One hundred years ago this month war broke out in Europe. Despite an arms race and disputes over colonial possessions, the advent of the Great War came as a shock to many Europeans. A popular book published in 1910, The Great Illusion, mocked concerns that war was coming. Author Norman Angell pointed to the economic interdependence of the European nations and argued that enlightened self-interest would prevail over petty national rivalries.
It seemed a compelling argument at the time. There was robust trade between Germany and Britain, ordinary people traveled by rail all over Europe, and new international organizations had arisen, such as the International Postal Union and the International Telegraph Union. How could a civilized Europe that shared strong economic ties as well as the Christian faith ever come to blows?
Yet Angell was wrong and the Great War closed what some considered a golden age of European civilization. Armies had machine guns but no tanks, creating a stalemate of trench warfare with soldiers mowed down whenever they tried to charge across no-man’s land. A whole generation of young men – the lost generation – were either killed or horribly wounded.
The carnage staggers the imagination, estimates of killed soldiers offers sobering evidence of the cost of war: 1.7 million Germans; 1.7 million Russians; 1.3 million Frenchman; and over 900,000 serving the British Empire. America, which entered the war late, in 1917, was spared much of the bloodletting, with an estimate of about 116,000 killed. But the Great War set the stage for the Second World War and America would pay a much heavier price in that conflict.
Why brood over this dark past? Isn’t America immune from the follies of Europe? The story of Europe’s descent into the Great War is a cautionary tale. Historian John Keegan declares: “The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict.” Yet despite diplomatic efforts to avert war, the nations took up arms. For more visit this PBS webpage, the Great War.