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The Catastrophe of the 20th Century

Friday, June 27, 2014

Even today, with the world far richer and more technologically advanced than it was 100 years ago, the doubts engendered by the Great War remain. We have yet to recapture the optimistic outlook that our Victorian ancestors took for granted.

On June 28th, 1914 — a hundred years ago today — a chauffeur took a wrong turn in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the course of correcting his mistake, the chauffeur stalled the car in front of a café where a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb nationalist was standing. Gavrilo Princip, seizing his unexpected chance, walked across the street and shot the couple in the back seat of the open car. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria Hungary, and his wife died within minutes and Europe died with them.   

As politicians maneuvered to take advantage of the situation, they miscalculated in their posturing and bluster.  

In those days the mobilization of an army had to be precisely choreographed in advance and planned down to the last detail, and once mobilization began it could not be reversed without rendering a country largely defenseless. When Russia decided to mobilize to protect Serbia from Austrian aggression, the statesmen realized, too late, that a fearful, inexorable logic had seized control of events. The war that had been so often threatened but which no one had actually wanted, had now, suddenly, become inescapable.  

Once it began, both sides discovered that on a battle field dominated by machine guns and barbed wire, they had no tactics that would bring victory. Stalemate, bloody, endless stalemate resulted. They threw ever larger numbers of soldiers into the mouths of those machine guns and gained mere yards of territory thereby. The British Army suffered 20,000 dead on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, more than they had suffered in the entire Boer War 15 years earlier. A total of more than a million men died in that one battle.   

Only with the collapse of the German home front — blockaded by the Royal Navy and unable to feed itself —  did the war end, after four years and more than 8 million military deaths. A whole generation of young men had been lost. 

The war that had been so often threatened but which no one had actually wanted, had now, suddenly, become inescapable.

There were no real victors among the European combatants in this bloodbath. Both France and Great Britain, while nominally victorious, had been bled white by the war, both financially and psychologically. When they imposed a draconian, score-settling peace on Germany at the Conference of Versailles, they sowed the seeds of World War II. Only the United States saw its geopolitical situation greatly improved as American industry and financial strength increased markedly. New York took over from London as the world’s financial center.

George Kennan, the diplomat and strategist, called the First World War, “The great seminal catastrophe of the 20th century.” But for the war there would have been no Nazi takeover of Germany and genocide of the Jews. There would have been no Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia and no Cold War. And, of course, most of us would never have been born.

As Western power had increased in the 18th and 19th centuries, two of the West’s greatest ideas, capitalism and democracy, spread widely. The Victorians, optimistic about the future, had believed deeply in progress and ordered liberty.

Once it began, both sides discovered that on a battle field dominated by machine guns and barbed wire, they had no tactics that would bring victory.

But in the war’s aftermath, alternatives to both capitalism and democracy, mere abstract intellectual theories before the war, began to be explored in the real world. They all produced poverty and, usually, tyranny. Only when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and when China began to explore free-market capitalism did the tide of these ideologies start to recede.

But even today, with the world far richer and more technologically advanced than it was 100 years ago, the doubts engendered by the Great War remain. We have yet to recapture that optimistic outlook regarding the future that our Victorian ancestors took for granted.

The West’s faith in itself is among the greatest casualties that lie today in Flanders Fields.

John Steele Gordon has written several books on business and financial history, the latest of which is the revised edition of Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt.

FURTHER READING: Gordon also writes "Time for a New Contract with America," "A Few Appropriate Remarks’,” “The First Presidential Election and Other Firsts,” and “The Scariest Day of My Life.” Steve Conover considers "Peace—and Prosperity—through Strength."

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