A Tragedy in 37 Million Parts
2014 is upon us, officially marking a century since the beginning of World War I. The thinkpieces should be intolerably thick on the ground around August and September. I worry that most of them will be ignored – which is a shame, because World War I was probably the single most important event in modern history. World War II was also a rather big deal, but at least the European component of it was pretty clearly a natural outgrowth of World War I.
It’s also tragically understudied. As a matter of history, World War II is too tidy – some mostly good people on one side, some very bad people on the other, and a narrative that even a child can understand. On the other hand, the story of World War I is a gigantic mess. Even a century later, people still have strong and basic disagreements on why the war happened and who was responsible. There are no evil men to lay the blame on, just people who were scared and nervous and trying to do what was best for their country.
Every single thing about the war is a numbing endless lesson that history is messy and complicated and horrible. The combat was monstrous and inhuman. The politics were messy and venal. There are no heroes, just old men who sent millions of young men to die for no clear reason. There were no great values at stake, no immortal principles at risk, just industrialized slaughter. The absurdities of the war are staggering – for example, the whole French army collapsed in 1917. Roughly half the divisions in the army decided to ignore all orders and squat down in their trenches for the rest of the war. Probably a good decision.
There’s a common myth that the fighting stopped in 1918. That would be tidy. The war ended for the Russian Empire in 1917 when the Empire fell and the USSR made peace. It started up again for the Russians (and Latvians and Ukrainians and Poles) in 1918 as the Germans started to retreat from the eastern territories they had conquered. The Soviets in 1918 actually set out on a mission of world conquest, one reason why the US sent the Army to Russia to fight them off in vain. Not a part of history you tend to learn in high school. Even before finishing the Russian Civil War the Soviets had decided it was time to bring the Revolution to the West, and they only stopped because they ground to a stop in Poland. Everything the war touched it destroyed.
Most importantly, World War I is a powerful reminder that policymakers should be humble and should fear war above all else. The lesson politicians take from World War II is simple and powerful – that every adversary is Hitler, and that it’s always Munich 1938. If more people truly understood World War I, they wouldn’t be so quick to get involved in things that might spin terribly, horribly out of control. The world of 1914 was far from perfect, but it was a world of peace and trade and rapid growth and rising living standards. It seemed as though nothing could shake Europe from the course it was on…until a few weeks in August when a few politicians decided to take some risks.
Then everything went to shit.