One hundred years ago today, an assassin’s bullet in Sarajevo ushered in the era of total war.
That summer of 1914, leaders and citizens alike dreamed of honor and a short conflict. They soon awoke to the horror of modern warfare, a slaughterhouse that engulfed millions of Europe’s best in the trenches of Verdun and the Somme. The European powers enlisted forces from their far-flung colonies to fight and die far from home as the struggle took on a global dimension.
When the carnage ended with a flawed peace, the world sank into protectionism, the Great Depression and fascism, hurtling toward an even more devastating war in 1939.
With the 1914 Great War, the twilight of European empires set in. Some collapsed straightaway. Czarist Russia fell to revolution, while the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires dissolved. Each had contained a patchwork of nationalities and faiths held together by imperial power at the top. The war destroyed those pinnacles of force, leading to an upheaval of nations and boundaries that continues to this day in places such as Iraq and Ukraine.
Indeed, the legacies and implications of 1914 are woven into the crises we face today. The modern Middle East, for example, is a creation of the treaties that ended World War I. For 500 years, the Ottoman Turks had controlled Arab and Kurdish lands. When the Ottomans sided with Germany in 1914, the British and French urged Sherif Hussein and his son, Prince Faisal, to mobilize Arab forces against the Turks. They promised to help establish a large Arab state that would encompass what are now Syria, Iraq and Jordan.
On this basis, Faisal accepted the Balfour Declaration, which led eventually to the state of Israel. But in secret, the British and French had already signed the Sykes Picot Agreement, dividing the promised territory into the artificial states of Syria and Iraq. Today, radical groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant seek to erase this legacy of 1914 by forging a unified Arab state in the Sunni regions of Iraq and Syria, while the Kurds dream of statehood.
Tensions also persist in the Balkans and other regions of central and Eastern Europe that were part of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Czarist Russia once claimed to protect the interests of Orthodox Christians within the Catholic Habsburg realms, just as Russia today purports to defend Russian speakers in the states of the former Soviet Union. Russia assimilated eastern Ukraine in 1654, while western Ukraine fell away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire only in 1918. This basic fissure lies at the heart of the current crisis in historically-fragmented Ukraine.
The legacies of 1914 for society and the economy are no less fateful. Cultural figures wrote of a “lost” generation in the 1920s, literally in the case of European elites decimated by the war, figuratively for American writers such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, who came to postwar Europe searching the shards of a shattered civilization. It was a sense of human progress that had been lost. And today the old confidence still wavers as the effects of technology, for the planet and even for what it means to be human, appear Janus-faced at best.
Total war also brought to government a more active role in mobilizing and managing the national economy. Citizens were called upon to accept wartime taxes and rationing as well as the mortal dangers of combat. In the search for greater security in extreme times, many came to welcome a strong role for the federal government. This legacy is fading today with the passing of generations that experienced the total wars and Great Depression of the 20th century.
Another result of 1914, one that hit Minnesota hard, was the farm crisis of the 1920s. Seeking profit from high wartime food prices, American farmers took out loans to expand their output. With peace in 1918 and a resumption of agricultural production in Europe, world food prices plummeted. The excesses of agricultural overproduction became clear when banks collapsed across the Midwest as farmers proved unable to repay loans. The farm depression continued through the 1920s and merged into the Great Depression. It contributed to the lack of demand in the general economy that coexisted with the financial speculation of 1929, a perilous mix that risks reappearing today.
At war’s end, President Woodrow Wilson arrived at the Versailles Peace Conference with a moral agenda of Fourteen Points that voiced U.S. support for freedom and national self-determination around the world. Yet, by the early 1920s, America had turned back toward domestic concerns. These two reflexes are alive in our debates today, even as the world beyond our borders becomes more multipolar, more akin to the complex world of 1914.
The rise of a new power inevitably leads to conflict, if history be any guide. In 1914, that power was Germany, whose naval policies alarmed Britain. As China re-emerges today, how alarmed are we? Will clearer heads prevail in our two countries? Or will we sleepwalk into conflict as the Europeans did a century ago? May we learn from the tragic legacy of 1914.
Thomas Hanson is a frequent speaker for the Minnesota International Center’s Great Decisions program. He is a former U.S. Foreign Service officer and is currently diplomat in residence at the Royal D. Alworth Jr. Institute for International Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth.