[Extensively edited and revised, December 2010]
With each century we've talked about in this course, I've had a
theme. The 16th and 17th centuries: a time of particularly rapid
change. The 18th century: the age of reason. The 19th
century: the age of progress. For the 20th century, there are
lots of possible themes, but perhaps the single most striking
characteristic of the 20th century was that it was an age of
violence--much of it senseless violence. A good example of this,
World War I.
World War I, as the name implies, was a war that involved much of the
world. It was, however, primarily a European war, and it was the
Europeans who started it. How did this happen? How did the
best educated, most civilized people in the history of mankind start
one of the most terrible, most senseless wars in history?
Now, often enough, people want to blame Germany for both World War I
and World War II. It's wrong, though, to view the Germans as the
sole people responsible for these disasters. Nevertheless, it is
easiest to understand World War I and its causes as a result of a
series of German mistakes.
Germany did not become a nation until after the France Prussian war of
1870. Once Germany did unify, however, it was time for the rest
of the world to look out. Germany was soon a leader in vaccines,
in chemistry, and in all sorts of other areas. It was rapidly
catching Britain as a leading industrial power. However, because
Germany unified so late, it missed out on much of the European scramble
for colonies around the world. Having colonies seemed critical to
an industrialized society. Such colonies guaranteed access to key
industrial materials, and guaranteed markets for manufactured
goods. France, Britain, and even little European countries like
Belgium and Portugal had colonies throughout the world. The
German attitude was that, if there was any part of the world *not*
already claimed by another European country, that should be theirs:
they didn't yet have their fair share of colonies. German
beligerence ended up alientaing many other countries, and, by 1914,
Germany had only one reliable ally left in Europe: Austria.
German aggression, then, did in part creating the tensions that led to
World War I. But playing an even bigger role, German fear of
Germany, for instance, was afraid that Britain might decide to side
with Germany's enemies. Was this likely? Well, not
really. The English speaking peoples and the German speaking
peoples were natural allies, sharing a common historic enemy in
France. But Germany wanted to make sure Britain never attacked
them, and so they created a strategy based on the "Risk Theory."
The Risk Theory was the idea that, if Germany built a big battle fleet,
Britain couldn't afford to ever attack them. The British might
wind, but they would lose so many ships that their world-wide empire
would be endangered. So Germany builds its battle fleet.
But when Britain learns of this, it makes the British mad--and makes
them more likely to attack Germany! What could be more senseless
than to adopt an idea to *prevent* war with another nation that
actually makes war with that nation more likely?
While the Germans worried somewhat about Britain, they were far more
concerned about two other potential enemies, France and Russia.
The Germans were certain that they could lick France alone, and they
were pretty sure they could defeat the Russians. The nightmare,
however, was the two-front war, having to deal with the French in the
West and the Russians in the East at the same time.
The Germans came up with a plan for the two-front war: the Schlieffen
Plan. Basically, this plan said that, in the event of war,
Germany would begin by attacking France with all its might, trying to
knock France out of the war quickly. Then the Germans would shift
all their men and material to the eastern front to deal with the more
serious threat posed by Russia. The Germans thought they'd do OK
with this plan. Russia, while formidible, was a vast country, slow to
mobilize. While the Russians were getting their act together, the
Germans were sure they'd have time to put France out of business.
Two problems, though. First of all, the Schlieffen Plan depended
on speed, and the German/French border is not built for speed: mountain
country. So--an easier route: right through Belgium. The
Germans don't seem to have thought this a problem. Why would the
Belgians not let the Germans march right through the country?
Also, the Schlieffen plan was the only plan the Germans made.
They adopted the plan in 1905, never revised it, and never made any
other plan. All of this meant that Europe was a powder keg
waiting to explode.
The spark came in a region of Europe known as the Balkans. For a
long time, the Balkans had been part of the Ottoman Turkish
Empire. The "Sick Man of Europe" was still around at this point,
but nearing death, and the great question, as always: what would become
of the territories of the empire once collapse was complete?
Some would have thought it made no difference. Otto von Bismarck
has said that the whole of the Balkans wasn't worth the bones of a
single Pomeranian granadier. But others felt differently.
Various national groups in the Balkans wanted independence.
