Today marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. It was once billed as “the war to end all wars,” but it actually provoked over a century of calamities.
It was the war that produced the monsters Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. It produced Nazism, Fascism, and Communism. Imagine today’s world without these butchers and ideologies. Constitutional monarchies would still reign supreme from Germany to Russia. There would be some additional 300 million Europeans today – enough to outpace Third World migrations. In fact, colonialism might have evolved into a stabilizing and humanitarian commonwealth throughout Africa and Asia.
Without the impetus of two world wars the atomic bomb might still be a theory; the Jet Age might have taken another century to develop, and the Space Age just pie-in-the-sky. Israel would still be a wild dream, and perhaps good relations with the Muslim world would not. But sadly, equal rights for all would be on the slow track.
Wars would still be our curse but they would be localized without the carnage we have witnessed since 1918. Even Asia would have had a different history without an Axis Japan and Communist Mao.
My great uncle died in a trench in France two months before the Armistice. His story was common to many immigrant families. He came to America legally in 1912, single and hopeful – possibly to avoid military conscription in Italy – only to be drafted here in 1917. A German trench mortar ended his life, his remains returned to his parents in Italy.
How the war started in August, 1914 has baffled historians and politicians even today. The assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist was the trigger, but the powder keg was many things: ethnic hatred, militarism, and suicidal alliances.
To their credit, the Italians refused to get involved in 1914 despite having a military alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. And, it would not have been a world war had Great Britain not joined the fracas, ostensibly to punish Germany for invading neutral Belgium. When American ships trying to supply Britain were sunk by German U-boats we ended up in the vortex, in 1917.
Italy, meanwhile, was later seduced into siding with Britain, France, and Russia by the 1915 Secret Treaty of London. No secret now, the terms promised Italy colonies in Africa, the Austrian South Tyrol, and most of the west coast of the Balkans. The Italians lost 680,000 men by 1918 but gave the coup de grâce to Austria-Hungary, capturing half a million prisoners one week before the Armistice in France. In fact, the collapse of its southern flank was the last straw for Germany. The Secret Treaty was never fully delivered on, and Italians still refer to their triumph as “the mutilated victory.”
The defeat of Germany in 1918 was only a technical one. The Allies never reached the German border, let alone Berlin. Germans were convinced that victory was almost theirs until their home front – “Jews and Communists” – stabbed them in the back. So, the seeds of Nazi Germany were planted. Germany’s utter annihilation in 1945 was what it took to finish the job in the Second World War.
In his book, The Pity of War, historian Niall Ferguson suggests that the Kaiser’s Germany would have won the First World War had the British and Americans stayed out. Between the German and Austrian empires – with a defeated France, a docile Italy, and neutral Britain – Europe would have looked much as it does today, an economic union with fewer nation-states. Kaiser Wilhelm was no Hitler and imperial Germans were not Nazis, so, Ferguson’s scenario is not as scary as one would think. The Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe might still be tied to Mother Russia but Communism would never have a homeland. Anti-Semitism and pogroms would still plague Jews, but a Holocaust would be unthinkable without the Nazis.
Interesting to note that Neville Chamberlain, entering politics in 1914, was all for Britain’s entry into the First World War. Little did he know how his wish produced his ultimate nightmare: Adolph Hitler. -JLM