Catastrophe 1914 to 2014


World War I began 100 years ago this month.  In many ways, that war is, from many people’s  historical perspective, a side note of history.  The War Between the States and World War II have captured the interest and attention of Americans through books and movies.  World War I is less appealing, less interesting, less important as we see it.

There is a grand moral narrative that shapes our understanding of World War II.  There are those who debate America’s involvement in World War II, but the overwhelming images of American and British forces liberating concentration camps strongly impacts our understanding of why we fought in that war.  Hitler and Mussolini epitomize evil leadership.  Japan’s atrocities in China seemingly justify doing whatever it took to defeat the Empire of the Rising Sun.

But it is hard to work up indignation against Kaiser Wilhelm of Imperial Germany and Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary.  The images from World War I shows a world in black and white.  The film footage of the time has people walking in a Charlie Chaplin manner.  The causes, battles, length, and results of that war are all blurred by a century that had a bigger, more visible, more ideologically clear, more fluid war.  The Allies in World War II swept across North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and France.  The Allies in World War I were locked into a war of attrition in Flanders Fields.

The airplanes, tanks, and even uniforms of World War I appear as almost comic.  The literature of World War I, on the other hand,  is far from comic.  From the German Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front to Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, the story is depressing.  A philosophy of despair and death arose from that war.  Hopelessness, cynicism, defeat, angst, and Nihilism all seemed to be the natural conclusions of those who survived the war (and the horrible flu epidemic that followed).  About the only World War I literary work that counters the pessimism was J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which grew out of his personal experiences in the war.

I am now about halfway through reading Max Hastings’ Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War.  Yes, I am reading it because I like to read history, but I am also reading it because this month is the 100 year anniversary of that war.  I have read quite a few accounts of World War I in my years as a history student and teacher.  This is an outstanding work of scholarship.  It is another line of evidence for the superiority of British historians.

I want to just briefly highlight a few insights at this point:

1.  The political leadership in the countries of Europe in 1914 was attrocious.  Maybe it is just harsh judgment with 20/20 hindsight.  But every account I have ever read indicates that the leaders of the major powers–Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Britain, France, and Italy–all blundered and stumbled into a war that offered nothing but ruin.  It is easy to fall into thinking that today’s leaders are all dolts, and it is hard to see current world leaders as statesmen and visionaries.  But I don’t want the “good ole days” when the fate of Europe was in the hands of the men who made decisions, mobilized armies, and triggered World War I.

The few men here and there who foresaw the costs, the probable duration, and the devastation of the impending war were prophets without a listening audience.

2.  Instead of World War I, there should have only been a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia.  This is not to justify Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia for its connections to the Black Hand.  By the way, an act of political terrorism, the assassination of the unpopular Archduke Franz Ferdinand, sparked the war.  Looking at the maps and population numbers, one might think that Austria-Hungary would have swallowed Serbia.  In reality, Serbia was in much fighting trim and was much more motivated to defend itself.  Austria-Hungary was a polyglot nation of many lands, languages, and ethnic groups.  It was out of touch with reality and the Serbs would have given them a good pounding.

If Germany had not given Austria-Hungary the famous “blank cheque” and if Russia had not felt honor-bound and blood-bound to defend Serbia, then there would only have been a minor war resulting in a few doctoral dissertations among history students.

3.  Civilian atrocities, while exaggerated by propaganda, were real and horrible.  The main area of invasion was Belgium and northern France.  Germans were the main perpetrators of these civilian deaths.  These were not cases of collateral damage inflicted on civilians in the crossfire.  Germans executed civilians, burned libraries, and waged a type of war that would make Sherman’s March to the Sea look like a picnic stroll.

Hastings notes the fact that the Austrian army, which itself was pretty brutal, photographed and publicized their executions.  They saw this as a way of bolstering their own people’s support of the war and putting fear into the enemies.  Granted, World War I did not contain the kind of genocidal pursuits of World War II.  (The exception might be Turkey’s genocidal assualts on the Armenian people.)

4.  The military leadership at the beginning of the war was just about as incompetent as the political leadership.  Oddly enough, the British Expeditionary Force, almost a token army on the Western Front, was under the command of a General named French.  He blundered his way through the first months of the war with little understanding.  Thankfully, the German commander Helmut von Moltke had enough faults and made enough blunders to keep Germany from winning the war in the first months.  (Assuming a German victory would have been all that bad.)  All too many of the military leaders on both sides were aged and still bound to a mindset more closely akin to the Napoleonic Era.

5.  In August, the death tolls were already so high that all sides should have been having second thoughts about the war.  Machine guns and heavy artillery were already proving to be terribly destructive.  The numbers of men being mobilized were astronomical.  The leaders should have been seeking some forum for negotiating their way through what was proving to be anything but a short war.

World War I is depressing.  Catastophe 1914 is grim reading.  I could wish that the world had “learned its lessons” and was better now.  History is not for the faint of heart.

2 thoughts on “Catastrophe 1914 to 2014

  1. Good word. I will probably not read this book, but you have certainly sparked my interest in learning more about that great World War. As you have rightly said, WWII has claimed most of the attention. Thanks for the spur.

  2. Pingback: Winston’s War | The Heavy Laden Bookshelf

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