two most backward, unwieldy states in Europe. If they had been up against the English and French, Constantinople would have fallen in a decade or two.

In fact, though, first the French, then the British became the defenders of the Ottoman Empire. 

Unlike the Chinese, who were ruled by successive empires for three thousand years, Europeans have always fought bitterly among themselves. Napoleon and Hitler had brief successes, but there would be no Emperor of Europe after Charlemagne.

On the theory that one’s enemies’ enemies are one’s friends, Francis I, the great Renaissance King of France, allied with the Turks against the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Even some Protestant principalities followed suit. For nearly three hundred years, France remained the partner of the Ottomans, even permitting them a base near Marseilles to raid commerce in the Mediterranean. 

Napoleon ended the friendship by invading Egypt. But then the British took over. Worried about the Russian threat to India in the 19th century, and determined to keep the Russians penned in the Black Sea, the British subsidized and supported the Caliphate.

When the Greeks rebelled in 1821, however, British sympathies were with the people they viewed as the heirs of Plato and Aristotle. British and Russian war ships together annihilated the Turkish fleet at Navarino in 1827, and Greece became independent. 

Then, in 1876, when the Bulgarians rebelled, the British were outraged by the massacres of Christian peasants that followed. Disraeli was swept out of office on a wave of righteous indignation. By the mid-1890s, even a Conservative government was appalled when the Sultan began killing Armenians en masse.  “We backed the wrong horse,” Lord Salisbury confessed. 

Relations continued to sour, as the British kept pressing for reforms. But the Germans now saw a golden opportunity. The Kaiser sailed to Constantinople, shook the bloody hand of the Sultan, and proclaimed himself his friend and the protector of Muslims everywhere.

Germany, so late to unite, had found the world already partitioned. Though it managed to seize territory in southern Africa, it had been shut out of the temperate zones where European populations could flourish. Germans emigrated in waves to America, but they became Americans. The U.S. got hamburgers, hot dogs (frankfurters), donuts, pretzels, and beer, but after one or two generations, German-Americans no longer identified with the Fatherland.

Now there was a chance for Germans to develop, and perhaps colonize, the lands so badly ruled by the Ottomans.

The route to Constantinople lay through the Balkans. It was vital to those with imperial visions that this territory remain under the control of Austrians. By no means were all Germans taken with pan-Germanic schemes. But it was not just a sense of honor that persuaded leaders in Berlin to lend their support to Vienna.

A Rumbling in the East

The Russians and Austrians had originally been allies as each rolled back Ottoman conquests.  But as early as 1739, the Austrians became wary of their partners. They had no wish to see the Turks replaced in the Balkans by Russians.  The Russians had a great advantage with the local populations -- they were fellow Slavs.

Vienna’s problem was not just its rivalry with St. Petersburg. 

Nationalism, born in Germany, captivated both Germans and French during the Napoleonic Wars, and soon spread across Europe. Italians, Irish, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, sought independence. That a people with a common language and culture ought to govern itself was a belief adopted with religious fervor. Eventually, this radical idea spread to southeastern Europe. Now it was no longer simply a question of Christians liberating their fellow Christians from Islamic rule. Greeks, Serbs, Croatians, Bulgarians, and Romanians wished to govern themselves. The handwriting was on the wall for the Austrian Empire -- “the prison house of nations” -- as much as for their Ottoman rivals. And the problem was just over the horizon for Russia as well.

After his disillusionment with the Sultan, Lord Salisbury had suggested the Great Powers of Europe work on a plan to partition the Ottoman Empire, which had for decades been called “the Sick Man of Europe.” The Kaiser indignantly rejected the idea. The Germans had decided to support the Sultan, as they supported the Austrians.

Ripples of History

There are no quick and easy lessons from a long view of the origins of World War I.

One takeaway is simply that events even in the remote past have ripples that radiate outward many centuries later.

The ambush by Hermann (Arminius) of Varus’s three legions near Osnabrück in 9 AD, meant that most Germans remained beyond the border of Mediterranean civilization.

The fact that the Germans were then converted not by missionaries, but by the sword, also had reverberations centuries later. By the 1890s, they had become the first Europeans to abandon Christianity en masse.

“Modern Protestant Germany,” wrote a Prussian-born professor who returned to his homeland shortly before the war

is today materialistic to the backbone. The scientific conclusions which at one time were the possession of the University Professor and the savant have, in the course of years, filtered down to the man in the street, and in so persuasive and irresistible a form have they been presented… that they have been instrumental in effacing from the most loyal hearts the last remnant of belief in a personal God, in the spirituality of the human soul, and a future life.

