The new year is beginning with the shadow of an old year flitting around the retina of our consciousness. That year is 1914, the year that Europe was convulsed in the world’s worst war — 9 million dead.
It was also the war from which the world never fully recovered. In its destruction of the old order in Europe, World War I laid the blueprint for the rest of the century; its emancipations and its enslavements, its triumphs and its horrors.
The century following World War I has been a century in which blood and ideas have flowed freely. As a consequence of the war and the Treaty of Versailles that ended it:
• The Russian Revolution ushered in communism, and later the Cold War.
• Britain and France carved up the Middle East with boundaries that created new countries, such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia, without regard to the promises that had been made to the Arabs during the war or regard for their sensibilities.
• The Ottoman Empire fell, making way for modern Turkey.
• The Austro-Hungarian Empire fell, changing the face of central and eastern Europe.
• Monarchical rule ended in Europe.
• Germany was so emasculated by the peace that the ascent of Adolf Hitler was possible.
• Mechanized war was perfected with industrialized killing by gun, bomb and, for the first time, aircraft.
The combatants lost the cream of their crop of young men, many of who would have risen to affect the 20th century after the war. The consequences of the loss of a generation of young men can be speculated upon, but not calculated.
The stage was set for the United States — which played a decisive role in the war from the spring of 1917 on, but was not as deeply affected as the European powers — to become the dominant nation in the latter part of the 20th century and to this day.
The social order throughout Europe began to liberalize. Its feudal underpinnings would remain until World War II, but there was a loosening of the old bonds of class across Europe.
Women were beginning to share their gifts with society.
African colonies were taken from Germany and handed to Britain for a kind of safe-keeping, but not for the imperial expansion that Britain had been enjoying for two centuries. Britain, France, Portugal and Holland remained the colonial powers — Britain’s possessions were many times greater than the rest put together.
Fury at the colonial system was building, especially against British control of what are now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
The beginning of the end of the colonial concept had begun, but it had many hurdles and another world war to go before it all ended in an avalanche of independencies.
World War I began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo. The Balkans were the tinder for the war, but the fuel was everywhere: It was the growth in nationalism and its arrogance; a lack of enough understanding of what a modern war would look like; militarism in many countries, and especially in Germany, where the high command found a fatal friend in Kaiser William II.
As tensions in Europe escalated, the players scrambled for allies and these alliances led to the broader war. For example, the German High Command did not think that Britain would join the war, despite Britain’s commitments to France and Russia. It thought Britain could and would remain neutral.
The great myth of the time was that the European powers were so intertwined in their trading relationships that war would cost too much and so peace was secure.
Yet all the ingredients of combustion were present in 1914, and they were abetted by a lack of great leaders in all the countries that would fling themselves at each other.
It was a time of crushing mediocrity in European governance. That may have been the real cause of the world’s greatest, most terrible miscalculation, 100 years ago. A leadership vacuum. Beware.
Happy New Year.