Thursday, March 12, 2015

World War I: Part I

World War I


This is the one hundredth anniversary of World War I, which began, officially, on the 28th of July 1914 and ended, officially, almost four years and three and a half months later, on the 11th of November 1918. While the war has official beginning and end dates, much saber-rattling preceded and fierce fighting continued after the official beginning and end. Some historians argue that World War II was really a continuation of World War I with an uneasy lull—rather than a true peace—in between.

Although it is now called World War I or the First World War, those who lived through it could not have called it that because they did not know that there was going to be a World War II. As it progressed, World War I came to be called the Great War. Neither did anyone know, at the beginning of World War I, that it would become such a great conflict. As often happens at the beginning of wars, many observers thought it would all be over in a few months. They were slow to recognize the mounting numbers of combatants and troops, the intensity of mobilization, and the way that the war soon took over every aspect of life and insidiously altered what people had come to think of as the limitations of war (and of government involvement in their lives). They thought that some actions in war were too ruthless and brutal to be contemplated let alone done, but they would soon find that the desperation of the war on both sides would stretch the limits of their tolerance.

Only World War II would be greater in size, scope, number of countries involved and casualties, tonnage of explosives used, etc. Historians debate numbers, but by some estimates there were ten million soldiers killed and seven million permanently disabled (a quarter of a million British soldiers lost limbs). Germany lost at least two million soldiers while the United States, which entered the war late, suffered about 100,000. The other major powers involved each lost a million or more, and none of that counts the civilian casualties which must also have ranged in the millions. The Ottoman Empire alone, while fighting on the side of the Central Powers, massacred, possibly, a million or more Armenian civilians.

The origins of the war go back in the history of Europe. After the end of the Napoleonic wars in the early nineteenth century, Europe redrew its maps and achieved a kind of peace for several decades, based on a gentlemen’s agreement that certain countries would be the “Great Powers” and other countries would be secondary or tertiary powers, or would be dominated by the Great Powers. The great upset in this “balance of powers” scheme came in the 1860s when, under the guidance of Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the loose federation of German-speaking states—excluding the Astro-Hungarian Empire to the south—were united. Germanyofficially became a single country in 1871 when Bismarckengineered the defeat of Franceand the coronation of the king of Prussia, Wilhelm I, as the first emperor—or Kaiser—of the new German Empire.  


Europe only rose to preeminence in the world between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, but by the latter half of the nineteenth century, the most powerful European countries dominated the rest of the world, having colonies in Africa and Asia. By 1900, the United Statesand Japanwere trying to join the colonial bandwagon and becoming secondary powers in their own rights. Meanwhile, Germany, which had been slow to join the colonial sweepstakes, had begun to acquire colonies in Africa and the Pacific. This globalization of European influence would help to globalize the war between the European powers once the conflict began in earnest.


The immediate cause of the Great War was the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in the city of Sarajevo. The archduke was the heir-apparent of the Astro-Hungarian Empire, the amalgamation of central and eastern European peoples that was then one of the Great Powers in the middle of Europe. Well over a dozen different nationalities and their territories were under the control of the union between Austriaand Hungary with an emperor seated in Vienna, Austria. The Hapsburg family of emperors could trace their ancestry back to the Dark Ages and the great Emperor Charlemagne.

If Belgium does not go with me, I will be guided solely by strategic considerations.”
Kaiser Wilhelm II to King Leopold II of Belgium, January 1904
This intemperate remark seemed to be a thinly veiled threat, and this assessment proved to be too true when Germany invaded Belgium in 1914. The context of the quote was the German Kaiser’s offer of rewards to Belgiumif Belgium sided with Germany in a future war with France. When the King of Belgium declined to make such a commitment, the Kaiser seemed to be threatening to use Belgiumas a “strategic consideration” in any war with France, which is exactly how the German army treated Belgiumin August 1914, invading Belgiumonly as a route to northern France.
In Volume II of his biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II, John Röhl described Wilhelm as “a kind of missing link, as it were, between Bismarck and Hitler” whose governments were “mere administrative organs” that implemented his “imperial commands.” He “controlled every fundamental decision on matters of personnel, foreign and armaments policy.” This observation is belied, however, by the fact that, perhaps also like Hitler, Wilhelm could be mercurial in his policy obsessions. An alliance with France might tickle his fancy one day and a war with Francemight be equally appealing to him the next. His notions about foreign policy seem to have been temporary rather than enduring. They might well be described as whimsical.


