WORLD WAR I: BEGINNING
are in the midst of the 100th Anniversary of World War I. It began in the summer of 1914 and lasted
until the fall of 1918 – four long years endured, millions of lives lost, and
the social order of old Europe forever altered. World War I killed ancient European dynasties,
and birthed new European orders (communism in Russia!). Never had so many people in so many places in
so many new ways been drawn into such conflagration.
last World War I veterans are all gone.
Maybe you knew someone who fought in World War I. Or maybe you had a relative engaged (my own
great-grandfather left Elliott County, Kentucky, and fought on the battlefields
of France; I display his Honorable Discharge on the wall of my study at
home). America did not enter the war
until 1917 – and that, reluctantly – but we made a decisive difference. Many consider World War I the force that
ushered in the “modern world” of the 20th century as we have come to
repercussions of the War would be felt for decades, and a case can be made that
the War’s eventual armistice would pave
the way for radical political movements in Europe later on, whose
destructiveness would have to be faced another time, if in similar places
(Nazism in Germany; Fascism in Italy).
World War I destroyed four major European empires, altered the Middle
East, produced new and previously unheard-of countries, and paved the way for
the Great Depression: powerful
political, economic, social, and military impacts. More than 14 million people would be dead,
with more wounded, disfigured, and scarred, both physically and
psychologically. New methods of warfare
would be employed, new tactics and strategies devised, and new technologies
created. From World War I, we came to
know about doughboys and dirigibles, trench warfare and trench foot, war under
the water (submarines) and over the skies (airplanes).
did it begin? And, amazingly, how did it
begin so quickly? In just a matter of a
very few short weeks, a local assassination had plunged the entire European
continent into war.
June 28, 1914, an Austrian archduke, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, were
assassinated by Serbian nationalists while visiting Sarajevo. Though Ferdinand was not particularly popular
in his native Austria (and his wife even less so!), yet within a month the
Austro-Hungarian Empire had declared war on Serbia, and other nations immediately
began choosing sides. Alliances drew one
nation after another quickly into a raging war between two camps: the Triple Alliance (composed chiefly of
Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy), and the Triple Entente (composed chiefly
of France, Russia, and Great Britain). These
two “sides” would become known as the Central Powers and the Allied Powers,
the war was over, more than 30 nations touching almost every continent would be
involved. No wonder it would be called
“The Great War”: never had the world
seen war on such a massive scale involving so many belligerents. And never would the world be the same!
WORLD WAR I, 1914-1918: BACKGROUND by John M. Brown
the significant participants in World War I, what strengths and weakness would
bring them into alliances with some and set them as hostile enemies against
Though European nations had warred or centuries, this war in which so many were involved over such vast terrain, and which would produce a truly “World War,” was a European conflict in origination. German von Clausewitz had previously observed that war involved a mixture of political policy, military action, and public sentiment, Each of these elements must be considered to understand this war in its birth and course.
balance of economic, military, and political power had greatly changed in
Europe by the end of the 19th century: the state we would recognize today as Germany
had been created (having decisively defeated France, and united various
Prussian states into a single German nation), the former power of early 19th
century France had been greatly reduced, Austria and Hungary had united under a
single monarchy, Russia had become significant in some parts of Europe, Britain
was continuing expansion abroad while seeking to remain significant on the
continent, Spain had fallen in prominence, and Italy had become unified.
Britain had become thoroughly urban by the beginning of the 20th century, and political power within the empire had shifted away from the aristocracy. Though she was the world’s wealthiest power, she remained utterly dependent on outside trade and, to maintain such, emphasized her naval strength, which she guarded zealously.
had fallen from her formerly strong position through lack of economic
development and the lingering consequences of the 18th century
Revolution. Further, her population growth
had not kept pace with other European powers, she had suffered significant
military defeats, and her people were still socially and politically divided.
Russia controlled a vast territory and was viewed as a significant, howbeit potential, threat to others’ holdings, but her economic development had sorely lagged, and she had suffered important military defeats in the 19th and early 20th
centuries (including at the hands of Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of
1904-05). The expansionism she coveted
was not yet realized.
had united into what was a potentially powerful force, but internal dissension
based on race and culture continued to plague, and limit, her. This Empire was united in name, but not
always in intent, and ethnic rivalries were a perpetual problem.
became a unified nation in 1871, and was able to build her power through the
incorporation of various interests into a united whole. Prussian militarism and ambition came to
dominate the outlook of the nation, and a philosophy of cultural superiority
influenced her view of other nations and peoples.
If one is to understand the political dynamics which lead to a war spreading over Europe and eventually engulfing most nations of the world, one must understand something of the backgrounds of the key players. Individual national characteristics either blended themselves together, or set themselves at odds, and helped create the circumstances that would “cause” World War I.