The Legacy of “The Great Fallen”: World War One 100 years later
As we close in on the one hundredth anniversary of the close of the Great War, I cannot help but reflect on one of the most transformative periods in global history. A period that, almost criminally, is under taught in American schools and whose meaning and ramifications are under appreciated by American citizens. A period that rendered the old feudal systems of the past hopelessly obsolete while sowing the seeds for the oppressive, murderous regimes of the recent modern era.
All caused by the carnage of a war so ferocious that it would not cease until the near collapse of every belligerent involved, and the cessation of hostilities would prove but a fleeting, generational pause before the smoldering resentment endemic to Europe would result in a yet more destructive cataclysm.
All started by one bullet.
It is difficult for me to even nominate a candidate for second place in the annals of “history’s least likely person to alter world history” than Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian nationalist whose assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne would trigger the foreign crisis in June 1914 that culminated in World War I. He was the consummate nobody who very nearly failed in his self designated task but for the unfortunate twists of history. The arch Duke avoided the initial assassination but fell in front of Princip’s pistol en route to the hospital to visit onlookers injured in the initial bombing attempt. One can only imagine whether Princip had any remorse for the ultimate outcome of his actions: he died in prison in 1918 after a quarter of his Serb countrymen had perished in the war, the highest percentage of deaths by any combatant in the First World War.
Yet the impacts of that one bullet are profound. I believe the modern world was born of the womb of the conflict of World War I. In fact, the major geopolitical themes that we are stuck with, from the Middle East, to the inheritance of distrust and the Cold War with Russia, to the establishment of the European Union and NATO, to the subsequent rise of China as a result of a neutered Japan, all of them can trace their common lineage to that one pistol round fired by Princip. Incredible to contemplate.
In this post, we look at how it turned out for victors and vanquished. Admittedly, this is a completely subjective ranking of my view of what history would later render for the major participants of the conflict.
In part 2, we’ll trace the ripples of the conflict through the twentieth century and reflect on how they shape the modern world.
- Enters the war: A small, albeit independent sovereign state as the trouble maker of the Balkans. The Austrian annexation of Bosnia dashes plans for pan-Slavism, and Serbia becomes significantly more anti-Austrian. Its strange to think we live with the impact of such a relatively minor historical squabble, and yet here we are. The assassination is too much and Austria wants its pound of flesh.
- Exits the war: 25 to 30 percent of its population dead. Its land occupied by Germans and Austrians from 1915 on. The single largest death toll (percentage wise) of any country in the Great War
- Enters the war: It’s almost difficult to understand that Austria inherits as the heir to a lineage dating back to the Holy Roman Empire in the 1500’s. I tend to view Austria in the early 1900s as an aging prize fighter. Still respected by peers, still cordially offered a seat at the tables of the major powers, but teetering and creaking under weak governance, persistent underinvestment, and plagued by domestic infighting. Just as the prize fighter thinks one more bout against a chump (Serbia) will test his mettle, Austria thinks a casual war against the Serbs are just the thing to placate the masses.
- Exits the war: It’s over. The dynasty: over. Any pretense of being a European power: gone. 2 million dead and 4% of the population gone. Austria is blown apart into a myriad of ethnic nations, each of which becomes fodder for more aggressive nations in the geopolitical struggles to come over the next century. Things do not end well for the Hungarians, for example, under either first the Nazis and then the Soviets. The terror museum in Budapest, for anyone so inclined, is quite an amazing (and terrible) place. For one, the evils that were perpetuated under the roof of the place by the first the Gestapo and then by the NKVD cannot help but impart its mark upon one’s brain. For two, its a lesson in just at how powerless some are in the tides of history, as anyone living in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Belarus, Poland, and a number of other countries can attest.
- Enters the war: The Ottoman dynasty ruled Turkey from 1299. Think about that. 1299. The new world is nearly 200 years away from being discovered. William Wallace has just started an uprising in Scotland. The Black Plague won’t happen for another 50 years. And the dynasty which will rule Turkey until the First World War is in power. As with Austria, a nation trying desperately to hang on to what it once was joins the fray as an opportunity to try to get its licks in against arch-nemesis Russia.
- Exits the war: Empire: gone. Ottoman empire: gone and divided into a bunch of countries which we recognize today mostly because of the grief they cause us. Syria. Iraq. Iran. Lebanon. Drawn by a ruler to carve up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire in 1919.
- Enters the war: Yet again, another feudal society with governance more at home in the Renaissance than in the 20th century, the Romanov’s rule Russia from 1613 onward. They had things together under the times of Peter and Catherine, but by the twentieth century, the world has moved on. Industry has become capitalized, and the political economy of the West has not been adapted by the Russians. Little investment in infrastructure despite its tremendous mineral wealth, but nevertheless national ego requires it to defend Pan-Slavic honor.
