Historical speculation is a fun parlor game, and it’s helpful to the extent that it illuminates choices, things which could have been said or done differently – because that illumination may help people make better choices in the present, or in the future. But at the end of the day it does not matter; the past is the past, the dead are the dead, the crisis that was, was.
The victim’s family was pissed. You would be, too, if some asshole shot your family member in broad daylight, acting on an ancient grudge he held against your family. They caught the guy who did it, of course, and some of his companions in his conspiracy of crime; and they punished him.
But rage can run away with you, and rage can blind you, and rage can cause you to see conspiracies lurking in the shadows. And pain can make you determined: determined not just to punish those who have hurt you, but to change the world so that you can never be hurt again. The victim’s family was enraged, and the victim’s family was in pain, and the victim’s family saw conspiracies lurking in the shadows, and the victim’s family was determined to ensure it could never be hurt again.
The perpetrator claimed to be acting on behalf of his people; the victim’s family took him at his word. They went to their neighbor, the leader of the perpetrator’s people, and announced: this is your fault. You have been riling people up against our family. You have been giving bad people weapons with which to hurt us. You have even let the perpetrator’s co-conspirators live in your house. You must stop these things, and help us achieve our vengeance, and help us ensure that we will never be harmed in this way again.
This is a natural reaction, and a common one. It appears frequently throughout history. It’s how the US reacted, in its anger and pain, in 2001. And yet natural and common reactions are not always the best reactions.
The neighbor agreed to most of the victim’s family’s demands. But there was one demand they could not tolerate. The victim’s family had demanded that the neighbor allow them to send representatives into the neighbor’s home, where the representatives would set up shop as a police force, enforcing the victim’s family’s will. This one demand was a step too far. This one demand would deprive the neighbor of the power to govern his own house, to make his own decisions; it would have made him a puppet of the victim’s family. They refused.
The victim’s family was outraged by the refusal; nothing but complete compliance would do. And so they sent a short note announcing their outrage and declaring the start of a war.
Friendship is sometimes a funny thing. If I were out with my friends and one of them unexpectedly found himself in a fight, my first instinct would be to join him and help, even though my skill at fighting is approximately as good as my skill at speaking Nahuatl, because it’s just not OK to fight with my friends, no matter how good a cause you think you have.
You’d expect countries to behave differently, though, because countries are incapable of the love of friendship. But countries are made of people, and those people are subject to the tempering of emotions and the inflammation of emotions; and, as such, sometimes the rational pursuit of national self-interest is abandoned for fundamentally emotional reasons. That was true of the country led by the victim’s family, and it was true of the country the victim’s family blamed; and it was true, as well, for the countries who considered those countries friends.
The scapegoat’s friends dithered. It’s not quite clear what they were thinking, but they did not declare war; it looks in retrospect as if one of them (the scapegoat’s big brother and something of the neighborhood bully) hoped to intimidate the victim’s family into mediation.
The victim’s family’s big brother, on the other hand, reacted. Certain that the scapegoat’s friends would come to its aid, and worried by the threatening noises the scapegoat’s big brother was making in an attempt to appear intimidating, the victim’s family’s big brother invaded the scapegoat’s big brother’s home, and started to invade one of the scapegoat’s other friend’s homes, as well.
Ridiculously, in the process, the victim’s family’s big brother decided that it would be easier to get to the scapegoat’s friend’s home by traipsing through the home of that friend’s neighbor. The neighbor in question had a tiny little home and protested a desire to stay out of it; the victim’s family’s brother ransacked the home anyway. This angered yet another neighbor, who fancied himself the protector of neutrals; and so that neighbor entered the fight, on the side of the invaded neutral and, therefore, on the side of the scapegoat and the scapegoat’s friends and family.
And so, with most of the neighborhood fighting, the Great War began, and the world ended.
When the war started, most people thought it would be a quick and easy thing. A short jaunt to test the will against the enemy, with the soldiers home, victorious, by Christmas. There were signs they should have heeded, but those signs were hard to read; rumors from the American Civil War, perchance, or distant half-understood half-believed stories of the Boer War. The warnings were not heeded; faith was strong that this would be no big deal. It would be a pleasant short-lived experience in which glory was brought to the victorious empires and no great harm would be done.
The war lasted more than four years. Somewhere between 10,500,000 and 13,100,000 people died in combat; a further 4,500,000 died of malnutrition or disease.
It’s hard to imagine these numbers. For some comparison, in the recent Afghan war, estimates are on the order of 15,000 military deaths and 20,000 civiilian deaths. A total of 35,000 people killed in a war which lasted more than a dozen years. Using the most conservative estimate for combat deaths during the Great War, that many people died on average every six days.
