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Lessons from World War I

ARTICLE | | BY John Scales Avery


John Scales Avery

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The history of World War I is reviewed, starting with a discussion of the development of nationalist movements in Europe. It is pointed out that the global disaster started with a seemingly small operation by Austria, which escalated uncontrollably into an all-destroying conflagration. A striking feature of the war was that none of the people who started it had any idea of what it would be like. Technology had changed the character of war, but old patterns of thought remained in place. We also examine the roots of the war in industrial and colonial competition, and in an arms race. Finally, parallels with current events, and the important lessons for today’s world are discussed.

1. The Rise of Nationalism in Europe

There is no doubt that the founders of nationalism in Europe were idealists; but the movement that they created has already killed more than sixty million people in two world wars, and today it contributes to the threat of a catastrophic third world war.

Nationalism in Europe is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Romantic Movement. According to the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the ideas of the French Revolution, no government is legitimate unless it derives its power from the will of the people. Speaking to the Convention of 1792, Georges-Jacques Danton proclaimed that “by sending us here as deputies, the French Nation has brought into being a grand committee for the general insurrection of peoples.”

Since all political power was then believed to be vested in the “nation”, the question of national identity suddenly became acutely important. France itself was a conglomeration of peoples - Normans, Bretons, Provencaux, Burgundians, Flemings, Germans, Basques, and Catalans - but these peoples had been united under a strong central government since the Middle Ages, and by the time of the French Revolution it was easy for them to think of themselves as a “nation”. However, what we now call Germany did not exist. There was only a collection of small feudal principalities, in some of which the most common language was German.

The early political unity of France enabled French culture to dominate Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. Frederick the Great of Prussia and his court spoke and wrote in French. Frederick himself regarded German as a language of ignorant peasants, and on the rare occasions when he tried to speak or write in German, the result was almost incomprehensible. The same was true in the courts of Brandenburg, Saxony, Pomerania, etc. Each of them was a small-scale Versailles. Below the French-speaking aristocracy was a German-speaking middle class and a German or Slavic-speaking peasantry.

The creators of the nationalist movement in Germany were young middle-class German-speaking students and theologians who felt frustrated and stifled by the narrow kleinstädtisch provincial atmosphere of the small principalities in which they lived. They also felt frustrated because their talents were completely ignored by the French-speaking aristocracy.

This was the situation when the armies of Napoleon marched across Europe, easily defeat­ing and humiliating both Prussia and Austria. The young German-speaking students asked themselves what it was that the French had that they did not have. The answer was not hard to find. What the French had was a sense of national identity. In fact, the French Revolution had unleashed long-dormant tribal instincts in the common people of France. It was the fanatical support of the Marseillaise-singing masses that made the French armies invincible.

The founders of the German nationalist movement concluded that if they were ever to have a chance of defeating France, they would have to inspire the same fanaticism in their own people. They would have to touch the same almost-forgotten cord of human nature that the French Revolution had touched. The common soldiers who fought in the wars of Europe in the first part of the 18th century were not emotionally involved. They were recruited from the lowest ranks of society, and they joined the army of a king or prince for the sake of money.

The soldiers in Napoleon’s army were not fighting for the sake of money, but for an ideal that they felt to be larger and more important than themselves.


2. Nationalism, a False Religion

All this was changed by the French Revolution. In June 1792, the French Legislative Assembly decreed that a Fatherland Alter be erected in each commune with the inscription, “The citizen is born, lives and dies for la patrie.” The idea of a “Fatherland Alter” clearly demonstrates the quasi-religious nature of French nationalism.

The soldiers in Napoleon’s army were not fighting for the sake of money, but for an ideal that they felt to be larger and more important than themselves - Republicanism and the glory of France. The masses, who for so long had been outside of the politics of a larger world, and who had been emotionally involved only in the affairs of their own village, were now fully aroused to large-scale political action. The surge of nationalist feeling in France was tribalism on an enormous scale - tribalism amplified and orchestrated by new means of mass communication.

