The last of the First World War veterans have finally passed away. What artillery, machine guns, barbed wire, flooded trenches and poison gas failed to do, time has accomplished 100 years after the “Guns of August” ripped apart the European order.
And in parallel, memories of the Great War have likewise faded.
The hundredth anniversary of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo – the fuse that sparked the conflagration – passed on June 28 without notice.
And Monday marked the 100th anniversary of Austria’s declaration of war against Serbia, in response to the assassination, on July 28, 1914.
From there, the conflict metastasized as Europe’s great powers, arrayed in two mighty alliances, fell upon each other like dominoes with unprecedented savagery. Cheerful, joyful crowds saw the soldiers off. It would all be over by Christmas.
But the war continued for four years, compounded by virulent nationalism, territorial ambitions, demographic fears and economic calculations.
Tens of millions of soldiers and civilians died in the conflict.
Millions more died in an influenza epidemic that followed on its heels. And Christendom, reeling from the ordeal, suffered the coup de grace in the gruesome sequel twenty years later.
The United States could have wisely stayed out. As Winston Churchill later declared:
“America should have minded her own business and stayed out of the World War. If you hadn’t entered the war the Allies would have made peace with Germany in the Spring of 1917. Had we made peace then there would have been no collapse in Russia followed by Communism, no breakdown in Italy followed by Fascism, and Germany would not have signed the Versailles Treaty, which has enthroned Nazism in Germany.”
Indeed. With both sides exhausted, a negotiated peace under American auspices would have spared the world much suffering. America could have entered the world stage as a peace maker, and civilization’s center might have held.
Instead, the United States entered the fray in 1917 to “make the world safe for democracy.” Since our “democratic” allies ruled overseas empires and subjugated hundreds of millions without their consent, the claim was darkly humorous. Even tiny Belgium, invaded by Germany, kept millions of Africans enslaved in the Congo.
And in hindsight, compared to what followed, the Kaiser’s regime was positively liberal. No side had a monopoly of virtue or vice.
The United States also trumpeted the cause of “national self-determination.” This policy not only dismembered the Austrian empire – followed by a century of murderous strife in the Balkans – but unintentionally led to the swift dismemberment of our allies’ empires.
(Ironically, the doctrine of “national self-determination” was used by Hitler to incorporate the Rhineland, the Sudetenland and Austria into his empire. What applied to Czechs could be applied to Germans.)
The results of this unnecessary war were deplorable. The concert of Europe was destroyed. Anarchy and extremist politics dominated the defeated states. The peace treaties created grievances setting the stage for the Second World War.
Central and Eastern Europe soon fell under the whip hand of devils such as Lenin, Stalin and Hitler. Lesser demons tormented other parts of the continent. Was defeating the Kaiser or maintaining Belgium’s territorial integrity worth this terrible price?
America was forever altered. With Europe exhausted in two world wars, the fate of mankind revolved for half a century around the American/Soviet nuclear axis.
America endured censorship, economic centralization, staggering taxation, standing armies, rationing and the draft. The warfare-welfare state became the norm. Republican institutions staggered under the burden of imperial responsibilities.
Absurdly, Christian ministers in belligerent nations declared God was on their side and anathematized Christians across the trenches. Christendom fought a civil war over who would be supreme, and Christianity lost.
Western civilization never recovered its strength or confidence. The West lost its faith, its optimism and its civilizing mission.
It remains in continual retreat culturally, religiously, militarily, economically and demographically.
Historian Jacques Barzun called the war “the blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction.”
Pandora’s Box opened with those fatal shots in Sarajevo. A century of gulags and gas chambers was unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Only the end of the Cold War brought some sense of normalcy, but the wounds persist.
The global tragedy from 1914 to 1918 unleashed cascades of unintended consequences. It’s political, moral and religious implications haunt us to this day. As the legendary diplomat George Kennan once observed, “All lines of inquiry lead back to World War I.”
Gary Bunker is a former Aiken County Councilman.