One of history’s most difficult questions is how all of the major civilizations could let themselves get embroiled in such an apocalypse as the world war(s). WWII alone was the single deadliest war in history. It was essentially a continuation of WWI, which is now widely seen as avoidable or even arranged. Altogether, well over 100 million lives were lost as a result of combat or war-related murder, starvation, or disease in the three decades between 1914 and 1945. This is unparalleled megadeath. How could the human race do this to itself? The short answer is that nobody knew what they were in for. This was a historic breaking point, a confluence of conditions that had not been seen before and is unlikely to be repeated again.
As discussed in section II, Europe’s 19th century revolutions failed to yield many democratic reforms. Most policy decisions were made by very small, closed circles of royal families and their appointees. An emperor’s wealth, career, self image and legacy – his entire person – was defined by his empire’s status in relation to others. Most emperors saw little in common between themselves and their own subjects; an emperor’s peer group was the small circle of world leaders. When such power is concentrated in so few hands, international politics becomes an unfortunate extension of personal ambition.
The prevailing worldview at the time was “might makes right” or, in a more 19th century idiom, “survival of the fittest”. Whenever an empire showed signs of weakness on its fringe, its neighbors would converge like vultures. The industrial age required resources – land, water, crops, oil, minerals, and laborers. The small countries of Europe and Japan did not have much land of their own, so they competed fiercely with each other for territory and resources in Africa and Asia. Rather than trading freely, empires erected trade barriers to protect their own interests. 2 Colonization became a life-or-death competition for finite resources. European empires became particularly confrontational after 1910, when they had fully occupied Africa and could not expand further without impinging on one another.
The nationalistic swell of the 19th century had a violently racist foundation. To an emperor who was willing to risk his own subjects’ lives to acquire a port or an oil field, the lives of his enemy combatants and the welfare of the native population were not even part of his risk-benefit calculation. Emperors took advantage of nationalistic arrogance and fear, which fueled military morale. 3 Following Napoleon, most countries no longer used small professional armies, but drafted millions nationwide. Nevertheless, most soldiers and their families felt a sense of patriotic duty to quell foreign threats. Strikingly, each country believed that it was arming defensively for its own security. 4 When the other side felt the same fears, an arms race was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The formations of Germany and Serbia were especially troublesome for their neighbors. Germany’s unification was completed in 1871 as it seized the Alsace and Lorraine regions from France. German leaders also had their eyes on lands in Poland and other eastern countries that had high concentrations of German speaking people. The last German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was tempestuous and insecure, and he governed accordingly. He had an inferiority complex against his own cousins, the rulers of England and Russia. Wilhelm became obsessed with growing a navy that could defeat England’s so that Germany could properly colonize Africa and Asia despite its late start. 5
Serbia had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Serbian nationalism was very strong, and Serbia was interested in further claiming the province of Bosnia-Herzegovina from Austro-Hungary. The Serbs were supported by the Russians, who perceived a racial kinship and would have liked more control in the Balkans as well.
In a world dominated by aggressive empires with no higher authority, relations between those empires were touchy, and it was imperative that they could reach understandings through treaties. By 1914, Europe was diplomatically partitioned into two competing blocs. In Central Europe, Germany was unified with Austro-Hungary. Wilhelm’s aggression had achieved the impossible, uniting Britain with its greatest imperial rivals France and Russia, the triple entente.
Frankly, it was easy to see war coming. The whole political system was almost designed to be unstable, so that empires could continue taking advantage of opportunities as they arose. The Crimean, Spanish-American, and Russo-Turkish Wars were all fought among imperial powers. 1 The Russo-Japanese War of 1904 – ’05 was a portent of things to come, the first major war that killed more soldiers by combat than by disease. 6 Artillery became especially powerful and deadly. 2 In the 1910s, however, each bloc believed that it was the invincible one and that wars would continue to be short and easily won with high reward.
