Friday, August 01, 2014

The War To End All Wars Begins

One hundred years ago, the Europeans watched as their world descended into war. An obscure member of some minor royal house had been assassinated and before long the continent was heading straight towards armed conflict.

How did it happen, that countries would consider sending a generation of young men to their deaths, and for what?

In today's Irish Times, an editorial from an Italian newspaper is reprinted in all its hot-headed glory, and demonstrates how something that should not have been such an enormous incident became the match that lit Europe on fire in 1914.


It all came down to alliances and who had assured whom of support and mutual defence. An archduke was killed so the Austro-Hungarian empire had to retaliate. It could have done otherwise, or taken a different tack, but the world of 1914 was still one of class privilege and royalty. The grandchildren of Queen Victoria took things personally and felt duty-bound to retaliate, while the United States felt cushioned by an ocean and took little notice.

With Serbia under attack, it was accurately believed that Russia's Czar Nicholas would have to counter his cousin's move and go to war. In that case, Italy would be bound to join its ally against Russia because they had made agreements and a gentleman never goes against his word. It was very much a world of gentlemen back then, an insular coccoon of class that kept the common folk in their place and likely in service to the well-heeled.

England was ready to stand behind France one hundred years ago today, prepared to protect a former enemy (remember Agincourt and all those plays that Shakespeare wrote?) in case the King's cousin had an eye towards expanding his empire. By this day a century ago, opinion was running towards the inevitability of war because of promises made by various relations.

We can look back and marvel at the heated words, look back from our modern world in which there is no tsar in Russia or kaiser in Germany. The war to end all wars did not stop war, but it did spell an end to monarchy and an entire way of life.

It fascinates us still, the breakdown of society and the expectations of behavior. Why else would Downton Abbey be such a hit?

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