This was the phenomenon with which the German nationalists felt they had to contend. One of the founders of the German nationalist movement was Johan Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), a follower of the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Besides rejecting objective criteria for morality, Fichte denied the value of the individual. According to him, the individual is nothing and the state is everything. Denying the value of the individual, Fichte compared the state to an organism of which the individual is a part:

“In a product of nature”, Fichte wrote, “no part is what it is but through its relation to the whole, and it would absolutely not be what it is apart from this relation; more, if it had no organic relation at all, it would be absolutely nothing, since without reciprocity in action between organic forces maintaining one another in equilibrium, no form would subsist... Similarly, man obtains a determinate position in the scheme of things and a fixity in nature only through his civil association... Between the isolated man and the citizen there is the same relation as between raw and organized matter... In an organized body, each part continuously maintains the whole, and in maintaining it, maintains itself also. Similarly the citizen with regard to the State.”

Another post-Kantian, Adam Müller (1779-1829) wrote that “the state is the intimate association of all physical and spiritual needs of the whole nation into one great, energetic, infinitely active and living whole... the totality of human affairs... If we exclude for ever from this association even the most unimportant part of a human being, if we separate private life from public life even at only one point, then we no longer perceive the State as a phenomenon of life and as an idea.”

The doctrine that Adam Müller sets forth in this passage is what we now call Totalitarianism, i.e. the belief that the state ought to encompass “the totality of human affairs”. This doctrine is the opposite of the Liberal belief that the individual is all-important and that the role of the state ought to be as small as possible.

Fichte maintains that “a State which constantly seeks to increase its internal strength is forced to desire the gradual abolition of all favoritisms, and the establishment of equal rights for all citizens, in order that it, the State itself, may enter upon its own true right - to apply the whole surplus power of all its citizens without exception to the furtherance of its own purposes... Internal peace, and the condition of affairs in which everyone may by diligence earn his daily bread... is only a means, a condition and framework for what love of Fatherland really wants to bring about, namely that the Eternal and the Divine may blossom in the world and never cease to become more pure, perfect and excellent.”

Fichte proposed a new system of education which would abolish the individual will and teach individuals to become subservient to the will of the state. “The new education must consist essentially in this”, Fichte wrote, “that it completely destroys the will in the soil that it undertakes to cultivate... If you want to influence a man at all, you must do more than merely talk to him; you must fashion him, and fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than you wish him to will.”

Fichte and Herder (1744-1803) developed the idea that language is the key to national identity. They believed that the German language is superior to French because it is an “original” language, not derived from Latin. In a poem that is obviously a protest against the French culture of Frederick’s court in Prussia, Herder wrote:

“Look at other nationalities!

Do they wander about

So that nowhere in the world they are strangers

Except to themselves?

They regard foreign countries with proud disdain.

And you, German, alone, returning from abroad,

Wouldst greet your mother in French?

Oh spew it out before your door!

Spew out the ugly slime of the Seine!

Speak German, O you German!”

Another poem, “The German Fatherland”, by Ernst Moritz Arndt (1769-1860), expresses a similar sentiment:

“What is the Fatherland of the German?

Name me the great country!

Where the German tongue sounds

And sings Lieder in God’s praise,

That’s what it ought to be

Call that thine, valiant German!

That is the Fatherland of the German,

Where anger roots out foreign nonsense,

Where every Frenchman is called enemy,

Where every German is called friend,

That’s what it ought to be!

It ought to be the whole of Germany!”

The German nationalist movement was not only quasi-religious in its tone; it also borrowed psychological techniques from religion.


It must be remembered that when these poems were written, the German nation did not exist except in the minds of the nationalists. Groups of people speaking various dialects of German were scattered throughout central and eastern Europe. In many places, the German-speaking population was a minority. To bring together these scattered German-speaking groups would require, in many cases, the conquest and subjugation of Slavic majorities; but the quasi-religious fervor of the nationalists was such that aggression took on the appearance of a “holy war”. Fichte believed that war between states introduces “a living and progressive principle into history”. By war he did not mean a decorous limited war of the type fought in the 18th century, but “...a true and proper war - a war of subjugation!”

The German nationalist movement was not only quasi-religious in its tone; it also borrowed psychological techniques from religion. It aroused the emotions of the masses to large-scale political activity by the use of semi-religious political liturgy, involving myth, symbolism, and festivals. In his book German Society (1814), Arndt advocated the celebration of “holy festivals”. For example, he thought that the celebration of the pagan festival of the summer solstice could be combined with a celebration of the victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig.

Arndt believed that special attention should be given to commemoration of the “noble dead” of Germany’s wars for, as he said, “ history enters life, and life becomes part of history”. He advocated a combination of Christian and pagan symbolism. The festivals should begin with prayers and a church service; but in addition, the oak leaf and the sacred flame of ancient pagan tradition were to play a part.