Austria wanted parts of the Balkans for their own empire. The
Turks likewise wanted to hold on to as much territory as they could.
Little by little, some of the nationalist groups got their way.
Slavs, for instance, managed to create the nation of Serbia, while the
Bulgars created Bulgaria. But Austria too took some of what it
wanted: Bosnia and Herzegovina, for instance. This was territory
with a large slavic population, the Serbs thought it ought to be theirs
instead of Austria's. But Serbia was no match militarily for
Austria, so the Serbs resorted to terrorism. Groups like the
Black Hand used bombing and assassination to destabilize the region and
drive Austria out. The terror campaign reached its height when a
Serbian-backed terrorist assassinated Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the
Austrian throne, and his wife.
The Austrians were furious, and it's not too surprising that such an
event would lead to war between Austria and Serbia. But what
happens next? Austria would have won easily against Serbia
alone. But the Russians, big brothers to all other slavs,
would certainly come to Serbia's aid. And then the shoe would be
on the other foot: Austria would get crushed. But Germany could
not stand by and see their only ally defeated, so the Germans stepped
in to help the Austrians. However, the Germans had only one plan
for war: the Schlieffen plan. Attack France first! And, to
get there in a hurry, go through Belgium. German invasion of
Belgium brought Britain into the war as well. In 1915, Bulgaria
joined the war on the side of the "Central Powers" (Germany, Austria,
Turkey), while Italy joined on the side of the allied powers (Britain,
France, Russia, Serbia). Because these nations had colonies all
over the world, they drew on the resources of those colonies, and we
ended up with a conflict that affected and involved much of the
world--all stemming from one assassination in the Balkans!
As it turned out, the Schlieffen Plan didn't quite work. The
Belgian King said, "Belgium is a country, not a highway," and the
Belgians, while they couldn't stop Germany, slowed the German forces
down just long enough that France and Britain could stop the German
invasion. The Germans got to within 50 miles of Paris, but there
the attack stopped. What now?
Well, the Germans improvised, digging themselves into trenches, putting
up barbed wire, and trying to hold on to what they had already
taken. The British and French on the other side did the same
thing, digging trenches and putting up defenses designed to stop any
potential German advance.
This led to four bloody years of trench warfare, with neither side able
to make progress, and both sides losing thousands of men. The
twin battles of Verdun and the Somme, for instance, cost the lives of
1,000,000 men--and all that happened was the exchange of a few miles of
territory. Nothing--not poison gas, not airplanes--could break
the stalemate of the trenches. And yet instead of making peace,
the diplomats back home just let the war drag on and on while a whol
geneartion of young men was lost.
Even more senseless, what happened in Armenia.
[For detailed information, please
read this Armenia
Case Study on the Gendercide Web site. If the link is broken,
try the Wayback
While we generally seem to focus on
the Western Front in World War I, fighting along the Eastern Front was,
if anything, worse. The Russians alone lost eight million men
killed, captured, or wounded. Finally, torn apart by Revolution
at home, the Russians gave up. Lenin, the Communist dictator who in
November seized control of Russia, basically surrundered
unconditionally, signing the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. This treaty
let the Germans annex territory that included prime agricultural land
and many of Russia's most important industrial resources.
This was a huge shot-in-the arm for Germany. All sorts of extra
food to feed their soldiers and civilians. All sorts of iron and
coal, raw materials badly needed for the war effort. And, in
addition, Germany no longer had to worry about the two-front war.
The Schlieffen Plan had almost worked in reverse: Russia was out of the
war, and now Germany could concentrate all its efforts on the Western
front. Essentially, Germany had won the war: the Germans could
have arranged peace terms favorable to Germany. But instead of
negotiating, the Germans fought on. Why? Because they had
been fighting the war with no military or political objectives.
The difficulty of fighting without objectives is that you don't know
what you are fighting for, and so there is really no way to tell when
you have won! And Germany continues to fight a "won" war until,
eventually, the war is no longer won.
Ultimately, 1918 was a disaster for the Germans, largely because of
American entry into the war.
Now for quite a long time, America avoided entry into the
war. George Washington had warned the
US against becoming entangled in European wars, and for 150 years the
US had followed Washington’s advice. Woodrow Wilson (first
elected in 1912) and his Secretary of
State Bryan were committed to this “non-entanglement” tradition, trying
to keep us from getting involved.