The treaties among the central powers and the triple entente ensured that the next war among European powers would spread worldwide; the British Empire alone spanned five continents. Industrialized military technology and the massive size of national armies guaranteed that the next war would bring total destruction. Emperors did not know their own strength.
In 1914, Serbian nationalists assassinated the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The crisis between those two countries probably could have been resolved diplomatically like so many similar events. However, Austro-Hungary and its ally Germany saw this as an opportunity for war. Austria hoped to crush Serbian ambitions, and Germany was looking for a chance to expand in Europe at the expense of the colonial superpowers. 7 Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28 and opened fire that evening. Within a week, the entire triple entente was in a formal state of war against Germany, Austro-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Germany was the next nation to launch an attack, mobilizing across neutral Belgium into France.
All sides expected a quick and easy war. They did not count on stalemate, but that’s exactly what happened. Artillery and machine guns were insurmountable defenses. All economic productivity went toward the war effort, so violence escalated in the form of tanks, war planes, flame throwers, and chemical weapons. Meanwhile, civilians died of starvation and disease. The war dragged on for years and cost tens of millions of lives. 3
By 1918, Germany was a failed state in revolution, while the US joined the western front full of energy and resources. Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated his throne that November 9, and the succeeding civilian government agreed to armistice on November 11.
Despite the cease-fire, WWI was never peacefully resolved. The newly fallen empires were partitioned into new countries designated roughly by ethnicity. The new borders left many ethnic minorities in the “wrong” countries, which caused ongoing unrest. 8 Jews were an unwanted minority in several European and Mediterranean nations.
New nations were faced with three competing economic models, all relatively experimental at the time. Moderate capitalist democracy was squeezed between the international socialist revolution on the left and dictatorial fascism on the right. The USSR thrived during the West’s Great Depression, leading many to believe reasonably that capitalism had failed and Marx-Leninism was the way of the future. The battle between the left and right extremes spread through Europe, Asia, and South America.
Germany was center stage for all that unrest and more. Ethnic Germans were scattered across Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. The Treaty of Versailles stipulated that Germany would disarm, surrender lands, and pay for Europe’s recovery. Reparations were unrealistic because Germany was broke. The treaty especially rankled radical rightists who believed Germany was not done fighting, including rising Nazi Party leader Hitler.
Germany’s precarious new republic was undone by the Great Depression. Hitler rode swiftly to power on a wave of anti-socialist fear. Nazi Germany went into isolation and, against the Treaty of Versailles, aggressively rearmed itself. Hitler promised to rebuild the German Empire to include all ethnic Germans and only ethnic Germans.
In Japan, radical right-wing nationalism flourished in response to fears of liberal reformers domestically and western hegemony abroad. 9 Military leaders seized control in the 1930s. They strove to make Japan the self-reliant empire of the East. The Asian war was foreshadowed by Japanese incursions into China as early as 1931.
WWII was empiricism’s last stand. Empire-hungry Germany and Japan were loosely allied with Italy, where Mussolini wanted to rebuild a Roman Empire. The war began with these Axis powers’ 4 acts of aggression. Japan’s 1937 occupation of China was especially large-scale and brutal. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Britain and France stepped in; the war started escalating to a global level. Germany quickly subdued France but got squeezed in another two-front war between Britain and the USSR.
One of Japan’s motivations was its deep dependence on US imports, especially oil. The US remained neutral until 1941 but cut off trade with Japan when diplomacy broke down. Feeling cornered, Japan attempted to destroy the US naval fleet so it could conquer oil-rich lands in the Pacific. This led to American involvement in the war, and an avalanche of declarations of war worldwide.
It was a “world” war not only by country count but by its impact on civilian lives everywhere. Entire nations mobilized; civilians worked, rationed goods, and loaned money for war efforts. Racist disregard for foreign life also led to widespread, deliberate murder, rape, and displacement of civilians. The Nazi holocaust is the most notorious example, but atrocities were committed by several belligerents, on both sides.