- Exits the war: Defeated. The only major power to be defeated by the Germans, they sue for peace with Germany. In exchange they get Lenin, a civil war, and 70 years of communism. Nearly 10 million people will die in the civil war that follows with the Bolsheviks, approximately 3 times the number that die from the Germans. Countless millions more will die at the hands of Stalin. Not the best outcome for anyone involved.
Pretty Bad Outcome
- Enters the war: The dominant economic power on the continent but with a long heritage of submission to military power dating back to the 30 years war (which kills 30-40% of the population of Germany). Unified under the banner of Prussia and Bismarck only 30 years before the war and eager to test its mettle.
- Exits the war: Defeated, unable to continue the war, but not broken. The national resentment festers and smolders, fanned by the bellows of the reparations demanded by the Allies at Versailles. Unfortunately these embers result in the flames of national socialism and the rise of Hitler, and the whole exercise is repeated to a higher order of magnitude. Only the total ruin of every city, factory, town, village, and soul in Germany is satisfactory to lead to peace in 1945.
- Enters the war: Generally allied with Austria-Hungary and Germany, but the opportunist in them seeks gains in territory at the expense of their Austrian neighbors. They renounce their pact and join the cause of the Allies.
- Exits the war: Victorious, but ruined. They fight literally 12 Battles of the Isonzo, lose all national coherence, and turn to Mussolini and the fascists in the 20s. Things get worse from there.
- Enters the war: Smarting from the losses to national pride in the Franco-Prussian war but a worthy pre-eminent First World Power. I feel the French get a bum wrap by contemporary Americans who cannot fathom at all the extent of the national sacrifice rendered by the French in the First World War. Overwhelmingly, they did the lion’s share of the heavy lifting.
- Exits the war: Nationally broken and utterly exhausted. The French lose 1.7 million dead, approximately 4.3% of the national population. An additional 4.2 million are wounded. This represents over double the number of casualties suffered by all American forces in every single war in our 242 year history, compressed into 4 gruesome years. By 1917, French morale is so poor that the French Army is experiencing mutiny. In exchange, French commanders call a halt to all further offensives until Americans arrive en masse.
- Enters the war: The pre-eminent global economic power. Their empire is global, their manufacturing prowess unquestioned. The cumulative benefit to unfettered global trade and the first major period of globalization pays huge dividends to the British. Undoubtedly, the British enter the war as the richest nation with the best system of political economy in 1914 and are the dominant challenge to Germany. This was admitted by the Germans; Erick von Falkenhayn would plan the battle of Verdun as a means to knock Britain’s “best sword” (meaning France) out of the war.
- Exits the war: Victorious, but horribly indebted. The last of the WW1 war debts are not paid off until 2014. More significantly, the decline from grace for the British empire is hastened as trade craters. The upstart Americans are the disproportionate beneficiaries, as American financiers lend the money to buy the munitions from American factories. From a death toll perspective, the casualties are horrendous. The American perspective is that WW2 was overwhelmingly ‘our’ war and the global war of pre-eminent importance, but the British suffer nearly 3 times the number of casualties in 1914-18 as they do in 1939-45. As a result, WW1 plays a much more significant role in their national consciousness.
- Enters the war: Late in the game, in 1917, after the charnel house of Europe has accumulated nearly 15 million corpses. A first rate economic power in a league of its own with a third rate military (which is a much better situation to be in than the inverse).
- Exits the war: Becomes the pre-eminent economic power in the world, displacing Britain. American military deaths are a relatively modest 116,000, less than 10% of what has been paid each by Russia, France, Germany, and Austria. Accordingly, the political strain of so many deaths does not weigh on America as it does on the European powers. American optimism remains unfettered.
- Enters the war: It is amazing that the Japanese were essentially a feudal society in the 1850s with a bunch of Asian knights (samurai) wearing swords and living a code of chivalry (bushido). 30 years later they are a first rate power with shipyards churning out heavy cruisers, 20 years after that they are defeating Russia handily at Tsushima.
- Exits the war: They take the opportunity to join the Allied cause, fight a few relatively meaningless naval battles with the Germans, and pick up territories on the cheap from the vanquished. Unfortunately this has the downside of empowering imperialist adventures in the 1930s and in engaging in a naval race with the Americans which had unfortunate consequences for the Japanese people, but that is 25 years in the future.
The greatest book I have yet read on this war, and one frequently cited by Dan Carlin in his epic podcast on the topic, is “The Great War” by Peter Hart. Truly, it will give you a better appreciation for what the commanders of the Great War were up against. It is cited at the bottom of this post.
In World War 1 we see the demise of multiple regimes that had ruled from the middle ages, and the last vestiges of dying powers swept away along with the dying gasps of nearly 20 million souls.
What would history have looked like, if not for that one bullet?