This year marks the 100th anniversary of a transformative event of modern history. World War I killed about 20 million people and ground up a generation of Europe’s youth. It also fundamentally changed the international order in Europe and beyond.
Indeed, World War I destroyed not only lives, but also three empires in Europe — those of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia — and, with the collapse of Ottoman rule, a fourth on its fringe. Until the Great War, the global balance of power was centered in Europe; after it, the US and Japan emerged as great powers. The war also ushered in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, prepared the way for fascism, and intensified and broadened the ideological battles that wracked the twentieth century.
How could such a catastrophe happen? Shortly after the war broke out, when then-German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg was asked to explain what happened, he answered: “Oh, if I only knew.” Perhaps in the interest of self-exoneration, he came to regard the war as inevitable.
Similarly, the then-British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey argued that he had “come to think that no human individual could have prevented it.”
The question we face today is whether it could happen again. Margaret MacMillan, author of the interesting new book The War that Ended Peace, argued that, “it is tempting — and sobering — to compare today’s relationship between China and the US with that between Germany and Britain a century ago.” After drawing a similar comparison, the Economist concluded that “the most troubling similarity between 1914 and now is complacency.”
Some political scientists, such as John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, have argued that “to put it bluntly: China cannot rise peacefully.”
NO PEACEFUL RISE
However, historical analogies, though sometimes useful for precautionary purposes, become dangerous when they convey a sense of historical inevitability. World War I was not inevitable. It was made more probable by Germany’s rising power and the fear that this created in Great Britain. It was also made more probable by Germany’s fearful response to Russia’s rising power, as well as myriad other factors, including human errors. The gap in overall power between the US and China today is greater than that between Germany and Britain in 1914.
Drawing contemporary lessons from 1914 requires dispelling the many myths that have been created about World War I. For example, the claim that it was a deliberate preventive war by Germany is belied by the evidence showing that key elites did not believe this. Nor was World War I a purely accidental war, as others maintain: Austria went to war deliberately, to fend off the threat of rising Slavic nationalism. There were miscalculations over the war’s length and depth, but that is not the same as an accidental war.
It is also said that the war was caused by an uncontrolled arms race in Europe. However, the naval arms race was over by 1912 and Britain had won. While there was concern in Europe about the growing strength of armies, the view that the war was precipitated directly by the arms race is facile.
Today’s world is different from the world of 1914 in several important ways. One is that nuclear weapons give political leaders the equivalent of a crystal ball that shows what their world would look like after escalation. Perhaps if the emperor, the kaiser and the czar had had a crystal ball showing their empires destroyed and their thrones lost in 1918, they would have been more prudent in 1914. Certainly, the crystal-ball effect had a strong influence on US and Soviet leaders during the Cuban missile crisis. It would likely have a similar influence on US and Chinese leaders today.