In 1815, many of Arndt’s suggestions were followed in the celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig. This festival clearly exhibited a mixing of secular and Christian elements to form a national cult. Men and women decorated with oak leaves made pilgrim­ages to the tops of mountains, where they were addressed by priests speaking in front of alters on which burned “the sacred flame of Germany’s salvation”. This borrowing of psychological techniques from religion was deliberate, and it was retained by the Nazi Party when the latter adopted the methods of the early German nationalists. The Nazi mass rallies retained the order and form of Protestant liturgy, including hymns, confessions of faith, and responses between the leader and the congregation.

In 1832, the first mass meeting in German history took place, when 32,000 men and women gathered to celebrate the “German May”. Singing songs, wearing black, red, and gold emblems, and carrying flags, they marched to Hambach Castle, where they were addressed by their leaders. By the 1860s the festivals celebrating the cult of nationalism had ac­quired a definite form. Processions through a town, involving elaborate national symbolism, were followed by unison singing by men’s choirs, patriotic plays, displays by gymnasts and sharp-shooters, and sporting events. The male choirs, gymnasts and sharp-shooters were required to wear uniforms; and the others attending the festivals wore oak leaves in their caps.

The cohesion of the crowd was achieved not only by uniformity of dress, but also by the space in which the crowd was contained. Arndt advocated the use of a “sacred space” for mass meetings. The idea of the “sacred space” was taken from Stonehenge, which was seen by the nationalists as a typical ancient Germanic meeting place. The Nazi art historian Hubert Schrade wrote: “The space which urges us to join the community of the Volk is of greater importance than the figure which is meant to represent the Fatherland.”

British nationalism later found an outlet in colonialism.

Dramas were also used to promote a feeling of cohesion and national identity. An example of this type of propagandist drama is Kleist’s play Hermann’s Battle (1808). The play deals with a Germanic chieftain who, in order to rally the tribes against the Romans, sends his own men, disguised as Roman soldiers, to commit atrocities in the neighboring German vil­­lages. At one point in the play, Hermann is told of a Roman soldier who risked his own life to save a German child in a burning house. Hearing this report, Hermann exclaims, “May he be cursed if he has done this! He has for a moment made my heart disloyal; he has made me for a moment betray the august cause of Germany!... I was counting, by all the gods of revenge, on fire, loot, violence, murder, and all the horrors of unbridled war! What need have I of Latins who use me well?”

At another point in the play, Hermann’s wife, Thusnelda, tempts a Roman Legate into a romantic meeting in a garden. Instead of finding Thusnelda, the Legate finds himself locked in the garden with a starved and savage she-bear. Standing outside the gate, Thusnelda urges the Legate to make love to the she-bear, and, as the bear tears him to pieces, she faints with pleasure.

Richard Wagner’s dramas were also part of the nationalist movement. They were designed to create “an unending dream of sacred volkisch revelation”. No applause was permitted, since this would disturb the reverential atmosphere of the cult. A new type of choral theater was developed which “ longer represented the fate of the individual to the audience, but that which concerns the community, the Volk... Thus, in contrast to the bourgeois theater, private persons are no longer represented, but only types.”

We have primarily been discussing the growth of German nationalism, but very similar movements developed in other countries throughout Europe and throughout the world. Characteristic of all these movements was the growth of state power, and the development of a reverential, quasi-religious attitude towards the state. Patriotism became “a sacred duty.” According to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, “The existence of the State is the movement of God in the world. It is the ultimate power on earth; it is its own end and object. It is an ultimate end that has absolute rights against the individual.”

Nationalism in England (as in Germany) was to a large extent a defensive response against French nationalism. At the end of the 18th century, the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment were widespread in England. There was much sympathy in England with the aims of the French Revolution, and a similar revolution almost took place in England. However, when Napoleon landed an army in Ireland and threatened to invade England, there was a strong reaction towards national self-defense. The war against France gave impetus to nationalism in England, and military heroes like Wellington and Nelson became objects of quasi-religious worship. British nationalism later found an outlet in colonialism.

Italy, like Germany, had been a collection of small principalities, but as a reaction to the other nationalist movements sweeping across Europe, a movement for a united Italy developed. The conflicts between the various nationalist movements of Europe produced the frightful world wars of the 20th century. Indeed, the shot that signaled the outbreak of World War I was fired by a Serbian nationalist.