Lutheran pastors became among the most ardent nationalists.

There was no German king who did for his lands what Louis XI, Phillip II, Francis I, Henry IV, and Louis XIV did for France and William I, Edward III, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I did for England -- subdue dukes and barons, create a rudimentary bureaucracy, and help unify their nations. The siren-call of Rome was always too strong for the German Emperors, who could not forget they were the heirs of Augustus Caesar and Charlemagne. Luther, who wanted to unite the Germans, wound up dividing them, and the wars of religion devastated Germany in the 17th century. 

So unity came late to Germany and, like Christianity, was brought about the sword.  The sword was wielded by the most reactionary, caste-ridden kingdom of the thirty-eight German realms, Prussia, “hatched from a cannon-ball.”

And then, in the East, Europeans could not unite to liquidate the Ottoman Empire and liberate their fellow Christians, before those Christians identified passionately with their ethnic group.

Unlike the knights on the Crusades of Varna and Nicopolis, launched to drive the Ottomans from Europe, the Great Powers might have resolved the “Eastern Question” during the final quarter century of the 19th century.

A Better Alternative

It is probably pointless to speculate on what the world would have looked like had they done so, but there can be little doubt it would have been a better place. The lives of the 16 million killed in World War I, the 60 to 80 million in World War II, and the roughly 100 million victims of Communism would have been spared, and the world would have profited from their contributions. And it’s fair to say that the Middle East would look very different today.

With the power and confidence of Europe unshaken by two World Wars, the states in the Middle East, including possibly only one Arab nation, might have eventually been ruled by elites who had been thoroughly Westernized over the course of several generations.  A radical irrendentist Islam might have found little support.  The reforms of Mustafa Kemal -- abolition of the Caliphate and sharia law, marginalization of the madrasses -- may have taken deeper root and become more widely accepted.

The same European confidence and prosperity might have reduced anti-Semitism on the continent, undercutting the incentive to establish a homeland for Jews in the Middle East.  With no Holocaust, there would be no imperative to create a Jewish nation.

In any case, Europe and the world had everything to gain from the growing power of the middle classes on the continent, and the continued evolution of governments that had been responsible for a hundred years of peace and an unprecedented surge in population and wealth.

German hegemony would have been achieved by its economic dynamism, and the country would have much sooner resembled the Germany of today.

But the cylinder of dynamite was ignited and exploded a hundred years ago this month, and after the sufferings inflicted by German national socialism and Russian communism, the West faces a third Islamic threat. This time, owing to sweeping cultural changes that are also a direct consequence of the war, it is less able to defend itself than in the days of Lord Salisbury.

A hundred years later, the dominoes are still falling from the First World War, and people are dying as they fall -- some, in Iraq and Syria, pretty gruesomely.

In analyzing how a disaster of this magnitude could have happened, it’s the short-run causes that are critical.  If no one lights the fuse -- to switch metaphors -- the stick of dynamite doesn’t explode.

So it’s fair to say that the war was caused by decisions made during the final week of July 1914. Germany and Austria, set on war, rejected repeated offers to negotiate the trivial differences between Vienna’s ultimatum and the conciliatory Serb reply, while Russia decided it would not permit Serbia to be invaded, occupied, and reduced to a vassal state. In the end, some 9.7 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died because Austria, backed by Germany, insisted that it had the right to conduct on Serbian soil an investigation into the assassination of the Archduke Francis-Ferdinand, and that any conference to resolve the dispute -- to establish an international commission to investigate the crime -- was incompatible with its dignity.

On July 31, Russia, alarmed by the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia and the shelling of Bagdad, and discouraged by repeated refusals to negotiate, mobilized as a way of exerting pressure on Vienna. Just as Russia’s leaders hadn’t realized two days earlier that a partial mobilization against Austria was an impossibility -- if Germany decided to back its ally, the Czar’s armies would face a logistical nightmare -- so they weren’t aware that the dilatory Austrians had no plans to attack Serbia until August 12, that mobilizing along the German frontier would trigger an immediate countermobilization, and that for Germany, as for no other country in Europe, mobilization meant war.

