The First World War's Relevance to Our Times
The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War has been greeted with not much more than a yawn by citizens of the West.
Sure, there have been the obligatory documentaries, the reconciliation hugs by the leaders of France and Germany and the commemorative ceremonies played out on that War's most ravaged battlefields.
But for most, the war remains not even a distant memory. No man or woman who fought during that time is now alive and the events that took place between August 4,1914 and November 11,1918 have been vastly overshadowed by the outbreak of a far deeper conflict which engulfed the world 21 years later.
Yet to fail to recognize the significance of this date is to ignore what is probably the most cataclysmic event in world history, one that overturned a century of extraordinary human progress and set the political, economic, cultural, and social tone for the remainder of the century. Not a man, woman, or child born in that century or who is alive today remains unaffected by the consequences of the First World War and ignoring what its outbreak has to teach us about our own world is a costly mistake.
The First World War has been called a futile war, one marked by military ineptitude and diplomatic failures in which 10 million lives were sacrificed for no gain. Its most memorable slogans -- "Make the World Safe for Democracy" and "Your Country Wants You!" have been regarded with hindsight as just facile and empty propaganda in which no one today much believes.
But what if they were true? What if the war, much like the much more decisively ended conflict which followed it, was really about the defense of a way of life and the shape of human progress? What, in fact, if the militant absolutism the Allied forces found themselves confronting in 1914, finds its mirror in some of the free world's most significant challenges today?
For we should make no mistake: in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the West is looking into the eyes of exactly the kind of unbridled militarism and reckless opportunism it confronted at the beginning of the 20th Century. Failure to meet it with force could bring disaster.
Before getting to the modern day however, it might help to examine the question of how it was possible for Europe to drift into a continent-wide conflagration in the first place, when so many seeming safeguards had been set in place by the Great Powers in order to avoid it?
Since the convention of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the establishment of the Concert of Europe -- a traditional balance of power arrangement among the leading European nations -- a major continental war had been avoided on multiple occasions through advanced statecraft developed by a series of brilliant leaders which included Prince Klemens von Metternich of Austria, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord of France and Lord Castlereagh of Great Britain, to be followed later in the century by others such as Lord Palmerston and Benjamin Disraeli. Together these men enforced a system that allowed no one nation to become too dominant in Europe so as to threaten the continental peace.
Both Palmerston and Disraeli in particular had witnessed the devastations of the American Civil War and well recognized how new technology made modern warfare likely to involve a terrible carnage. With booming economies, expanding trade, and growing colonial empires, there was no stomach among the 19th Century European leaders for the devastations of the Napoleonic Wars which had plagued Europe at the beginning of the century.
The drive toward lasting peace culminated with the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 which produced the Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and the Convention with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land -- all of which were designed to build safeguards against the outbreak of war or to ensure that in the event of war, military conflict did not descend into barbarism.
This is not to mention the familial ties of the European monarchs themselves. In a remarkable tangle of ancestral roots, the leaders of three of the Five Great Powers were first cousins, grandchildren of Great Britain's Queen Victoria. They had known each other since childhood, referred to one another by their nicknames and regularly met for family events. Cousins, the conventional wisdom of the time argued, do not go to war against each other.
But there were forces at work which undermined the Concert of Europe and set in motion an inevitable collision of national interests. When we remember that the concept of war in the European mind was always associated with glory, the absence of it created something of a national itch in many European countries which could only be relieved by some exercise of martial spirit. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who had ascended the throne in 1888, embodied what he considered to be the protean Prussian legacy of German militarism which hearkened back to Frederick the Great and beyond that to the Teutonic knights and even further to the Huns who had sacked the Eastern Roman Empire. His efforts to build the German navy to a level where it could challenge Britain's hegemony of the world's oceans and strengthen Germany against the Slavic menace to the East was greeted with alarm by Britain and France who signed their own pact (the Entente Cordiale of 1904) and which was followed by an alliance with Russia in August 1907 -- establishing the formidable Triple Entente.
