Last month I began an exploration of World War I, because that was when wars became industrialized, using tanks, germ warfare and mustard gas, bombs and submarines and the hell-holes of the trenches. I thought that if I could understand that war that I would be able to decide for myself whether I thought the horrors of war were ever justified.
I have now read two books about World War I, read reviews of four more, and thus far watched three BBC documentaries debating whether it was a futile war which Britain and America should have stayed out of, or whether, terrible as it was, the Allied victory saved the world from even greater enslavement, brutality, and bloodshed. I know a great deal more about the events leading up to that war and the reasoning of politicians as they grappled with it. I now have a great deal of information but rather than producing answers, it has left me with many more questions.
The first thing that seems apparent to me is that at the beginning, it is rarely clear what a war is really about. Even those who start it seem to find themselves fighting for different reasons and goals than they first had in mind. History generally begins WWI the Sunday morning in June 1914 when a student drop-out assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as he was on his way to church in Sarajevo. This took place in the context of an empire threatened by calls for independence in the Balkans. Germany immediately sent word that it would support the Empire should it attack what is now called Bosnia. It looked as if it could be a short sharp war that nobody would notice and would quell the unrest which the Empire was facing. But Russia, worried that the attack could spread to Serbia, lined up against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Then France, responding to its alliance with Russia allied herself with Russia. Germany at this point thought it could take over France before Russia had time to get there, and invaded Belgium because militarily that was the best way to invade France.
It almost worked. There was one last battle to be won, in which Germany had overwhelming force, and they had already drawn up their demands for any peace settlement. It included parts of France and Russia. But they lost the battle and had to retreat.
That is what changed Britain’s mind about getting involved. First of all, Germany had invaded Belgium, a sovereign country uninvolved in the dispute, for no other reason than that it was militarily advantageous to them. This violated an international agreement, a violation which made Britain feel highly vulnerable should a triumphant Germany be installed across the Channel. Germany was also building huge ships, which ultimately would threaten Britain’s control of the high seas and so the entire British colonial empire. Finally, Germany’s goals, as revealed in the demands for the peace settlement which they had thought was imminent, showed a Germany bent on vastly expanding the lands it controlled. Almost overnight the British public backed a war which up until then they had resisted.
America got involved in the war on similar grounds of self-preservation. For several years, President Woodrow Wilson kept American out of a European war which most Americans felt had nothing to do with them. Wilson also saw his own position as a peace-maker. But a German diplomat stationed in Washington rather stupidly – from Germany’s point of view anyway – admitted that intercepted messages from Germany to Japan and Mexico were indeed valid. Germany was encouraging Japan and Mexico to invade the U.S., promising Mexico that it would support its attempt to regain Texas, and plotting with Japan to take control of Latin America. As in Britain, the American public swung behind a war effort against Germany almost immediately after they felt personally threatened.
World War I killed an average of ten thousand people a day for four years, including eight million troops and almost as many civilians.
The news today is about Ukraine. It has some worrisome similarities to the situation in 1914. Is it all right for the EU and US to effectively say to Russia that they can take over the Crimea simply cutting it off from Ukraine? Should we say that the Russian helicopters flying over that part of the country is not an unacceptable invasion? should we pretend that we don’t think the troops who have taken over the sea and air ports aren’t Russian? Should we say it’s not worth the fight? - after all half the people in the Crimea speak Russian and would prefer to be part of Russia. Crimea is only that bottom bit sticking out into the Black Sea. And Russia only gave the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.
Is it comparable to Germany’s invading Belgium in WWI? And if so, was it worth fighting then? Would millions fewer have died if Britain and America had stayed out of the war altogether? Could the Crimea become another Belgium? Should it?
I don’t know. Ukraine does not have a functioning government. It has been corrupt almost since the Orange Revolution. The people in the west of the country want to become part of the European Union some day. Can we help and support the creation of a free, truly democratic government and functioning economy there without stumbling into an escalating war? Can we find a compromise with Russia that protects the strategic interests of all the parties?
We all are in great need of wisdom and skill and knowledge. And good fortune.