War did not seem especially evil to the 18th and 19th century nationalists because technol­ogy had not yet given humanity the terrible weapons of the 20th century. In the 19th century, the fatal combination of space-age science and stone-age politics still lay in the future. However, even in 1834, the German writer Heinrich Heine was perceptive enough to see the threat: “There will be”, Heine wrote, “Kantians forthcoming who, in the world to come, will know nothing of reverence for aught, and who will ravage without mercy, and riot with sword and axe through the soil of all European life to dig out the last root of the past. There will be well-weaponed Fichtians upon the ground, who in the fanaticism of the Will are not restrained by fear or self-advantage, for they live in the Spirit.”

3. A Small Operation to Punish Serbian Nationalists Escalates out of Control

In 1870, the fiercely nationalistic Prussian Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, won revenge for the humiliations which his country had suffered under Napoleon Bonaparte. In a lightning campaign, Prussia’s modern army overran France and took Emperor Napoleon III prisoner. The victorious Prussians demanded from France not only the payment of a huge sum of money - five billion francs - but also the annexation of the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. In 1871, Kaiser Wilhelm I was proclaimed Emperor of all Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. The dreams of the German nationalists had been realized! The small German-speaking states of central Europe were now united into a powerful nation dominated by Prussia.

Bismarck had provoked a number of wars in order to achieve his aim of the unification of Germany under Prussia; but after 1871 he strove for peace, fearing that war would harm his new creation. “I am bored”, Bismarck remarked to his friends, “The great things are done. The German Reich is made.”

In order to preserve the status quo in Europe, Bismarck now made alliances, not only with Austria-Hungary and Italy, but also with Russia. To make alliances with both Austria-Hungary and Russia required considerable diplomatic skill, since the two empires were enemies - rivals for influence in the Balkan Peninsula. Several small Balkan states had broken away from the decaying Turkish Empire. Both the Hapsburg Emperors and the Romanoff Czars were anxious to dominate these small states. However, nationalist emotions were even more frenzied in the Balkans than they were elsewhere in Europe. Nationalism was a cause for which 19th century Europeans were willing to kill each other, just as three centuries earlier they had been willing to kill each other over their religious differences.

Serbia was an independent state, but the fanatical Serbian nationalists were far from satisfied. Their real aim was to create an independent Pan-Serbia (or Yugoslavia) which would include all the Slavic parts of Austria-Hungary. Thus, at the turn of the century, the Balkans were a trouble spot, much as the Middle East is a trouble spot today. Kaiser Wilhelm I was a stable monarch, but in 1888 he died and the German throne passed to his son, Frederick III, who was incurably ill with cancer of the throat. After reigning for only 90 days, Frederick also died, and his 29 year old son became the new German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Wilhelm II had been born with a withered arm, and as a boy he had been constantly told that he must become a great warrior. His adult behavior sometimes showed tendencies towards both paranoia and megalomania. In 1890, Wilhelm dismissed Otto von Bismarck (“dropping the pilot”). Bismarck was now on the side of peace, and he might have guided Germany safely through the troubled waters of European politics if he had been allowed to continue; but Wilhelm wanted to play Bismarck himself.

Wilhelm’s first act was to break off Germany’s alliance with Russia. Czar Alexander III, against his principles, then formed an alliance with republican France. Realizing that he had blundered, Wilhelm tried to patch up relations with the Czar, but it was too late. Europe was now divided into two armed camps - Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, opposed by Russia and France.

Wilhelm’s government then began to build a huge modern navy, much to the consternation of the English. The government of England felt that it was necessary for their country to have control of the sea, since England was a densely-populated island, dependent on imports of food. It was not only with respect to naval power that England felt threatened: After being united in 1871, Germany had undergone an industrial revolution; and German industries were pouring out steel and high-quality manufactured goods that threatened England’s dominance of world trade. Commercial and naval competition with the rising German Empire drove England into an informal alliance with Russia and France - the Triple Entente.

Meanwhile the situation in the Balkans became increasingly troubled, and at the end of July 1914, the Austrian Foreign Minister, Count Berchtold, used the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife as a pretext for crushing the Serbian Pan-Slavic movement. Russia mobilized against Austria in defense of the Serbs, and the Austrian govern­ment interpreted the mobilization as a declaration of war. Germany was linked to Austria by an alliance, while France was linked to Russia. In this way, both France and Russia were drawn into the conflict.