In 1909, Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia, the country of which Sarajevo was the capital. It was home to several nationalities including Croatians and Serbians, as well as three religions: Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims. Serbia was an adjacent kingdom to the east and a secondary European power in its own right. The Serbians were resentful of Austria-Hungary’s growing power on their borders and sympathized with the Bosnians who wanted to be free of Austria-Hungary.

In late June 1914, the archduke and his wife, Sophie, were touring the city in their car when a Serbian nationalist threw a bomb at them. It failed to kill the royal couple, but after two such failed attempts, and after the couple’s entourage failed to immediately extricate them, the couple were finally attacked by another Serbian assassin who this time fired several shots into the car, killing the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne as well as the would-be empress.


The political ramifications of the assassination ratcheted up already existing tensions between the Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Much later historical investigations turned up the likely facts. While the assassins were ethnic Serbs, and although they might have been directly or indirectly encouraged by a rogue Serbian intelligence officer, it now appears that the Serbian government did not instigate or sponsor the assassinations. At the time, Austria did not know this, of course, and suspected the worst. The imperial government wanted answers and justice. They demanded that Serbiaadmit guilt and let Austriacome into Serbiato conduct the investigation and mete out punishment to those responsible. Under these demands, Serbiawas actually surprisingly conciliatory. They said they were very sorry that ethnic Serbians were responsible but assured Austriathat Serbiahad had nothing to do with it. They agreed to several of Austria’s demands, but they would not allow Austria to come into their country and conduct an investigation. This was understandable since it would have been tantamount to an Austrian takeover of Serbia.


Austria-Hungaryresponded by giving Serbiaan ultimatum: accept all of our demands or face war. When Serbia refused to give in, the Austrians declared war at the end of July. To understand what happened next, it is necessary to remember the situation in Europein the late-nineteenth century. When Bismarck was done with his task of creating a single German nation, he busied himself during the rest of his chancellorship by making deals to solidify Germany’s position as one of the Great Powers, as part of the balance of power between Austria-Hungary, Great Britain, Russia and France. (At the same time, Italy had recently become a unified nation and also one of the Powers.) Bismarckmade several interlocking treaties, some of which even made alliances that contradicted each other. For example, he made separate alliances with both Austria-Hungary and Russia. What if these two countries went to war with each other? Which would Germany side with?


By 1914, these treaties had been sorted out, and Germany was committed to take the side of Austria-Hungary, while France was allied with Russia. It also happened that Russia was allied with Serbia, so that when Austria-Hungarydeclared war on Serbia, Russia was soon drawn into the conflict. On the 1st of August 1914, Germany declared war on Austria-Hungary’s enemies and a chain-reaction based on previous alliances and treaties then brought most of the Great Powers into the war including France and Britainon the same side as Russia. The German and Austro-Hungarian alliance became known as the Central Powers while the French-British-Russian coalition was called the Allied Powers. As the war progressed, other nations would join one side or the other. Often forgotten in the popular memory of the war is that the Ottoman Empire—modern-day Turkey—joined the Central Powers. (Two movies that happen to commemorate this front of World War I are “Lawrence of Arabia” from 1962 and “Gallipoli” from 1981.) Another factor is that Italydid not enter the war right away but waited more than a year to decide to join the Allied Powers. Over the four years of the war, a number of other nations joined, usually joining the Allied Powers once they recognized that this was likely to be the winning side.


Japanalso joined the Allied Powers, and did not wait to do so because they saw the war as an opportunity to pick up Germany's island colonies in the Pacific. The Marianas, Carolines and Marshallsquickly fell. However, the Japanese also sent a couple of ships to help the Allies in the Mediterranean. The participation of the Japanese was not the only factor that made the Great War truly global in scope. German colonies in Africa as well as Asia were soon attacked and usually overwhelmed, although German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in East Africa managed to hold out against superior British and French forces until the end of the war when he surrendered only after learning that Germany had surrendered.


Naval battles, by the way, were fought all over the world, in both the Atlantic and Pacific, although the British blockade of Germany was so effective that only a few German surface ships were actually deployed around the world. In contrast, however, the Germans made the greatest use of submarine warfare in the Atlantic and seriously threatened Allied shipping.

The tragedy of World War I was that cooler heads might have avoided it. While the judgment that the war was all Germany’s fault is unfair (even aside from Austria-Hungary’s key role), it is true that the second ruler of the German Empire, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was intemperate and given to making bellicose statements that made other nations fear that Germany was contemplating aggression toward her neighbors. The reaction of Britain, Franceand Russiaagainst any German assertiveness was also provocative, however. For example, as Germany built up her navy, so did the other powers, until Germanybelieved that they meant to encircle and overwhelm her. This only led the Germans to build up their military capabilities even more. On the eve of war, Europe was a collection of heavily armed camps.

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