Lessons From ‘The War to End All Wars’, Lest We Forget

Commentary, Government, Ian Madsen

As we commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended the ‘Great War’, the ‘War to End All Wars’, later, sadly renamed World War I, it is not only just and right that we honour and remember those who lost their lives, or were otherwise casualties of that horrific conflict so that we may enjoy the peace and prosperity of this current age but, also, it is proper that we consider some of the lessons that need to be relearned in every generation, from that first large-scale horrific conflict, along with subsequent ones.

Much like today, the pre-war early 20th century was a time of immense economic, technological, scientific, industrial, commercial, medical, cultural, and other material progress with tremendous increases in wealth, development, legal and political reforms, and other forms of progress.  Trade and immigration linked all the developed nations and colonial empires of the world and made them interdependent. There was little to indicate that there would be any sort of military conflagration.

However, the seeds were sown.  There was intense competition among the Great Powers, both within Europe, and in their outer colonial reaches.  Two of the powers, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire were gradually losing their grip on their multinational, ethnically diverse realms.  One empire, the German, was in the ascendance, technologically, industrially, and militarily.

Three other empires, the British, French, and Russian were feeling the financial and political-military strain of being over-extended.  Various minor conflicts in Europe, particularly in the Balkans, where three empires had interests, and where Serbia, one recently independent nation, was causing mischief, added to the tensions.  If this sounds a little familiar, it could be because China today is a rising power, expanding in many different dimensions, and challenging other major powers such as the United States, which had embarked on a commercial war against it, and has begun a policy of confrontation over territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.  

The declining and fractious counterparts of either the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empire could be Russia today, which lost most of its Soviet empire in 1991; and the European Union, which may be losing the United Kingdom in 2019.  For the danger-generator role that Serbia filled in Sarajevo, June, 2014, there could be any number of eager candidates: North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, even Venezuela come to mind. It does not matter if the analogy is exact, but if the lessons of a century ago can or may apply.

Historians do not entirely agree, but there are some things that led to World War I:  Increased commercial, industrial, and colonial competition; intense patriotism and ethnic-nationalism; escalating military spending; expanded, large-scale war exercises; open-ended international alliances requiring full backing in armed disputes; the idea of armed combat as one of an array of governmental or diplomatic tools, not just a ‘last resort’; extreme admiration and veneration of the military; deference to political leaders’ judgment; a belief that war could be ‘limited’ or ‘controlled’; the notion that whatever the state decided for its citizens was good and right, including conscription, mass mobilization and total war; and the idea that control over more territory and resources was the foundation of prosperity.

Not all of these factors still obtain today.  However, enough of them still do. This could mean that we are in forever-more dangerous times in the next several years.  Let us hope that enough of us, and our leaders, have learned these lessons that current or imminent political and economic conflicts do not become something far worse.