Two consequences of WW1 are worth noting

April 17, 2017

One hundred years ago last week, the United States entered the First World War. Never heard of it, you say.

World War I, or the Great War, as it was called until 1940, was the most consequential war since the Thirty Years' War (1618-48). And, in fact, the U.S. participation and our contribution was rather modest compared with the British, French, German, Austrian and Russian contributions.

As for the "consequential" part, World War I, or its aftermath, altered the face of the Western world in ways not seen before nor seen since.

For one thing, the United States emerged from its relative isolation behind two big oceans to become, for the first time, a major player on the world stage.

Further, the beginning of the war is a lesson in how "little" things can start big wars, sometimes unintentionally. Remember that the presenting issue in July/August 1914 was the assassination of an Austrian prince. What followed was a four-year bloodbath that convulsed Europe and affected geopolitics for 100 years.

When I was a student at a prestigious graduate school a few years ago, a professor opined that World War I was "ancient history." I rejoined that it wasn't for me because my father was a veteran of that war with vivid memories of his Navy service.

In 1914, at the unforeseen end of the Golden Age in Europe, there were five great powers and a few lesser ones grouped into two major alliances. France, Britain and Russia were allied in something called the Triple Entente, later just "the allies." Germany, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey were the Central Powers. Italy was with the Central Powers in 1914, but switched sides in 1915 to join the allies. Turkey was big but weak. Italy was just weak. Serbia, Belgium and the Netherlands were just small.

All of these nations but France were monarchies in 1914. There is a famous picture from 1910 showing most of the crowned heads of Europe riding horses in central London, having assembled for the funeral of King Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria, after his relatively brief reign. Included in that parade were Czar Nicholas II of Russia, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Emperor Franz Josef of Austria and various others, along with the new English king, George V. All were cousins, sons and grandsons of Victoria and her many daughters.

Not four years later, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by a Serbian anarchist in Sarajevo. He was Franz Josef's nephew and the crown prince. The Austrians, primarily at the behest of their generals (Franz Josef being 86 years old by then; he died in 1916) made numerous demands on the Serbians, one or two of which were impossible for a sovereign nation to agree to. The Russians came to their side.

Meanwhile, the German general staff had formulated what is known as the von Schlieffen plan, which was an intricately calibrated scheme for using railroads and trucks, which were new, to move troops to the French border and overwhelm the French in a month. Various other ultimatums between and among these actors came and went in August. Barbara Tuchman, the noted popular historian of 50 years ago, labeled it the "march of folly" in a best-selling book (but not in "Guns of August," her World War I history).

The von Schlieffen plan didn't work as envisaged. It was designed for the Germans to defeat France in a month. But the first several months were consumed first by the Battle of the Frontiers, which the Germans won, and then the First Battle of the Marne, which the French won, but with 300,000 casualties.

Two consequences of this war are worth noting. The first is that most of those monarchies (above) were gone at 1918. The Russian Revolution had begun. Austria-Hungary was dismembered. Germany was in disarray after the kaiser abdicated and fled. Only England of the major powers survived.

The second consequence was the loss of a generation of young European men. Germany lost 2 million dead. France 1.7 million. The British 868,000, the Austrians, 1.7 million and the Turks 2 million. The Russians lost 2.8 million and withdrew in 1917 after the Bolsheviks came to power. The United States lost 117,000 dead in about 18 months of participation, but only six or so months of actual fighting.

After the Germans surrendered in November 1918, the Versailles Peace Conference and its treaty followed a year later. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson applied utopian dreams of democracy-for-all to what was, in reality, a realpolitik situation.

World War II followed less than 20 years later.


Reid Beveridge has covered politics in Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Delaware and Washington, D.C. He is now retired at Broadkill Beach.



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