The urgent race for military superiority led to unprecedented advances in technology. Spinoffs of the war included such groundbreaking fields as electronics, jets and space travel, and nuclear energy. The US dropped nuclear bombs on cities to force Japan to surrender in 1945. Germany was crushed in the same year and was occupied by Soviet forces in the east and American, British, and French troops in the west.
The course of history since 1945 follows a different arc from events preceding 1914. The world wars led to most of today’s national boundaries. On an even larger scale, today’s global institutions and the very philosophy of human coexistence look back to the trauma of those three decades.
The wars led directly to the reduction of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Italian, and Japanese Empires to their homelands. Many outlying regions of these empires were nationalized. Others were placed under the protection of Allied powers.
After WWII, even the surviving empires steadily unraveled. Decolonization began in Asia. As Japan had taken hold of European / American territories, it had severed former colonial ties. Most residents of such regions (the Philippines, Indonesia, etc) were Asian natives, not white immigrants. After liberation from Japan, it was natural for them to seek their own independence. 10 Other colonies were then inspired to autonomy, especially in light of international declarations urging national sovereignty. 11 For Britain and France, the costs and complications of holding on to overseas colonies continually increased. Africa especially saw rapid decolonization and the establishment of new self-determined nations.
Most new nation-states, as well as the former colonizers, eventually became democratic. Unfortunately, the process was more speedy than steady. Revolutions were common 12 and dozens of governments are still authoritarian.
The era since WWII has been, as a rule, a cease-fire between republics, a Pax Republica. War has become too costly to justify. There is now nearly universal consensus to place diplomacy before arms, especially between major nations and republics.
Wars involving dictators still persist, though nowhere near the scale of the world wars. The US and USSR became engaged in a tense and protracted cold war. The Americans sponsored reconstruction of Western Europe and Japan. Moscow patronized Eastern Europe and China. As decolonization then led to a whole third world of developing nations, the Americans and Soviets competed for influence over the emerging governments. It was a war of espionage and covert operations, often misguided and largely unknown to the public. This was a reversion to the isolationism, hyper-nationalism, and “secret diplomacy” that had led to WWI.
When the cold war did become violent, it was a new kind of combat. It involved local populations, coups, and insurgencies. The major powers themselves were armed with arsenals of hydrogen bombs so powerful that they could not be used. This mutual assured destruction was a macabre equilibrium, but it did spell the end of the era of large-scale military mobilizations.
Measures were taken after both wars to promote free trade, a shift in philosophy from national competition to international cooperation. The European Union started with the simple idea of combining Germany and France’s steel and coal industries. By the 1970s, western national economies were extremely interdependent. Greater ease of travel and communications also made foreign nations less mysterious and frightening, an important factor in Pax Republica.
The United Nations was founded in 1945 to provide a framework of international conflict resolution. Though far from perfect, it plays a role that was sorely lacking before the world wars. The might-makes-right model has been replaced with a charter of law and a forum for multilateral discussion. The UN has been a major player in brokering peace and providing humanitarian aid. It was not intended as a central world government, though it has come to perform many governmental roles. One of the UN’s greatest unsung legacies is its elimination of the right of conquest. 14 A nation may no longer claim foreign lands by aggression, a rule that has seldom been violated.
Just as important as international law is the spirit of globalism – the concern for the well-being of the whole world beyond any particular country. It is difficult for people to think globally, but its value is gradually becoming more recognized. 15
The most intractable and contentious border dispute to come out of the world wars was in the Eastern Mediterranean. In WWI, Britain liberated Palestine from the Ottoman Empire with the assistance of local Jewish and Arab nationalists. Arabs and Jews both believed that Britain would eventually grant them a homeland. 16 Jews (the minority) migrated to Palestine in large numbers between the wars, as the area remained a British protectorate.