In England, famously, one third of the fighting age male population was killed. Imagine that: one third of the men you went to school with, killed over the course of four years.
The numbers were even worse elsewhere. In the Austrian Empire, ruled by the victim’s family, it’s estimated that 4% of the entire population died. In the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed into a terrible civil war, the estimate is that 15% of the entire population died. In Serbia, the scapegoat, the estimate is that as much as 18% of the entire population died.
And those that didn’t die? The ones who fought and survived? They experienced some of the “greatest” inventions of the age.
There were clouds of gas which penetrated clothing and caused painful blisters on the eye, skin, and mucous membranes (or, in the worst case, on the inside of the respiratory system), and which catalyzed the development of cancer. (These were fought, at first, by soaking clothing and breathing-rags in urine, and later by the development of gas masks – heavy, hot, uncomfortable, but protective).
There were industrialized guns that could spray fields with bullets at a rate hitherto unheard of, turning fields of battle into fields of corpses in brief instants.
There were industrialized flame throwers which could set fire to entire enemy lines.
In the west, at least, these combinations of technology led to paralysis: both opposing armies built defensive entrenchments, protected by barbed wire and mounted machine guns, and then spent years fighting over a few hundred feet of land. These battles could be epic; one month-long battle killed 263,000 soldiers in 37 days. How else could it go, when the battle plan involved climbing out of your trenches and rushing across a field of suppressive machine gun fire to challenge the enemy’s trench?
The war in the east was less static and paralytic; the Russian Empire was too poor and too weak to feed, clothe, and arm an army on the scale required, and its defensive lines collapsed (amid a general famine that killed thousands of civilians). The German army went on a romp through the east … and kept romping … and kept romping … until the Russian Empire itself collapsed.
In the southeast, seizing the opportunity to exact revenge for some ancient grudges, the Ottoman Empire had inexplicably joined the fray on behalf of the scapegoat and the scapegoat’s friends. The First Lord of the British Admiralty, a man whose later career included both being the British Empire’s most famous drunken crank and being the hero who saved the Empire, had the bright idea to try to seize control of the straits connecting the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea (and, possibly, threaten the Ottoman capital, which resided on a bluff above those straits). The straits were protected by mobile artillery located on a cliff at the entrance to the straits; so the logical thing to do was to land an army on the shore at the base of the cliff and charge it. The attempt to do that lasted eight months before the British admitted defeat; there were almost 500,000 casualties (total, on both sides).
It was a crazy, brutal, devastating war, and it went on, and on, and on. Every major power in Europe was effected; so too, their colonies – and, eventually, the United States. And because it was so crazy, and because it was such a new way of fighting that had never been experienced or imagined, and because the number of people required to fight it was so great that virtually everyone of fighting age experienced it, and because it was such a terrible experience for those who experienced it … the war destroyed everyone’s morale. The soldiers’ morale was destroyed by the experience of fighting the war; but they all knew people back home, and their morale was communicated in letters and visits home, and the morale of their civilian friends and families was also destroyed.
Eventually, the end came, and an exhausted and demoralized western world laid down its weapons and went home to nurse its wounds.
The victim’s family lost. Their empire was fully destroyed, broken into constituent parts. The criminal, in a sense, won; all of the people for whom he claimed to be fighting escaped from the power of the victim’s family and were united with the scapegoat in a shiny new house. The scapegoat’s big brother was destroyed; the Russian Empire ceased to exist, new countries were carved from its territory, and a communist dictatorship was born in the rump. The opportunistic Ottomans also lost, their empire destroyed and pieces of it parceled out among the remaining imperial powers. And the victim’s family’s big brother also lost; a huge chunk was torn out of its territory, and its colonies were taken away from it.
On paper, the scapegoat’s friend, and the protector of neutrals, both won; they kept their territories and gave up nothing in the treaty. But “won” is a questionable proposition when millions have died and your economy is destroyed and your country is in an unheard of debt; and so these winners, broken and exhausted, demanded punitive reparations from the victim’s family’s big brother … reparations which helped set the stage for the next Great War.
The world had ended, and a new world was born. The Age of Empires had passed; three of the great early modern empires had simply vanished, and the weakened, broke rumps of the other empires struggled to keep their colonies from seeking independence (an independence which many had not imagined possible until they had seen their colonial masters defeated in battle during the Great War). The world’s economic center of gravity had shifted from Europe to the United States. Australia and New Zealand had come into being as nations, national feeling forged in reaction to the British Empire’s futile eight month effort to storm a cliff. And more than fifteen million people had died.
Nobody expected this, one hundred years ago today, when Gavril Princip killed Franz Ferdinand.
But it came, all the same.
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