But it wasn’t easy. As the war raged in Europe, tremendous trade
opportunities were available to American businesses, and American
businessmen took advantage of this.
Germany had resorted to U-boat warfare to try to block supplies from
getting to Britain. They warned us that anyone sailing on a
British ship was subject to attack, but Americans continued to travel
on British ships anyway.
In 1915, the Germans sunk the Lusitania, killing 1,198 people including
128 Americans. This didn’t play well with the American
public. On top of that, the British-controlled transatlantic
cable was transmitting information designed to make us sympathize with
their side and be outraged by German atrocities.
Still, Wilson held the line, and, when he ran for reelection in 1916,
he made that a key point in his campaign. His Republican opponent
Charles Evans Hughes (called Charles Evasive Hughes by his detractors)
didn’t make clear where he stood on US entry into the war. The
Wilson campaign, however, made much of Wilson’s success in avoiding
American involvement. “He kept us out of war” was a featured
slogan. One campaign ad: “You are working, not fighting; alive
and happy, not cannon fodder; Wilson and peace with honor, or Hughes
with Roosevelt and war?”
Well, Wilson won reelection, but in a close vote: 277 to 254 in the
electoral college. The American people had chosen Wilson, at
least partly on the implied promise we were *not* going to enter the
But there were soon problems with this policy. The papers played
up the Zimmerman Note, an intercepted German message to Mexico that
said that, in the event of American entry into the war, Mexico should
attack the United States. At the end of the war, the Germans
would repay them by getting back for them Texas, New Mexico, and
On top of that, the Germans were sinking American ships taking supplies
to Britain. Anti-German sentiment increased, and Wilson decided
we had to go to war.
But if he was going to break his implied campaign promise, Wilson
better give the American people good reasons for doing so. He did.
1. This would be a “war to end all wars.”
2. This would be a war to “make the world safe for democracy.”
Good goals—but more than goals. Wilson was determined that the
war would be a “progressive” war, one that did in fact lead to a more
peaceful world and that did in fact lead to free and democratic
Wilson suggested a way of settling the war that might have done just
that, his “Fourteen Points,” Wilson’s plan for resolving European (and
world-wide) problems after the fighting was done.
Wilson’s points included:
1. Open covenants (no secret diplomacy)
2. Freedom of the seas
3. The removal of economic barriers
4. The reduction of national armaments “to the lowest point
consistent with safety”
5. The impartial adjustment of colonial claims
6. The evacuation of Russia by foreign armies
7. Belgian independence
8. The Alsace-Lorraine area restored to France
9. Adjustment of the Italian frontier
10. Autonomy for the peoples of Austria-Hungary
11. The restoration of Rumania, Serbia, and Montenegro
12. Autonomy for Turkey
13. An independent Poland
14. The creation of a League of Nations
Now these ideas reflect a pretty solid understanding of the causes of
WWI and a pretty sound recipe for an amicable peace. American
entry into the war *did* turn the tables in Europe leading to the
defeat of Germany, and our contributions *should* have meant that we
would have an important voice in how the war was actually settled,
*especially* since the Germans surrendered under the belief they would
be treated in accord with the generous terms promised by Wilson.
But what actually happened is that, after the war was over, the
British, and even more the French, insisted on much harsher terms for
Germany—and Wilson gave in. Why? He sacrificed most of his
goals to achieve the one goal he thought most important, the creation
of the League of Nations. The Versailles Treaty that actually ended the
war (June 28, 1919) stripped Germany of the Saar Basin and the Danzig
region, reduced the German army to 100,000 men, forbid German
fortifications on their border with France—and imposed on German an
indemnity of more than $30 billion to pay for the war. But Wilson
had got his League of Nations—sort of. And World War I was a
victory overall for the good guys—sort of.
But it did not do what Wilson promised. Instead, World War I led
directly and indirectly into the creation of some of the most
tyrannical regimes the world has ever seen, and--just 20 years
later--to another world war--this time, on an even larger scale.
[Note: if you get
the World War I essay, it would be good to note, at least briefly, how
WW I contributes to the rise of Communism, Fascism, National Socialism,
and, eventually, leades to WW II.]