The modern form of terrorism began in this setting. With no chance of winning battles against national militaries, terrorists put pressure on governments by assassinating leaders or murdering civilians. Arabs and Jews committed acts of terrorism against each other and against the British in Palestine.
After WWII, the UN proposed a two-state economic union. The Arabs considered this a breach of self-determination. They refused to compromise any territory, and never accepted the proposal. The borders were left undetermined by the time of British evacuation, to be unoffiically settled only after a ten-month Arab-Israeli war. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel broke the armistice and recaptured the Arab territories, now called Occupied Palestine. The occupation has been the basis of lingering discontent for Arabs against Israel and its staunchest apologist, the United States. This land dispute still disproportionately entangles the world a century on.
- Treaty of Versailles photograph by Helen Johns Kirtland and Lucian Swift Kirtland (1919) / Public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Treaty_of_Versailles_Signing,_Hall_of_Mirrors.jpg (accessed and saved 1/24/16, archived 5/23/20). ↩
- Columbia University, “Japan’s quest for power and World War II in Asia”, 2009, http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/special/japan_1900_power.htm (accessed and saved 5/19/19). ↩
- Bill Price, The Unprevented War: Why the First World War was Fought, RW Press Ltd, (ebook, 2014) location 365. ↩
- Price (2014), ibid., e.g. at locations 648 and 1122. ↩
- Price (2014), ibid., locations 576 – 597. ↩
- Matthew Smallman-Raynor and Andrew Cliff, “Impact of infectious diseases on war”, Infectious Disease Clinics of North America 18 (2004), 341 at 348, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0891552004000248?via%3Dihub . ↩
- Germany’s expansionist ambitions were famously researched and written by Fritz Fischer in “Germany’s Aims in the First World War”, W.W. Norton, 1961, and most modern historians feel that Fischer’s thesis is strongly corroborated. ↩
- Alan Sharp, “The Paris Peace Conference and its Consequences”, 1914 – 1918 Online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War, http://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/the_paris_peace_conference_and_its_consequences#National_Self-Determination (accessed and saved 5/19/19). ↩
- Susan Townsend, “Japan’s Quest for Empire 1931 – 1945”, BBC (3/30/2011), https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/japan_quest_empire_01.shtml#five (accessed and saved 5/26/19). ↩
- Richard J. Evans, “Decolonization: The End of Empire?”, Gresham College (4/18/2012), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-LzatfgOQ9c&index=6&list=PL96EAE2875AF0EDEA , 2:14 ff (accessed 5/19/19). ↩
- UN General Assembly Declaration 1514, “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples”, (12/14/1960), http://www.un.org/en/decolonization/declaration.shtml (accessed and saved 5/19/19). ↩
- US Dep’t of State Office of the Historian, “Decolonization of Africa and Asia, 1945 – 1960”, Milestones in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/asia-and-africa (accessed and saved 5/20/19). ↩
- Colonization map by en:User:Aris Katsaris / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Colonization_1945.png (saved and accessed 1/29/16, archived 5/23/20). ↩
- United Nations. Charter Article 2(4) (1945) http://legal.un.org/repertory/art2.shtml (accessed and saved 5/20/19) and Resolution 3314 Article 5 Paragraph 3 (1974) http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/3314(XXIX) (accessed and saved 5/20/19). ↩
- Daniel J. Christie and Thomas E. Cooper, “Peace Psychology”, Encyclopedia Britannica (10/01/2014), https://www.britannica.com/science/peace-psychology (accessed and saved 5/20/19). ↩
- Arab belief was based on the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence of 1915 – 1916, translated from Arabic at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/hussmac1.html (accessed and saved 5/20/19). Jewish belief was based on a letter from Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, reproduced at http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/modern-world-history-1918-to-1980/the-middle-east-1917-to-1973/the-balfour-declaration-of-1917/the-balfour-declaration-of-1917/ (accessed and saved 5/20/19). Neither one was binding law, nor were they delineated clearly or properly negotiated. ↩
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