World War I: Still learning its lessons

World War I: Still learning its lessons
Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia in July 1914.

Today, we mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I.

Growing up, I learned, as did the majority of my peers, that the war was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo. And then, Europe’s military might scrambled hither and yon like Keystone Kops called to action, destroying dynasties, governments, cultures, lives.

But, of course, it wasn’t that simple. The archduke’s murder didn’t even become big news at the time it happened, and Germany didn’t declare war on France until August 3.

For the past several years, my husband and I have been trying to make up for the deficits in our history lessons, reading about the outbreak of the Great War, trying to piece together what dominoes fell and when that led to the disaster that followed. We’re not alone. Apparently, according to Max Hastings’s excellent Catastrophe: 1914, many historians still struggle with how precisely it happened that civilized countries fell into uncivilized slaughter, and who should take the most blame.

After World War I, no one wanted a war like that again, one that cut the blossoms from the stem of youth, that stole large swaths of the male population from their countries’ futures, that doused the lamps of Europe. So, many leaders — with a few notable exceptions — decided the lesson to take away from the Great War was not to go to war prematurely. Not to hasten to the battlefield after making hasty alliances. As Hastings wrote:

“…in the decades that followed (World War I), ever more people embraced the view that the enemies against whom Britain and its allies took up arms had not been worth fighting…”

Yet, as it turned out, that was the wrong lesson to learn. Twenty years after the end of the Great War, people like Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain dithered while Hitler marched. The excellent book Troublesome Yong Men by Lynne Olson helpfully chronicles the stories of those whose eyes were open to the new catastrophe approaching and yearned to stop it. They tried, but they couldn’t. Nonetheless, they rose to the challenge of war when it came again.

In our own time, we seem to have absorbed those troublesome young men’s lessons — that is, not to wait too long, but to preemptively strike at evil forces on the march.

The old saw that those who don’t study history are destined to repeat it is more complex than it seems. What precise part of history should we avoid repeating?

Chamberlain and his allies didn’t want to repeat the catastrophe of 1914. If we look deeply into our hearts and souls, we might discover we would have felt the same at the time. But by hesitating and appeasing, did Chamberlain and his like-minded compatriots make things worse? Would swift action at the outset of Hitler’s regime have stopped the next world war?

President George W. Bush, on the other hand, faced with a devastating attack on this country, decided to preemptively attack Iraq, a country that seemed in league with the bad forces that had led to the slaughter of September 11. Did that strategy make us safer or only set us up for the next disaster?

Which history should we avoid repeating? That’s the question. And the Great War taught us this: those who draw the wrong conclusions from their study of history are destined to repeat it. But drawing the right conclusions is beyond the ken of most, even the smartest and most well-intentioned among us.

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For those traveling through Kansas and/or Missouri, don’t miss an opportunity to visit the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, MO. It’s one of the best museums my husband and I have visited, and so full of good exhibits that a ticket buys you a two-day pass.

Libby Sternberg

Libby Sternberg

Libby Sternberg is an Edgar-nominated novelist whose works include humorous women’s fiction, young adult fiction, and historical fiction. Her political writings have appeared at Hot Air, the Weekly Standard, Insight, the Wall Street Journal, and Christian Science Monitor.

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