The undisputed historical trigger for the First World War was the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. But Germany had been aggressively preparing for a wide-scale continental war for at least the previous eighteen months. In 1961, the German historian Fritz Fischer in his book Griff nach der Weltmacht (Germany's Grab for World Power) sensationally revealed a formerly unknown diary entry of Admiral Georg von Mueller from December 8, 1912 which recorded an informal meeting of the German High Command with the Kaiser in which a continental war within eighteen months was planned. Army Chief of Staff Helmuth Von Moltke was even recorded arguing that "a war is unavoidable and the sooner the better." Von Moltke, the diary entry concluded, was persuaded to postpone the war in order for the Navy to be better prepared for the outbreak of hostilities. Fischer buttressed his argument with the publication of the September Programme, a formerly unknown document drafted by the staff of the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg in September 1914, which identified German war aims. These included the disarmament of France, the absorption of large parts of Belgium and all of Luxemburg within the German Empire; the creation of a buffer state of Poland ( which would remain permanently under German sovereignty), the expansion of German colonial assets across Central Africa and the institution of an economic association ostensibly egalitarian but actually dominated by Germany.
No such documents have ever been produced which display an equally self-aggrandizing and militant approach from the other major belligerents of the First World War.
If the Great War was then a German War, it leaves us with us with important questions about its inevitability and what it meant for the rise of Nazism. If Germany was bent on expansion and gaining its rightful place as a world leader and felt confined and hemmed in by the other Great Powers, could anything have stopped the Imperial German Army's march into Belgium in August,1914 or at any time thereafter?
The answer is almost certainly no. Flushed with military confidence after its defeat of France in 1870; buoyed by the unification of the German states the following year; catapulted into the limelight as a world financial power by the Zollverein -- its successful economic union -- German nationalism was at a peak and the Germans -- hierarchical, determined, autocratic, and with very little interest in the niceties of liberal democracy -- saw no reason why their values and attitudes should not compete with Great Britain's as the dominant values of the world.
The conflict between world views was not lost on Adolf Hitler nor his backers. Indeed, the Nazis seemed to have picked up the fallen banner of the Imperial Germany Army where it lay, advancing a set of values which competed directly with those of the democracies and which were propagated without shame.
The Nazis certainly learned some vital military lessons about subjugating restive populations from the Imperial Germany Army. The Kaiser's little-remembered campaign against the Herero and Namaqua tribes in South West Africa in 1904-07 was the first true genocide of the 20th Century, executed with a methodicism which would have made the Einsatzgruppen proud.
And should anyone doubt the ideological link between Imperial Germany and the Nazi regime, let them then remember that only weeks after he was forced to abdicate, Wilhelm foreshadowed the moral abyss into which the German state would plunge just 14 years later. In a letter to Field Marshal August von Mackensen, on December 2nd, 1918, he denounced his abdication as the "deepest, most disgusting shame ever perpetrated by a person in history, the Germans have done to themselves... egged on and misled by the tribe of Judah.... let no German ever forget this, nor rest until these parasites have been destroyed and exterminated from German soil!" In the same letter, Wilhelm advocated a "regular international all-worlds pogrom à la Russe" as "the best cure" and further believed that Jews were a "nuisance that humanity must get rid of some way or other. I believe the best thing would be gas!"
Seen in this light, the First World War was a desperate conflict between two diametrically opposed concepts of world advancement. The struggle between these competing ideas and ideals would consume the world for the first half of the 20th Century and then continue into the second on on to the Cold War, the war with communism.
But having ultimately won a 75 year- long -war with fascism/totalitarianism, the West, perhaps exhausted by the toll it has exacted and with its self-confidence and morale significantly shaken, has been unprepared to confront the arrival of a third menace whose militancy threatens its survival. The similarities between Wilhelmine Germany and rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran -- and the form of militant Islam it represents, bear review: The same sense of national entitlement; the same sense of deprivation of its rightful stage in world affairs; the same grievances against the dominant world power; the same provocative foreign policy; the same willingness to gamble recklessly on a military confrontation it is unlikely to win and the same determination to have its values replace those of its enemies as the dominant value system of the world.
Today, modern Germany has learned that it can exercise dominance without military conquest and its virtual suzerainty of Europe has been somewhat welcomed as a stabilizing influence on a continent that has otherwise lost its bearings. Iran and the satellite organizations it controls may well have to face total defeat and disarmament before it recognizes that it has the same opportunity.
The First World War, poorly fought, execrably settled, and memorialized for the wrong reasons, should today be recalled for what it was -- a necessary war, fought justly over values as much as over territory and leaving us with the conviction that reckless militarism should never be ignored nor laughed off. While millions of our young men should not be condemned to die in muddy, lice-infested trenches, we run the risk of paying a far greater toll if we remain squeamish about recognizing a direct challenge to the value system upon which our civilization was founded and then failing to summon the military will to confront it.
Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles