What if World War I was just a tragic accident?
By Daniel McEwen
via the History Net web site
People still regard World War I with horrified disbelief. That four-year “ecstasy of fumbling” killed some 10 million soldiers and perhaps as many civilians, numbers that defy comprehension. Shell-shocked governments had little to show for the fields of white crosses popping up on their pockmarked landscapes. Grieving families the world over wanted to know who was to blame for having sent their sons, fathers and husbands to die ghastly and useless deaths in what American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan termed “the great seminal catastrophe,” or Urkatasrophe (“original catastrophe”) to Germans.
Who indeed? And why? Over the decades since the guns of the—apologies to H.G. Wells—“War That Didn’t End War” fell silent, the writers of some 30,000 books, technical reports and scholarly papers have debated the chain of events prompting unprecedented historical, social, economic and technological consequences that left Eurasian politics radioactive through century’s end. New research continually adds to this library, often bringing more controversy than clarity.
That there were knights and knaves in all camps is a given. However, if they appeared to have acted like fools, scoundrels or madmen, judge them “in the context of their times, not ours,” urge historians, which sounds suspiciously like having to accept “it seemed like a good idea at the time” as an explanation.
Whether the war was inevitable or avoidable depends on which books one reads. Many stand by the notion that in the decades leading up to 1914 all Europe was enthusiastic about going to war, that its nations were armed camps, and that by amassing million-man armies it only fed what Australian historian Sir Christopher Clark has called “the illusion of a steadily building causal pressure.” In this version of the story imperial Germany was an emergent dynamo infused with visions of finding its well-deserved “place in the sun” and got into a race for colonies and naval superiority that dangerously upset the balance of power.
In what is known as the “Scramble for Africa,” from the mid-1880s up till the eve of World War I nearly 90 percent of the continent was colonized by Western European powers, primarily Britain and France. Though Germany fired the starting gun, its ambitions went unfulfilled. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had convened the 1884–85 Berlin Conference for the express purpose of partitioning Africa in a manner designed to avoid stumbling into a war. The scramble itself was marked by a number of “international incidents” involving some combination of Germany, Britain or France, but these were resolved peacefully.
The concurrent naval arms race between Britain and Germany is the showpiece of the pro-war argument. By the time Germany effectively conceded that race in 1912, Britain had 61 top-of-the-line warships to Germany’s 31 of middling quality. A single brief sortie at Jutland in 1916—though a tactical victory for the Imperial German Navy—was enough to keep it docked for the duration of the war. An angry Vice Admiral Curt von Maltzahn was heard to fume, “Even if large parts of our battle fleet were lying at the bottom of the sea, it would accomplish more than it does lying well preserved in our ports.”
Read the entire article on the History Net web site.
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