“Who Needs World War I?”

Tom Streithorst poses the question:

Few events are more central to the history of the 20th century than the First World War.  Without Sarajevo, Tannenberg and the Somme, we have no Hitler, no Lenin, dish_wwibookcover no Hemingway.  The history of the past hundred years flows directly from the happenstance series of events that led to Europe destroying itself for little reason between 1914 and 1918.

And yet, if we imagine a German diplomat or general falling asleep in February 1914 and waking up today to see a prosperous Germany dominating a peaceful Europe, he would be pleased but not be surprised. The fall of the multiethnic Austrian Hungarian and Ottoman empires and their replacement by nation states was also predictable. No one in 1914 would have been astonished to learn that 100 years later Russia would remain an exporter of raw materials and its politics would be authoritarian, oligarchic, and corrupt. Britain’s half-hearted relationship towards the rest of Europe would startle no one.  What would shock our German general is the realization that it took two brutal world wars and the rise and fall of communism to achieve this outcome. Disastrous defeat twice over did not impede Germany’s rise.

So we have a conundrum.

On the one hand, even deeply important historical events can be seen as accidents or flukes.  On the other, over the longer term history seems tied to the profound processes of demographics, technology, culture and institutions that have little to do with the actions of mere men.  To put it another way, even if Christopher Columbus had never gone to sea, cassava would nonetheless be a staple crop in Africa today and a Nahuatl speaking emperor would not be ruling Mexico.  If we explore the counterfactual and assume that World War I had not broken out in 1914 and so the Russian Revolution not occurred in 1917 and Hitler not come to power in 1933, we might still end up with a world pretty close to what we have today.  I’m not sure what that tells us about the value of the study of history.

Update from a reader:

Well what a provocation to a historian! Let’s focus on Germany. So if we had a liberal German emperor in the lead up to World War I – say the emperor Friederich III had lived – his challenges in creating a liberal, parliamentary and peaceful Germany in a peaceful Europe would have been enormous.

It is difficult to exaggerate the degree to which Germany and German-Austrians (among others) were saturated with Darwinist racial politics before and after the Great War. This was accompanied by an understandable awe at German economic and technological progress since 1871, an over-optimistic confidence in the army as a decisive and speedy instrument of policy, and vociferous popular demand in Germany for colonial expansion, either in the tropics, or to the east, coupled with fear of a growing Russia.

Friederich would have had to swim against all these currents. He would have had to face down his own ruling class to liberalise German politics and constitutional structures and progressively reduce himself to a constitutional monarch in the style of the Scandinavians, Low Countries, or British. He would have had to help Austria-Hungary, racked by ethnic conflict, through to some new, better state, and successfully manage rivalries in the Balkans. He would have had to counter-intuitively tamp down the enormous temptation to view the army as an instrument capable of producing easy triumphs over other great powers à la 1866 and 1870. He would have had to promote some kind of de-escalation of the arms race through CFE or START-style reductions and confidence building measures. He would have to face down strong popular and aristocratic urges in Germany for territorial expansion. He, or his new liberal or social-democrat chancellor, would have had to somehow, single-handedly, reform the international trade environment from imperial protection to free trade, through some sort of pan-European zollverein, so that German and Austro-Hungarian industry could access the raw materials they needed.

Needless to say, such an agenda seems far beyond the capabilities of Friederich and the pre-war European ruling class.

Conversely, how would racism have been so thoroughly discredited if not for the horrors of Nazism? How could Europeans nations put aside imperial rivalry and world dominance and settle for a brotherly confederation, if not in recoiling from the utter destruction of the world wars? How could democracy have spread so widely?

In short, we have the world we have, in some ways much better than it might otherwise be, because of the great struggle between democracy and its enemies in the twentieth century. How much worse would it be if all that sacrifice had been in vain.

(Image of cover of book for WWI veterans by William Brown Meloney, 1919, via Wikipedia)