Most people are aware of the First World War and have some knowledge of its history. They know that it was started when some Austrian prince was shot and that it ended when the English invented tanks and drove them into Germany. They know that in between there was a lot of fighting and that a lot of it had to do with trenches and machine guns and gas masks and Red Barrons and many might be able to name drop the Somme or Gallipoli. But, when it comes down to it, everyone remembers the Second World War better.
And why not? The Second War was bigger, broader, louder… It had clear villains and clear heroes. The motives of all sides were clear and everything was black and white (almost.) What’s more, even though there was an unprecedented amount of tragedy in that Second War, he good guys won and peace was restored throughout the world. All in all, it had all the markings of a great story and was quite photogenic.
The First War, however, not so much. The First War by comparison was a confused mess of treaties and international plotting by various empires and would be empires. There were lots of people fighting for causes that no longer exist or even make sense to us today. Perhaps they didn’t even make sense at the time. Regardless, millions of people died sitting in trenches and racing out of them as fast as they could. Millions more died in ships and airplanes and zeppelins and in many other contraptions. All this for causes which may have been meaningful to them but are long lost on us.
But really, that’s what’s so facinating about this war. It wasn’t that long ago, less than a hundred years, yet the world that started it was remarkably different from our own. At the start of the war, kings and aristocracy were a fact of life throughout most of Europe. Actually, not just kings and aristocracy, but giant, multi-ethnic empires ruled by kings and aristocracy.
At the start of the war, Europe was ruled by a small collection of empires. Austria-Hungary, Tsarist Russia, the Kaiser’s Germany, (post) Victorian England, France, the Ottoman Empire… All had grievances against each other (some justified, some not;) All had ambitions, (mostly territorial) which they hoped to attain; All hoped to relieve the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ tradition of quick decisive wars with quick gains. After the fighting had begun, most hoped to merely hurt the others more than they had been hurt themselves. Others hoped just to survive. Most didn’t.
The Tsar hoped to gain Constantinople and accomplish Russia’s ancient ambition of becoming the new Caesar. Austro-Hungary hoped to settle its internal unrest and become undisputed master of the Balkans. Serbia and Bulgaria hoped for the same thing. Germany hoped to finally have a great overseas empire like France and Germany, while France and Germany hoped to destroy Germany forever as an economic and political rival. Even the Ottomans had territorial ambitions against the Slavs.
At the end of the war, of all the great empires that had existed only England and France survived. Russia became embroiled in an internal war almost as horrible and would see all vestiges of her former aristocracy wiped from the face of the earth. Austria-Hungary was split into many smaller countries and parts of her were given to her neighbors. The Ottoman Empire was dissolved and her holding were split between Britain and France. And, the German Kaiser was deposed and replaced with a republic which would be tasked with reparations for a war that was only partly her fault.
There was a detail about the Western world before the First War which modern people often find strange and alien. This detail was kings. At the start of the war, nearly everyone marching out to the front went to fight for his people, for his nation, for his king. For king and country. (Except for France who’s Third Republic had no king.) The idea of a nation, who’s people were one and which was represented by ruler and an aristocracy in whom ultimate power and responsibility lay, was at the time an ancient and accepted one. It was, by and large the accepted mythology of the time and when it was destroyed, by both the destruction of the monarchy and the destruction of people faith in their governments, the Western world was shattered forever. The civilization that was the West was no more. For all talk about Oliver Cromwell, George Washington, or Maximilien Robspierre, the day that the new order overthrew the old was the day that Archduke Franz-Ferdinand was shot by Serbian terrorists.
This perhaps was the greatest tragedy of the war. Out of the death of the monarchy was not sprung liberal democracy, (though it might have, had the surviving powers committed to the concept in more than just words) but rather every political ideal imaginable. Fascists replaced the desire for nationalism. The socialist brought hope of a new better world. Anarchists, phalangists, nationalists, Marxists, and all possible combinations thereof formed and fought for power in struggles only the most prominent of which is the Second War.
Even today, the pieces still haven’t settled. Serbs and Croats and Bosnians and others still fight in the Balkans for dominance, the same issues that seeded the war in the first place.