Not entirely by coincidence, today marks both the beginning and ending points of the Great War, also known as the First World War and World War I. That is, archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo on this date in 1914, leading directly to war, and the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended the war was signed on this date in 1919. Here we run into the problem of identifying certain dates, or events, as “significant.” It took some time for the various forces in Europe to mobilize for war after the assassination, and for the war to spread beyond Europe. Furthermore, fighting had been concluded 7 months before the Treaty of Versailles by an armistice on 11th November 1918. In a way these facts undermine the premise of this blog – but only in a small way. After all, the birth date of someone who went on to do “significant” things is really of no consequence in the grand scheme of things. Nor are dates of national independence and whatnot. History is a steady continuum, so that marking any single day as “important” is a bit misguided. But . . . if we don’t do something like this we end up not celebrating anything. Some people don’t like celebrating their birthdays. My wife hated them. I make a big deal out of mine. You can call this narcissistic of me. Maybe it is. But I will defend myself by saying that I have spent a lifetime in service to others as a pastor, teacher, firefighter, and emergency paramedic, (all either underpaid or not paid at all), so ONE day of the year taken to please myself seems reasonable. Likewise, taking one day of the year to turn the spotlight on a person, event, or place of lasting importance seems fair enough.
Today’s anniversaries are admittedly singular actions in a steady flow of history that may have points you can highlight but which is really a continuous stream – punctuated, sadly, by brutal wars. I have the (bad) habit of seeing the Treaty of Vienna of 1815 — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/congress-vienna/ — as a particularly disastrous agreement between powerful states that plunged Europe and the world into chaos for the rest of the century and beyond. I call it a “bad habit” because the treaty was not just one event, but the culmination of a whole sequence of events that led up to it, and there were numerous other factors causing the subsequent chaos. But there is a point to be made here. The Treaty of Vienna set up the notion of a balance of powers as the recipe for peace. The reasoning was that if Europe consisted of a number of strong nations such as Britain, France, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, with neutral buffer states in between (that everyone agreed upon), no single state would seek war with another because the other states would step in, triggering a massive war that would be too costly to contemplate. However, these major powers were busy carving out empires in the rest of the world throughout the 19th century, fueled in large part by their own industrial revolutions that needed massive inputs of raw products. Yes, it’s all interconnected, and is much more complex than I am sounding – bear with me.
Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Europe had divided itself into 2 camps: the Triple Alliance of Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary, and the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia, with the Balkan states in the middle. The member states of each alliance promised aid to the other members should they be attacked. By dividing the powers into two blocs, instead of having many, the concept of the balance of power was narrowed dangerously (and was also upset by the emergence of newly unified nations such as Italy and Germany – which came into being because of dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Vienna by ethnic groups). Now, instead of independently operating nations, you had two giant power blocs with the nationalist aspirations of ethnic groups in the Balkans sitting between the two. Slavs in the Balkans wanted a united Slav state similar to Italy and Germany, but to achieve this goal they had to break parts of this imagined state (Yugoslavia – i.e. united Slavs) free from Austria-Hungary. Hence the assassination of the heir apparent to the crown of Austria-Hungary by a (mostly) Serbian set of conspirators as the match to the powder keg. By themselves, the Balkans were a small powder keg, but they set off much bigger ones. Austria-Hungary and Germany declared war on Serbia in retaliation, Russia came to the defense of Serbia, and almost immediately the other members of the alliances joined in. The Ottoman Empire was rather late to the game, but entered on the side of Germany/Austria-Hungary, and Italy dithered around for a while trying to pick the winning side before joining in on the side of the Triple Entente even though they were one-third of the Triple Alliance.
Because both sides had massive empires, the war spread around the globe, with very few countries being able to maintain neutrality. When you look at a map (above) of the areas of the world on the side of the Triple Entente (green), and the areas on the side of the Triple Alliance (orange), with neutral countries in grey, you can get a sense of why Italy made the choice it did. The map is deceptive, though, because the crucible of the war was in Europe where the two blocs were evenly matched. Battles in other parts of the world were significant, but secondary, and when the US entered on the side of the Triple Entente in 1917, the balance shifted, leading to a conclusion in late 1918. The war was labeled the Great War, because nothing so all encompassing had ever happened before, even though the Napoleonic wars came close. It was not called the First World War until there was a Second.
In hindsight, historians see the Second World War as a consequence of the Treaty of Versailles. But historians also ask the hypothetical question: “Could either war have been prevented?” Counterfactual questions such as this one have limited utility, but they are always worth asking because similar circumstances can always re-emerge. THE POINT OF STUDYING THE PAST IS TO UNDERSTAND THE PRESENT. If Trump were ever to carry out his earlier threat of annihilating North Korea, for example, it could easily escalate into a world war between China and Russia on one side, and the USA and Europe on the other, much in the same way that the Great War started. Of course, if he pisses off Europe, Canada, and Mexico enough with trade wars he may find himself going it alone – but one hopes these speculations are all drastically hypothetical. They do, nonetheless, point out that apart from national objectives being at stake, individual egos are in the mix also.
Historians sometimes argue that the Great War could have been prevented by diplomacy if all the potential belligerents had been willing to sit down together at a congress instead of jumping straight into war mode. This is hindsight speaking, though. The various factions thought that the war would be over by Christmas instead of dragging on for 4 ruinous years. Here’s where a time machine would have come in handy. If you could have shown the various parties the consequences of war, perhaps they would have thought twice before starting one. Perhaps. But there were also individual egos involved in starting the war, and these egos fueled the Treaty of Versailles. The Allies who won could have simply agreed to let bygones be bygones and gone about rebuilding their nations; but they didn’t. In the flush of victory they demanded that the losers admit that they had started the war and that they pay for their actions. Therefore, Germany was hit with crippling reparation payments which it could ill afford before the Great Depression, let alone during it. Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire also had to give up their colonies, and the latter two were split apart into separate nations. The seeds of the Second World War, not to mention Middle East conflict, the Maoist revolution, etc., were sown.
One of my personal points of despair at this stage is that generations are growing up without a firm grasp of history. My grasp of history is certainly tenuous and biased, but at least I understand its importance. Also, a great many of my relatives who I grew up with (as well as scores of family friends) were participants in either the First or Second World War. I have seen the effects of these wars on a completely personal level. Nowadays, wars are devastating enough, but people growing up in the dominant nations are distanced from them. Conscription is a thing of the past, so that if a family member is killed in a foreign war, relatives can be (minimally) consoled by the notion that they knew the risks when they signed up. Otherwise, wars are the stuff of periodic images on news programs while daily life goes on as usual. Both world wars were engaged in by nations who were convinced of their military superiority: firm in the belief that they could win quickly, and gobsmacked when this turned out not to be the case. In my humble opinion, we are living in the same world today.
When I choose my daily recipe I am often left with a puzzle because, like nations, local dishes are both the product of local circumstances and intersecting influences from all over the world. Neapolitan pizza would not be what it is without tomatoes from the New World; green chile stew in the southwest of the US has pork as a principle ingredient, and pigs were first domesticated in Asia. The drive to integrate ideas and ingredients that are global in origin is universal and ongoing on the local level. Here’s your challenge. Can you come up with a dish that melds English, Russian, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Turkish elements in one? I can’t for now, but I will give the matter some thought, and maybe add a coda later if I come up with one.