One Hundred years ago tomorrow, Germany invaded Belgium and Great Britain declared war on Germany. While what became known as World War I had actually begun in the east a few days earlier when Germany declared war on Russia, August 4th was when the rest of the dominoes for that disaster for millions began in full earnest. While the lead up to World War I differed in some ways from German aggression in the late 1930's, a common thread in the events leading up to both wars was the same: imperial ambitions on the part of some rulers and rabid nationalism. Some argue that one hundred years after the beginning of World War I, the triggers are now in place for World War III. It would be nice to hope that humankind might have learned from the disasters and horrors of the past, yet if one looks at events in Ukraine and Gaza and and the personalities of Putin and Netanyahu, it is easy to see aspects reminiscent of Kaiser Wilhelm, Adolph Hitler, and Mussolini. Here are excerpts from an article in The Atlantic which looks at today's triggers for disaster:
Pessimism is a useful prism through which to view the affairs of states. Their ambition to gain, retain, and project power is never sated. Optimism, toward which Americans are generally inclined, leads to rash predictions of history’s ending in global consensus and the banishment of war. Such rosy views accompanied the end of the Cold War. They were also much in evidence a century ago, on the eve of World War I.
Then, as now, Europe had lived through a long period of relative peace, after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Then, too, rapid progress in science, technology, and communications had given humanity a sense of shared interests that precluded war, despite the ominous naval competition between Britain and Germany. Then, too, wealthy individuals devoted their fortunes to conciliation and greater human understanding. Rival powers fumed over provocative annexations, like Austria-Hungary’s of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, but world leaders scarcely believed a global conflagration was possible, let alone that one would begin just six years later. The very monarchs who would consign tens of millions to a murderous morass from 1914 to 1918 and bury four empires believed they were clever enough to finesse the worst.
The unimaginable can occur. That is a notion at once banal and perennially useful to recall. Indeed, it has just happened in Crimea, where a major power has forcefully changed a European border for the first time since 1945.
Events cascade. It is already clear that the nationalist fervor unleashed by Putin after a quarter century of Russia’s perceived post–Cold War decline is far from exhausted. Russians are sure that the dignity of their nation has been trampled by an American and European strategic advance to their border dressed up in talk of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. Whether this is true is irrelevant; they believe it. National humiliation, real or not, is a tremendous catalyst for war. That was the case in Germany after the Treaty of Versailles . . . . Russia, convinced of its lost greatness, is gripped by a Weimar neurosis resembling Germany’s post–World War I longing for its past stature and power. The Moscow-backed separatists taking over government buildings in eastern Ukraine and proclaiming an independent “Donetsk People’s Republic” demonstrate the virulence of Russian irredentism. Nobody can know where it will stop. Appetite, as the French say, grows with eating.
[T]he realization that the Russian bear can bite as well as growl is timely. It is a reminder that a multipolar world in a time of transition, when popular resentments are rising over joblessness and inequality, is a dangerous place indeed.
The international system does not look particularly stable. The Cold War’s bipolar confrontation, despite its crises, was predictable. Today’s world is not. It features a United States whose power is dominant but no longer determinant; a one-party China that is a rising hegemon; an authoritarian Russia giddy on nationalism and the idea of a restored imperium; and a weak, navel-gazing, blasé Europe whose pursuit of an ever closer union is on hold and perhaps on the brink of reversal.
Pacifist tendencies in western Europe coexist with views of power held in Moscow and Beijing that Bismarck or Clausewitz would recognize instantly.
A century ago, in the absence of clear lines or rules, it was just this kind of feel-good hope and baseless trust in the judgment of rival powers that precipitated catastrophe. But that, it may be said, was then. The world has supposedly been transformed.
But has it? Consider this article in my father’s 1938 high-school yearbook:
The machine has brought men face to face as never before in history. Paris and Berlin are closer today than neighboring villages were in the Middle Ages. In one sense distance has been annihilated. We speed on the wings of the wind and carry in our hands weapons more dreadful than the lightning … The challenge of the machine is the greatest opportunity mankind has yet enjoyed. Out of the rush and swirl of the confusions of our times may yet arise a majestic order of world peace and prosperity.The ghosts of repetition reside alongside the prophets of progress. From the “rush and swirl” of 1938 where “distance has been annihilated” would follow in short order the slaughter of Stalingrad, the mass murder of European Jewry, the indiscriminate deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the anguish of all humanity. We should not lightly discard a well-grounded pessimism or the treaties it has produced.