But if they are precipitated by the decisions of individuals -- in this case the obstinacy and blundering of fewer than two dozen men -- great events do have great causes, and in this case they go back to the misty recesses of prehistory.  The stick of dynamite was a long time in the making.

Ancient Roots

Around the 7th century B.C., Iron Age warrior tribes began descending on the Danube valley from the north and proceeded to spread in all directions, sometimes as mercenaries, sometimes as conquerors. They were the Celts, and they ravaged Rome in 386 B.C. The Romans were impressed by their long blonde hair, their blue war paint, and their ferocity in battle. But the Celts were disorganized and would sometimes lose heart or panic if there were reverses.

Under Julius Caesar the better organized, better disciplined Roman legions systematically conquered what had become the great Celtic homeland, Gaul.  Meanwhile, new tribes descended from Scandinavia and menaced the Gallic Celts from across the Rhine. These were the Germans, and their raids provided the original pretext for the legions to head north.

The Romans considered subjugating the Germans, but a disastrous ambush in 9 A.D., when three legions were annihilated, changed their mind, and they secured the Rhine as the Empire’s border.

The Gauls prospered under Roman rule. The upper classes enjoyed the comforts and pleasures of civilization: roads, aqueducts, baths, marble temples, marketplaces, good food, and, especially, good wine.

But Rome declined and fell. Forts along the borders were abandoned. On the last day of the year in 410, a confederacy of eastern German tribes surged across the Rhine, overwhelming the defenders. Some western German clans stood side-by-side with the legionnaires, defending the aqueducts and the baths. By this point, some individual Germans had gained high positions within the Western Empire, and most of the invaders wanted simply to move into the Empire, not overthrow it. 

The most important of the Germanic tribes defending Roman rule that day were the Franks, who had settled in what’s now Belgium. They would eventually get their revenge on their barbarian cousins.

In 496, one of their kings, Clovis, converted to Catholicism and became the defender of the pope, the successor to the emperors. The alliance was sealed by Charlemagne, who defeated and subjugated the German invaders of Italy, and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by another grateful pope. He was now the successor to Augustus Caesar.

Charlemagne took his new office to heart, and year after year crossed the Rhine with his armies, conquering the German tribes, leveling their shrines, and converting them to Christianity. The Germans would never forgive the Frankish renegade.

Charlemagne’s great empire did not survive his death by many years. Viking invasions ravaged the great coastal ports. Meeting at Verdun in 843, Charlemagne’s harassed grandsons divided the empire into three parts. Eventually other dynasties would take over the Western Frankish Empire, and, after several centuries, chase out the English, whose Norman rulers had acquired large slices of what would become France. German tribal chiefs inherited the Eastern Empire after the last Frankish heir died in 899. The wealthy middle kingdom, which included the Rhine valley and northern Italy, fragmented. Down to the 20th century, rulers of the former Western and Eastern Empires would fight over Lotharingia, the middle kingdom, the inheritance of Charlemagne’s second grandson.

The king of the Germans, who was actually elected -- though not by one man, one vote -- was also the Holy Roman Emperor. Unfortunately, the title invariably went to his head. Instead of unifying his realm and modernizing its government, the Emperor repeatedly headed across the Alps to threaten or replace a pope (and in one case submit to the pontiff) and to secure his Italian territories and the revenue they provided.

And so Germany was not united until 1871. It quickly became the wealthiest, most industrialized, most powerful nation in Europe. In the process of becoming a nation, it had snatched two former Lotharingian provinces. As the 20th century opened, the French, though the statues of Alsace and Lorraine were still draped in black in the Place de la Concorde, recognized they had no prospect of recovering the provinces. Outmanned and outgunned, they watched nervously across the Rhine, where the sword was rattled repeatedly from 1905 on. Many in Germany awaited “Der Tag,” the Day, when France would be overrun and Charlemagne at last revenged.

Enter Islam

Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel, had defeated Arab invaders near Tours in 732. The victory was decisive. Though Muslims ruled nearly all of Spain, they would never again cross the Pyrenees.

Islamic armies had flooded out of the Arabian peninsula after Mohammed’s death in 632, eventually conquering Persia, the Middle East, and North Africa. The Byzantine Empire, the former Eastern Roman Empire, ruled by Greeks, was devastated by the Islamic invasions, but eventually recovered parts of the Middle East and Anatolia.

