World War I Began 100 Years ago Yesterday

If you pay attention to such things, you’ll know that yesterday, June 28, 2014, was widely remembered as the 100th anniversary of World War I’s outbreak. Technically, of course, World War I did not start on June 28, 1914. Rather, on that day, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Such a war was properly a Balkan conflict, and some historians have referred to the outbreak of war between the two countries as the Third Balkan War (to distinguish it from the first two–in 1912-1913 and 1913). The Austro-Hungarian government would have preferred a small war against Serbia instead of a big war involving all of Europe, but as almost all historians agree, Austria-Hungary was willing to risk that big war to obtain what it wanted. Of course, as we all know, that risk became a reality. Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, France on August 3, and Belgium on August 4. Britain declared war on Germany on August 4. Since most of the great European powers were also global powers as well, their participation in the conflict made it truly a world war.

This war was of great importance to the world because at that point, Europe was the center of the globe in a way that it was not before and would never be again. On the eve of the conflict, 25% of the world’s population was European (the corresponding figure today is 12%). Europe accounted for 60% of the world’s iron and steel production, 56% of the world’s coal, and 62% of the world’s exports. Europe was also the source of 83% of the world’s foreign investment. If Europe was the most important part of the global economy, London was its financial and commercial capital. At the same time, cities like Paris and Vienna were the culture capitals of the world. During a period that witnessed the high tide of European imperialism, decisions reached in London, Paris, Berlin, and Moscow reverberated across the globe; these were the capitals of the international political system. Any conflict involving the world’s political, economic, and cultural center (especially since the belligerents were evenly matched and the war dragged on for four years) was bound to have an enormous impact on the rest of the world.

Hundreds of web sites commemorating the war’s outbreak have been erected on the web, many with excellent photos, video, and documentation. It seems unfair to single out one, but One Thing after Another very much enjoyed the The Wall Street Journal‘s tribute to the war’s legacy. Although it’s not perfect, and sometimes it’s a little buggy, it does capture the multiplicity of ways in which World War I changed the world and the lives of the people who lived in it:

If the war’s outbreak has exercised historians, its conduct has also sparked a great deal of argument. Again, it seems unfair to zero in on a couple of essays that capture the essence of this debate, but One Thing after Another noticed these two:

Adam Hochschild is the co-founder of Mother Jones and author of several popular histories, including To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918. David Silbey is a military historian who teaches at Cornell University. If One Thing after Another could indulge in a little reductionism, it would describe the debate between these two essays in the following terms. Hochschild presents the old lions-led-by-donkeys argument (first articulated fully by Alan Clark in The Donkeys) that sees the war as a tragedy attributable to the incompetence of military and political leadership. This thesis has exercised a strong hold on the public imagination. Silbey contemptuously refers to it as Blackadder history, after the British sitcom that had Rowan Atkinson traveling through time; the series of episodes on World War I draws heavily on this argument.

Silbey argues that those who led European forces on the Western Front during World War I were faced with difficult, almost unprecedented, military problems. That millions of men died in Northern France between 1914 and 1918–something that seems almost unthinkable to the West today–does not indicate that the military leadership was incompetent. Rather, it indicates that armies found circumstances incredibly difficult, especially since the most recent European wars (particularly the Wars of German Unification and the Russo-Japanese War) provided very little in the way of useful or relevant precedents.

One Thing after Another is bound to say that scholars of World War I tend to side with Silbey on this matter rather than Hochschild. This debate between the two is important, because it points to the discrepancy that often persists between what professional historians write about the past and what the public remembers. But that’s a discussion for another day. For now, it suffices to contemplate World War I’s enormous impact on both nations and individuals. The blog master will pause to remember two great-great uncles who died during the war, one, a newlywed killed in action during the Battle of the Marne (1914), and the other, an adjutant chef (equivalent of a staff sergeant), who threw himself on a grenade to save his comrades during a training accident (1916).


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