Lessons from the Great War still apply

On June 18, 1914, the Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand, nephew of Emperor Francis Joseph and heir to the throne of the Austria-Hungary empire, and his wife Sophie were assassinated by a Bosnian Serb in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The assassination was the flash point that triggered a global conflict.

The Great War had a kaleidoscope of causes, including mutual defense alliances, imperialism, militarism, and nationalism. Its origins have eerie parallels to the present and hold important lessons for the future, especially for China and the United States. The emergence of China as a major power trying to assert itself has echoes of Germany’s rise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was viewed as a threat by Britain, so the theory goes.

The two bullets fired in Sarajevo precipitated an international crisis, as various military alliances were activated, dragging everybody into a devastating global war. At the time of the royal murders, nobody believed it to be the “shot heard round the world,” but Europe went from peace to war in five weeks. As British Foreign Affairs Minister Sir Edward Grey said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Germany backed Austria after it declared war on Serbia, which was supported by Russia. When Germany then declared war on Russia, France was committed to Russia, and Germany attacked France through Belgium, pulling Britain into the war. Later Japan and the United States entered on the side of Britain, France and Russia, along with Italy, which switched sides in 1915. As Henry Kissinger explained, “the Great Powers managed to construct a diplomatic doomsday machine …” The war to end all wars (until it didn’t), later known as World War I, broke out in the summer of 1914 and was expected to be over by Christmas. Kaiser Wilhelm told his troops, “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.”

But it lasted until Nov. 11, 1918. Like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was to be swift, easy and victorious. Those who plan on fighting short wars often end up losing long ones.

By the time World War I ended, nine million had been killed, including over 100,000 American soldiers. Eight million were prisoners or simply missing. Twenty-one million had been wounded and who knows how many were damaged psychologically.

When the guns went silent, the Ottoman, Hapsburg and Russian empires had collapsed, a new German empire was foiled and France and Great Britain were greatly weakened. The war sowed the seeds of the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and communism and World War II. The dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire created the modern Middle East and laid the foundation for the chaotic conflicts that continue to plague the region. The Great War was also the catalyst for the coming American century.

China is an economic superpower and is translating economic might into military capabilities roughly in the same league as the United States. It is making a run at dominating northeast Asia through various territorial disputes with Asian neighbors over claims in the contested East and South China seas. By themselves, these neighbors are not powerful enough to check China.

The historical lesson for leaders in both China and regional rivals like Japan is to recognize that growing political and military tensions are a potential flash point.

Given the network of bilateral and collective defense agreements the United States has in the region, supporting its allies could draw the U.S. into disputes with China.

A clash between China and the United States is hardly remote. As recently as 2014, President Obama reaffirmed America’s bilateral defense agreements with South Korea, Japan and the Philippines. A lesson from World War I that seems so relevant today is that local conflicts can escalate into a great war.

Originally Published: June 16, 2018

The unimaginable catastrophe of World War I

A century ago, on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire, made an official state visit with his wife, Duchess Sophie, to the Bosnian city of Sarajevo, which the empire then occupied.

Late that morning, the cars in their imperial procession made a wrong tum on the unfamiliar streets of Sarajevo and halted to get their bearings. At that moment, Gavrilo Princip, a young Bosnian freedom fighter (or terrorist, take your pick) stepped out of the crowd and fired two shots into the back seat of the open car carrying the Archduke and Duchess. Both died within minutes.

And Europe proceeded to come apart at the seams.

Less than six weeks later, on Aug. 3, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany invaded Belgium as the first step in their longstanding Schlieffen Plan to score a quick military victory over Republican France.

France had a military alliance with Tsarist Russia, which had already begun mobilizing its huge army in support of its client Balkan state of Serbia, the “spiritual leader” of occupied Balkan states like Bosnia. Serbia was being threatened with invasion by the Austro-Hungarian Empire (with the support of its German ally) for “refusing to cooperate fully” in the investigation of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination.

Germany regarded Russian mobilization as a threat against its eastern provinces and assumed Russia’s French allies would attack from the west, so it decided to mount a preemptive invasion of France through neutral Belgium.

However, the constitutional monarch of Great Britain had guaranteed the territorial integrity of Belgium. The British declared war against rampaging Germany on Aug. 4 and began landing contingents of its small but highly trained army in France on Aug. 7 to support the French and Belgian armies.

By the middle of August, the major league lineup was basically set: The alliance of Britain, France, and Russia was at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Clear? I thought not. But the parties plunged ahead with great enthusiasm into the five local wars that broke out during August in different parts of Europe. Austria-Hungary was fighting Serbia in the Balkans and Russia in southern Poland and Galicia. Russia was fighting Germany in East Prussia. France squared off against Germany in Alsace-Lorraine and Germany fought Belgium, France and Britain in Belgium and northern France.

All confidently expected the war to be over by Christmas. They got the Christmas part right, but not the year.

The unimaginable catastrophe of World War I, which would remake the world, dragged on with maximum mismanagement by all parties until November 1918. It destroyed the remains of 19th-century European society and wouldn’t really be settled until the end of World War II, when the western allies and the Soviet Union finally smashed the resurgent monster Germany had become in the wake of the 1918 Armistice and established a new Europe amid the ruins.

World War I may have been inconclusive, but its cost was staggering. All told, the 16 nations that ultimately ended up fighting spent the equivalent of some $3,000 trillion (in inflation-adjusted dollars) on the war. They mobilized 65 million troops, 12 percent of whom were killed and another 33 percent wounded.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and was replaced by some half-a-dozen ethnically based nations, most of which were overrun by Germany in World War II and later became puppet states of the Soviet Union.

The people of Europe, having borne the brunt of the suffering, lost all confidence in the so-called “ideals of western civilization” they had taken for granted before 1914. They also lost faith in their governments, which they were convinced had persistently lied to them, protected their elites at the cost of everyone else and squandered millions of lives by mismanaging the war.

Virtually everyone, victor and vanquished alike, was left bankrupt and owing more money to the United States (which sat out most of the war and became the world’s leading creditor nation) than they could ever possibly repay.

It was quite a scorecard for a war that settled virtually nothing.

originally published: August 9, 2014