The War that Ended Peace

Saturday, June 28th, 2014

When Serbian nationalists murdered the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and his wife, people were shocked but not particularly worried:

Sadly, there had been many political assassinations in previous years — the king of Italy, two Spanish prime ministers, the Russian czar, President William McKinley. None had led to a major crisis.

The Great War had massive political consequences:

President Wilson talked about national self-determination and making the world safe for democracy. He wanted a League of Nations as the basis for international cooperation. From Russia, Lenin and his Bolsheviks offered a stark alternative: a world without borders or classes. The competing visions helped fuel the Cold War, which ended just 25 years ago.

Before 1914, Russia was a backward autocracy but was changing fast. Its growth rate was as high as any of the Asian tigers in the 1960s and 1970s; it was Europe’s major exporter of food grains and, as it industrialized, was importing machinery on a massive scale. Russia also was developing the institutions of civil society, including the rule of law and representative government. Without the war, it might have evolved into a modern democratic state; instead, it got the sudden collapse of the old order and a coup d’état by the Bolsheviks. Soviet communism exacted a dreadful toll on the Russian people and indeed the world — and its remnants are still painfully visible in the corrupt, authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin.

The war also destroyed other options for Europe’s political development. The old multinational empires had their faults, to be sure, but they enabled the diverse peoples within their boundaries to live in relative harmony. Both Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans were trying to work out ways of encompassing the demands of different groups for greater autonomy. Might they have succeeded if the war had not exhausted them to the point of collapse? We will never know, but since then, the world has suffered the violence and horrors of ethnic nationalism.

The armistice of 1918 ended one gigantic conflict, but it left the door open for a whole host of smaller ones — the “wars of the pygmies,” as Winston Churchill once described them. Competing national groups tried to establish their own independence and to push their borders out at the expense of their neighbors. Poles fought Russians, Lithuanians and Czechs, while Romania invaded Hungary. And within their borders, Europeans fought each other. Thirty-seven thousand Finns (out of some 3 million) died in a civil war in the first months of 1918, while in Russia, as many as a million soldiers and many more civilians may have died by the time the Bolsheviks finally defeated their many opponents.

The war had brutalized European society, which had grown accustomed during the largely peaceful 19th century to think that peace was the normal state of affairs. After 1918, Europeans were increasingly willing to resort to other sorts of force, from political assassinations to street violence, and to seek radical solutions to their problems. The seeds of the political movements on the extremes of both the right and the left — of fascism and communism — were sown in the years before 1914, but it took World War I to fertilize them.

The war aided the rise of extremism by weakening Europe’s confidence in the existing order. Many Europeans no longer trusted the establishments that had got them into the catastrophe. The German and Austrian monarchies were also overthrown, to be succeeded by shaky republics. The new orders might have succeeded in gaining legitimacy in time, but that was the one thing that Europe and the world didn’t have. The Great Depression at the end of the 1920s swept the new regimes away and undermined even the strongest democracies.

The war had made many Europeans simply give up on their own societies. Before 1914, they could take pride in Europe’s power and prosperity, in the knowledge that it dominated the world through its economic and military strength. They could boast that European civilization was superior to all others. Now they were left with a shattered continent that had spent down its wealth and weakened itself, perhaps mortally. As the great French thinker and poet Paul Valery said in 1922, “something deeper has been worn away than the renewable parts of the machine.”

Church attendance plummeted, but night clubs were jammed by those who could afford them. Cocaine stopped being a medicine and became a recreational drug along with alcohol. Before the war, a new generation of writers and artists had already been mocking the old classical traditions and inventing their own. Now, in the 1920s, the jumbled perspectives of the cubists, the atonal compositions of new composers such as Arnold Schoenberg or the experimental poetry and prose of writers such as Ezra Pound or Marcel Proust seemed prescient — new forms that captured the reality of a fractured world.

While the Europeans were coming to grips with what they had done to themselves, the rest of the world was drawing its own lessons. The European empires had called on their colonial possessions to support the war effort, but in so doing they had hastened the coming of their own end. Empires had always rested on a giant confidence trick — where the ruled agreed, or at least didn’t actively dispute, that their colonial rulers were more civilized and advanced and thus entitled to rule.

The soldiers from Africa, Canada, India, Australia or New Zealand had now seen for themselves what their European masters were capable of. The waste, the muddle, the brutality with which Europeans fought each other and the sheer incompetence of much of the European war effort exploded the old myths of European superiority. Throughout the empires, assertive and impatient national movements — often led by those who had returned from the war — pushed the empires toward their end. Mohandas Gandhi, who in the South African War of 1899-1902 had set up an ambulance corps to support the British, now led a movement to oust them from India.

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