The First World War; The more interesting one.

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.

    Last update: 7/8/2011

    blog comments powered by Disqus