The Empire fared less well during the second wave of Islamic invasions. The conquerors this time were the Ottoman Turks, and they managed to get into Europe, sweeping around Constantinople, the great Byzantine capital. The Serbs were defeated in 1389, the Bulgarians in 1393. Two Crusades were launched by French, Flemish, German, and Hungarian knights to save Eastern Christianity. They met with defeat, and in 1453, Constantinople itself fell to the Turks.

For over four centuries, the Balkan peoples, and the large Christian populations in Anatolia, would be ruled by Muslims. 

The cruelest of the Ottoman institutions was the devșirme, in which the most promising sons, and sometimes daughters, of Christian families were taken from their homes and sent off to Constantinople to serve as Janissaries, or in the harem. 

Still, the suffering is sometimes exaggerated. There was no concept of “citizen” or “individual rights” at that time, and villages and towns were governed by their own communal leaders, and worshiped in Orthodox churches. There was no pressure to convert, as there would be under Catholic rule. The rulers in Constantinople only wanted their jizya, the tax paid by infidels, the rayah, sheep to be sheared.

But the economic and intellectual stagnation under Ottoman rule was oppressive, and retarded the development of the South Slavs. Even in the middle of the 18th century, there were only a handful of printers in the Ottoman Empire, and they were all Greeks. What trade existed was carried on by Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. 

In 1683, the Turks, for the second time, massed outside the gates of Vienna. This time their defeat was decisive. In the rout that followed, Austria reoccupied territory lost in the 14th and 15th century. And east of the Carpathians, the Russians, strengthened and united by Peter the Great, began marching south.

The dates of the battles and treaties are not important, but slowly Russia moved down to the Black Sea. There were defeats; it was often two steps forward, one step back. The Turks were fortunate that they faced the two most backward, unwieldy states in Europe. If they had been up against the English and French, Constantinople would have fallen in a decade or two.

In fact, though, first the French, then the British became the defenders of the Ottoman Empire. 

Unlike the Chinese, who were ruled by successive empires for three thousand years, Europeans have always fought bitterly among themselves. Napoleon and Hitler had brief successes, but there would be no Emperor of Europe after Charlemagne.

On the theory that one’s enemies’ enemies are one’s friends, Francis I, the great Renaissance King of France, allied with the Turks against the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Even some Protestant principalities followed suit. For nearly three hundred years, France remained the partner of the Ottomans, even permitting them a base near Marseilles to raid commerce in the Mediterranean. 

Napoleon ended the friendship by invading Egypt. But then the British took over. Worried about the Russian threat to India in the 19th century, and determined to keep the Russians penned in the Black Sea, the British subsidized and supported the Caliphate.

When the Greeks rebelled in 1821, however, British sympathies were with the people they viewed as the heirs of Plato and Aristotle. British and Russian war ships together annihilated the Turkish fleet at Navarino in 1827, and Greece became independent. 

Then, in 1876, when the Bulgarians rebelled, the British were outraged by the massacres of Christian peasants that followed. Disraeli was swept out of office on a wave of righteous indignation. By the mid-1890s, even a Conservative government was appalled when the Sultan began killing Armenians en masse.  “We backed the wrong horse,” Lord Salisbury confessed. 

Relations continued to sour, as the British kept pressing for reforms. But the Germans now saw a golden opportunity. The Kaiser sailed to Constantinople, shook the bloody hand of the Sultan, and proclaimed himself his friend and the protector of Muslims everywhere.

Germany, so late to unite, had found the world already partitioned. Though it managed to seize territory in southern Africa, it had been shut out of the temperate zones where European populations could flourish. Germans emigrated in waves to America, but they became Americans. The U.S. got hamburgers, hot dogs (frankfurters), donuts, pretzels, and beer, but after one or two generations, German-Americans no longer identified with the Fatherland.

Now there was a chance for Germans to develop, and perhaps colonize, the lands so badly ruled by the Ottomans.

The route to Constantinople lay through the Balkans. It was vital to those with imperial visions that this territory remain under the control of Austrians. By no means were all Germans taken with pan-Germanic schemes. But it was not just a sense of honor that persuaded leaders in Berlin to lend their support to Vienna.

A Rumbling in the East

The Russians and Austrians had originally been allies as each rolled back Ottoman conquests.  But as early as 1739, the Austrians became wary of their partners. They had no wish to see the Turks replaced in the Balkans by Russians.  The Russians had a great advantage with the local populations -- they were fellow Slavs.

Vienna’s problem was not just its rivalry with St. Petersburg. 

