When Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine gun, was asked if it would make wars more terrible, he replied, “No, it will make war impossible.”
Little did he know what he had created.
One hundred and one years ago, the human race ended one of the greatest catastrophes in its history but paved the way for many more. Many empires disintegrated, millions killed, and the world split in a war that was meant to end all wars. Yet, we fail to learn most of the primary lessons from it.
Just two bullets, fired on the Austrian crown prince in Sarajevo, ended years of peace and launched the 20th century on a war that was not inevitable. We are today living in a world plagued by the same problems where the situation seems so volatile that even a drone shot over Syria could start another conflict. First World War is not a distant and dull historical anecdote. The war cost tens of millions of lives. It shattered the old world in Europe and paved the way for Stalin, Hitler, and, in 1939, the Second World War. When it was over, somewhere approaching, 100 million people were dead. We are still feeling the effects today.
Nearly a hundred years have passed since then, and many uncomfortable parallels with our time spring to mind. In 1914 the superpower that dominated the world, controlling the seas and ruling over a global empire of colonies, dominions, and dependencies — Britain — was being challenged by a rival that was overtaking it economically and building up armaments on land and sea to assert its claim for a “place in the sun” — Germany. All of this is alarmingly close to the situation today when China’s rise is increasingly challenging America’s global supremacy.
When you read headlines today of genocide in Syria, the launching of rockets into Israel from terrorist encampments in southern Lebanon and Gaza, or the continuing unrest among refugees throughout the region, you are seeing the fruit of decisions made by leaders who had to pick up the pieces from the collapse of empires in 1918. Iraq was one of the nations carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire following World War I. It was made a French mandate later amidst gruelling conflicts. What ensued, and remains, was sporadic unrest through the 20th century, with different rulers providing different versions of incompetence and inept leadership. After Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, the United States and its allies attacked and overthrew terror-sponsoring regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. When America toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, it not only deposed a corrupt strongman, but it “broke” the fragile and mostly peaceful coexistence of very different peoples.
This inability to understand the past and the root causes of conflict can perpetuate wars today. US spent many years and lives in Iraq trying to deal with the impact of political decisions made in the wake of World War I, at a conference held in Paris at the Palace of Versailles. Leaders still try to sort through the consequences of the German Emperor’s decision and other leaders to plunge the world into the dark abyss of war. We are seeing refugee crises in Europe and Southeast Asia, while middle-class wages stagnate in the West and the same as what was happening just before the onset of the Second World War.
Many claim that each war is unavoidable, but I believe it to be an utter lie. War is never the only choice out of a conflict and is always the worst one. Former British PM Lloyd George had famously remarked,
“Germany does not want war. Hitler does not want war. He is a most remarkable personality, one of the greatest I have ever met in the whole of my life.”
The world knows the truth. A significant driving factor that led to World War II was the Great Depression’s impact on the middle-class communities in the West. Coupled with the influx of migrant Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia, this created the basis for the instability, fear, and exclusion in Western countries that contributed to the outbreak of the world war.
With these displaced populations, you have the inhabitants seeing them as different, worrying at the same time about their socioeconomic status as their wages are dropping, and immigrants seem to be rising within the ranks of society, so why not blame the new people? Today, similar trends are leading to the same fears — and the similarly troubling rise of political figures championing nationalist and isolationist sentiments. The way Hitler rose to power, he appealed to the lower middle classes. US President Donald Trump is doing the same thing. He has made several controversial moves since taking office in January, including building a border wall and his extremely racist views under the pretext of “Making America Great Again.”
Nationalistic sentiments are resurgent elsewhere as well. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s push to make Russia “great again” has led to military adventurism, such as through Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Meanwhile, China’s increasingly aggressive attempts to assert sovereignty over the South China Sea have led to tensions with its neighbours — and could be a potential flashpoint for a major conflict. The Middle East today bears a worrying resemblance to the Balkans during the war. A similar mix of toxic nationalisms threatens to draw in outside powers like the US, Turkey, Russia, and Iran look to protect their interests and clients. The march of globalization has lulled us into a false sense of safety. The 106th anniversary of 1914 should make us reflect anew on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident.
It is now time to think again about those dreadful lessons of a century ago in the hope that our leaders will think about how they can work together to build a stable international order.
Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
— written by Dhruv Rawat
What Can 1914 Tell Us About 2014? — The New Republic. https://newrepublic.com/article/116347/what-pre-world-war-i-europe-can-tell-us-about-today
100 Years After World War I: What Have We Learned …. https://www.ucg.org/the-good-news/100-years-after-world-war-i-what-have-we-learned
Is it 1914 all over again? We are in danger of repeating …. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/is-it-1914-all-over-again-we-are-in-danger-of-repeating-the-mistakes-that-started-wwi-says-a-leading-9039184.html
The Rhyme of History: Lessons of the Great War — Oliver …. https://www.oliverstuenkel.com/2014/01/31/is-the-1914-debate-useful/
“In Our View We’re Inviting Another Crisis.” Columbian, Columbian Publishing Company, 12 June 2018, p. A.6.