In the end, the guns fell silent at the appointed hour: 11 a.m. on the 11th of November, the 11th month of the year 1918. For four brutal years Europe — and much of the rest of the world — had been first drawn into and then fully involved in the most ferocious conflict in history up to that time. A war that began almost accidentally, with the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the Balkan backwater of Sarajevo, soon morphed into a domino-toppling series of alliances and ententes, from which no nation or empire emerged unscathed. Nineteenth-century battlefield tactics collided head on with the mechanized warfare of the 20th; millions of young men were blown to pieces, had limbs severed, were blinded, crippled, driven mad as they crouched in the trenches, waiting for the orders to go over the top, and charge into certain death for King, Kaiser, and Country.
When the war ended — with an armistice, not a peace — German troops were still occupying swaths of France. Romanov Russia, which had fought on the side of the British and the French, had cratered and, in a sequence of revolutions, had been delivered into Bolshevik hands. The Hapsburgs, too, would vanish, with Austria reduced to a rump province of what would become the Third Reich, and the Kingdom of Hungary losing two-thirds of its territory. The “Sick Man of Europe,” the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which had fought Russia on the side of the Germans and Austrians, was sundered and split up into some of the artificial states, like Iraq, which bedevil us yet today. Poland gained its independence from Russia, only to lose it again 21 years later, and thus occasion World War II.
Of the putative victors, Britain and France had both been bled dry, losing the cream of their young manhood to Big Bertha and her legions of bayonets and machine guns. Only the Americans, whose troops eventually turned the tide during the summer and fall of 1918, and who suffered significant casualties as well, emerged from the carnage as a bolder, stronger nation.
In other words, almost no good came out of the First World War. It was the greatest calamity in the history of Western civilization, a fratricidal conflict that made the American Civil War look like a mere warm-up for the Armageddon to come. From the time of the Greeks and Romans, warfare had been generally conducted on open fields, where the clash of two great armies would be settled in a day or two, one side triumphant, the other defeated, captured, or slaughtered to the last man. When sieges were necessary — the Romans and, later, the Turks, conducted many — cities were gradually surrounded and cut off from their supply lines as the besieging forces settled in to await the inevitable.
True, there were pitched battles aplenty during World War One, but what we most remember today was the four-year long mutual siege in the trenches on the Western Front, where the same piece of ground — No-Man’s Land — was fought over repeatedly by general staffs who had not the slightest idea of how to decisively end the conflict. “Home by Christmas” they had said when war broke out in August 1914. Now, here in bleak November, that brave slogan would finally come true. But at what price?
Wars that don’t end conclusively exact a terrible price at their next, inevitable, iteration. The Germans withdrew to find that their Emperor had fled and the old Prussian order was tottering toward the grave (it would vanish entirely by the end of World War Two). The notion of the Dolchstoss — the “stab in the back” — arose in post-Wilhelmine Germany, festered, and took hold in the minds and imaginations of the National Socialists, who were .itching for another go at it, just as soon as they’d cut their teeth with their street battles with the Communists during the Weimar Republic. Meanwhile, communist “republics” briefly took hold in Bavaria, and in what was left of Hungary. Nothing, it seems, had been solved by the “war to end war” and, absent a definitive conclusion, its sequel would come along in the span of one generation.
And even then, the forces unleashed by World War One would not be settled. Stalin’s Russia, having first been an ideological, military, and diplomatic ally of Hitler’s Germany, was caught off guard when the two thieves fell out a scant two years after they had collegially carved up Poland and the Soviet bear had gobbled up the Baltics. The resulting Cold War, which ended geopolitically with the collapse of the Soviet Union between 1989 (when the Berlin Wall fell) and 1991, when the U.S.S.R. was formally dissolved on Christmas Day, was simply the final working out of what had begun 75 years before.
Even more long-ranging have been the cultural effects of the war. Europe not only lost its manhood in the Great War, it lost its pride. The glories of European civilization, from the Greeks on, were rendered nugatory in the eyes of many, including the nascent school of cultural Marxists we have come to know as the Frankfurt School. From the ashes of empires arose the notion of Critical Theory, which posited that — old Europe having just failed so signally — there was nothing about European (and, by extension, American) civilization that could not be questioned, attacked, and destroyed. Out with the old verities, in with the new relativism, and on to a brave new world in which the only reality was inside your heads. A century after it tried to commit suicide, Europe and the West still find themselves under attack.
To look back on World War One, therefore, is not to ask whether the result could have better had the outcome been different. What if the Germans had won? What if the Germans had been defeated, Berlin occupied, and a formal surrender demanded and taken?There was no pressing need for Queen Victoria’s brood of royal cousins — Czar Nicholas, Kaiser Bill, and King George V of England (“czar” and “kaiser” are both variants of “Caesar”) — to get into a family quarrel gone hideously awry and destroy Europe. Rather, the question is: could the war have been prevented? Or was it the unintended but ineluctable consequence of centuries of power-balancing and royal intermarriage that led Europe down its suicidal path?
But here we are. Germany, reunified although still smaller than it was in 1914, is once again the powerhouse of central Europe. Russia, under its latest czar, remains a resentful, suspicious outsider, drinking its past glories and nursing its overwhelming inferiority complex. In Turkey, Erdogan smokes the pipe dream of a recrudescent “caliphate,” with the former Roman Empire eastern capital of Constantinople (“Istanbul” is merely the Turkish form of the old name) as its centerpiece, with Rome again in its Islamic sights. The Race for Africa, which formerly pitted the British, French, Belgians, and Germans against each other, has been abandoned to the Chinese. And Marxism — whether cultural or economic — has once more risen from its grave to sink its vampiric fangs into the precious necks of young Americans hypnotized by its illusory attractions by three generations of Frankfurt-drilled college professors.
In sum, the war to end all war itself has not yet ended, and perhaps never will. That it was the wrong war to fight, and fought at the wrong time, is in retrospect clear. A strong Europe consisting of loosely allied but independent nation-states — the original, professed ideal of the European Union, but since drastically perverted — would have been vastly preferable to the destruction and chaos that followed. Instead, it fell to America to tilt the balance of power in 1918, then refight the war in 1941, and finally administer the nearest thing to a global peace the Western world had seen since the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.
How long that peace will last is anybody’s guess. For the sad truth of human history is that peace is the aberration and war the natural state of mankind. Earlier cultures found glory in it, but as the boys from the English Midlands and the American Midwest discovered in the trenches, modern war brings only horror. And yet we drift, refusing to learn from the past while imagining a feminized future in which conflict can be talked out and territorial matters can be postponed, if not actually settled, by endless negotiation. Striped pants and diplomatic briefs can keep the world in balance, or so we — like our forbears in 1914 — believe.
And then Gavrilo Princip steps toward the Archduke’s open car and, in the name of something of other, opens fire.