Nationalism, born in Germany, captivated both Germans and French during the Napoleonic Wars, and soon spread across Europe. Italians, Irish, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, sought independence. That a people with a common language and culture ought to govern itself was a belief adopted with religious fervor. Eventually, this radical idea spread to southeastern Europe. Now it was no longer simply a question of Christians liberating their fellow Christians from Islamic rule. Greeks, Serbs, Croatians, Bulgarians, and Romanians wished to govern themselves. The handwriting was on the wall for the Austrian Empire -- “the prison house of nations” -- as much as for their Ottoman rivals. And the problem was just over the horizon for Russia as well.

After his disillusionment with the Sultan, Lord Salisbury had suggested the Great Powers of Europe work on a plan to partition the Ottoman Empire, which had for decades been called “the Sick Man of Europe.” The Kaiser indignantly rejected the idea. The Germans had decided to support the Sultan, as they supported the Austrians.

Ripples of History

There are no quick and easy lessons from a long view of the origins of World War I.

One takeaway is simply that events even in the remote past have ripples that radiate outward many centuries later.

The ambush by Hermann (Arminius) of Varus’s three legions near Osnabrück in 9 AD, meant that most Germans remained beyond the border of Mediterranean civilization.

The fact that the Germans were then converted not by missionaries, but by the sword, also had reverberations centuries later. By the 1890s, they had become the first Europeans to abandon Christianity en masse.

“Modern Protestant Germany,” wrote a Prussian-born professor who returned to his homeland shortly before the war

is today materialistic to the backbone. The scientific conclusions which at one time were the possession of the University Professor and the savant have, in the course of years, filtered down to the man in the street, and in so persuasive and irresistible a form have they been presented… that they have been instrumental in effacing from the most loyal hearts the last remnant of belief in a personal God, in the spirituality of the human soul, and a future life.

Lutheran pastors became among the most ardent nationalists.

There was no German king who did for his lands what Louis XI, Phillip II, Francis I, Henry IV, and Louis XIV did for France and William I, Edward III, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I did for England -- subdue dukes and barons, create a rudimentary bureaucracy, and help unify their nations. The siren-call of Rome was always too strong for the German Emperors, who could not forget they were the heirs of Augustus Caesar and Charlemagne. Luther, who wanted to unite the Germans, wound up dividing them, and the wars of religion devastated Germany in the 17th century. 

So unity came late to Germany and, like Christianity, was brought about the sword.  The sword was wielded by the most reactionary, caste-ridden kingdom of the thirty-eight German realms, Prussia, “hatched from a cannon-ball.”

And then, in the East, Europeans could not unite to liquidate the Ottoman Empire and liberate their fellow Christians, before those Christians identified passionately with their ethnic group.

Unlike the knights on the Crusades of Varna and Nicopolis, launched to drive the Ottomans from Europe, the Great Powers might have resolved the “Eastern Question” during the final quarter century of the 19th century.

A Better Alternative

It is probably pointless to speculate on what the world would have looked like had they done so, but there can be little doubt it would have been a better place. The lives of the 16 million killed in World War I, the 60 to 80 million in World War II, and the roughly 100 million victims of Communism would have been spared, and the world would have profited from their contributions. And it’s fair to say that the Middle East would look very different today.

With the power and confidence of Europe unshaken by two World Wars, the states in the Middle East, including possibly only one Arab nation, might have eventually been ruled by elites who had been thoroughly Westernized over the course of several generations.  A radical irrendentist Islam might have found little support.  The reforms of Mustafa Kemal -- abolition of the Caliphate and sharia law, marginalization of the madrasses -- may have taken deeper root and become more widely accepted.

The same European confidence and prosperity might have reduced anti-Semitism on the continent, undercutting the incentive to establish a homeland for Jews in the Middle East.  With no Holocaust, there would be no imperative to create a Jewish nation.

In any case, Europe and the world had everything to gain from the growing power of the middle classes on the continent, and the continued evolution of governments that had been responsible for a hundred years of peace and an unprecedented surge in population and wealth.

German hegemony would have been achieved by its economic dynamism, and the country would have much sooner resembled the Germany of today.

But the cylinder of dynamite was ignited and exploded a hundred years ago this month, and after the sufferings inflicted by German national socialism and Russian communism, the West faces a third Islamic threat. This time, owing to sweeping cultural changes that are also a direct consequence of the war, it is less able to defend itself than in the days of Lord Salisbury.