World War I began 102 years ago today with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and continued until November of 1918. Millions died, centuries old dynasties disappeared, countries ceased to exist, and new countries were formed. It was the Great War, the war to end all wars, but when it was over, the dance continued.
Nobody really won. But then again, no one deserved to. It was, in many ways, a continuation of wars from Napoleon onward through the Crimea, when dozens of European countries, regions or ethnic groups tried to gain dominance, or to retain dominance, or to avoid being dominated. Only the last might be considered valid. Before the final smoke of battle had cleared at the end of World War I, the seeds of World War II had sprouted and were growing strong.
Until past the middle of the nineteenth century, Germany did not exist as a modern nation. Numerous small states coalesced under pressure from Prussia into a single country – Germany – in 1871. France and Russia feared this shift in power, and formed an alliance to counteract it. Germany reacted by forming an alliance with Austro-Hungarian Empire. Italy joined Germany and Austria shortly after. Britain reacted to the change in Europe by aligning itself with old enemies France and Russia.
The assassination caused Austria-Hungary to force war on the Kingdom of Serbia. Russia intervened on Serbia’s behalf, and the dominos fell.
In America, we tend to think of Germany as the aggressor and Britain as the victim. That won’t really hold water. All the groups on the battlefield were in contention for colonies, wealth, power, and trade. Germany was newly arrived on the world stage and aggressive. Bismarck made a good cartoon villain – he is sometimes painted as a sort of proto-Hitler – and the British have always been a gentle and civilized people in their own eyes and ours. Even though Americans would never have achieved independence from Britain without the French navy, we still think of Britain as our mother country.
At least it is no more the mother country to America than France, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Scotland (who were not part of Britain when America was colonized, and who were still at war with England thirty years before 1776), Norway, Sweden, Italy, Spain, a dozen European states that no longer exist, China, Japan, and – oh yes – Germany. And let’s not forget Africa.
During the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century, European nations changed allies more often than hippies changed partners at a love-in. Britain had been at war with her World War I ally Russia just sixty years earlier in the Crimea, and had been at war with her World War I ally France for most of the preceding two hundred years. Who was on our side and who was on their side was mostly an accident of which decade the war broke out.
I admit to an illogical fondness for Buchan and Edwardian espionage novels, but I also know that war was largely about possessing the wealth of Africa, the Middle East, India, and the Far East. The Germans who died under English guns were as much the victims of a senseless war as the English who died under German guns.
The people of the colonies world were the victims, whether there was a war going on or not.