“World War I set the violent twentieth century in motion. It was the first use of chemical weapons; the first mass bombardment of civilians from the sky; the century’s first genocide.” So begins the 1996 PBS series The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century. You can watch its episodes on YouTube. I completely agree with that opening statement because the geopolitical problems we are seeing in the twenty-first century can trace their roots to this enormous catastrophe in the first quarter of the twentieth.
I have called the Great War the forgotten war of the twentieth century. Its horror and ghastliness defy description. Its origins arose from the alliances created by the rival powers in Europe which were crafted by statesmen who convinced themselves that the specter of a huge war would be enough to forestall one. They thought that three of Europe’s monarchs, the King of England, the Kaiser of Germany and the Czar of Russia would never allow that to happen, that their family ties would override the militarism and aggression of their generals.
The war’s horrendous prosecution and unsatisfactory end were made even worse by the Versailles Peace Conference, a conclave which created the false peace that only allowed the combatants to rearm and proceed to a second conflict which was even more destructive than the first one. World War II merely took up the Great War’s unfinished business. Indeed many historians call both conflicts Europe’s “Second Thirty Years’ War.”
The First World War led to the birth of the first communist dictatorship. The world flirted with nuclear destruction as that dictatorship engaged in a murderous rivalry with its erstwhile allies. When the USSR finally imploded, some of the splinter states which emerged from its ruins fell to either fighting among themselves or suffering internecine bloodletting. And the problems elsewhere in southwest Asia as well as the Middle East can be traced to hatreds fostered by European colonialism which the Great War only intensified.
I could go on but I think I’ve made my point. The world we have today had its birth pangs in World War I. It was Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia on 28 July 1914 that caused a myriad of dominoes to fall—and they are continuing to tumble even now.