On August 2, Wilhelm demanded free passage of German troops through Belgium. The Belgians refused. They gave warning that an invasion would be resisted, and they appealed to England for support of their country’s neutrality. On August 4, Britain sent an ultimatum to the Kaiser: Unless he halted the invasion of Belgium, Britain would enter the war. The invasion of Belgium rolled on. It was now too late to stop the great death-machine, and as it gained momentum, Sir Edward Grey spoke the sad and prophetic words. “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

4. Science Changes the Character of War

None of the people who started the First World War had the slightest idea what it would be like. The armies of Europe were dominated by the old feudal landowning class, whose warlike traditions were rooted in the Middle Ages. The counts and barons who still ruled Europe’s diplomatic and military establishments knew how to drink champagne, dance elegantly, ride horses, and seduce women. They pranced off to war in high spirits, the gold on their colorful uniforms glittering in the sunshine, full of expectations of romantic cavalry charges, kisses stolen from pretty girls in captured villages, decorations, glory and promotion, like characters in “The Chocolate Soldier” or “Die Fledermaus”. The romantic dreams of glory of every small boy who ever played with toy soldiers were about to become a thrilling reality!

But the war, when it came, was not like that. Technology had taken over. The railroads, the telegraph, high explosives and the machine gun had changed everything. The opposing armies, called up by means of the telegraph and massed by means of the railroads, were the largest ever assembled up to that time in the history of the world. In France alone, between August 2 and August 18, 1914, the railway system transported 3,781,000 people under military orders. Across Europe, the railways hurled more than six million highly armed men into collision with each other. Nothing on that scale had ever happened before, and no one had any idea of what it would be like.

At first the Schlieffen Plan seemed to be working perfectly. When Kaiser Wilhelm had sent his troops into battle, he had told them: “You will be home before the leaves are off the trees”, and at first it seemed that his prediction would be fulfilled. However, the machine gun had changed the character of war. Attacking infantry could be cut down in heaps by defending machine gunners. The war came to a stalemate, since defense had an advantage over attack.

On the western front, the opposing armies dug lines of trenches stretching from the Atlantic to the Swiss border. The two lines of trenches were separated by a tangled mass of barbed wire. Periodically the generals on one side or the other would order their armies to break through the opposing line. They would bring forward several thousand artillery pieces, fire a million or so high explosive shells to cut the barbed wire and to kill as many defenders as possible, and then order their men to attack.

The soldiers had to climb out of the trenches and struggle forward into the smoke. There was nothing else for them to do. If they disobeyed orders, they would be court-marshalled and shot as deserters. They were driven forward and slaughtered in futile attacks, none of which gained anything. Their leaders had failed them. Civilization had failed them. There was nothing for them to do but to die, to be driven forward into the poison gas and barbed wire and to be scythed down by machine gun fire, for nothing, for the ambition, vanity and stupidity of their rulers.

At the battle of Verdun, 700,000 young men were butchered in this way, and at the battle of Somme, 1,100,000 young lives were wasted. On the German side, the soldiers sang “Lili Marleen” - “She waits for a boy who’s far away...” and on the other side, British and American soldiers sang:

“There’s a long long trail a-winding

into the land of my dreams

where the nightingale is singing

and the pale moon beams.

There’s a long long night of waiting

until my dreams all come true,

’til the day that I’ll be going

down that long long trail with you.”

For millions of Europe’s young men, the long, long trail led only to death in the mud and smoke; and for millions of mothers and sweethearts waiting at home, dreams of the future were shattered by a telegram announcing the death of the boy for whom they were waiting.

When the war ended four years later, ten million young men had been killed and twenty million wounded, of whom six million were crippled for life. The war had cost 350,000,000,000 1919 dollars. This was a calculable cost; but the cost in human suffering and brutalization of values was incalculable.

5. World War I Prepares the Ground for World War II

It hardly mattered whose fault the catastrophe had been. Perhaps the Austrian government had been more to blame than any other. But blame for the war certainly did not rest with the Austrian people nor with the young Austrians who had been forced to fight. However, the tragedy of the First World War was that it created long-lasting hatred between the nations involved; and in this way it led, only twenty years later, to an even more catastrophic global war.

The First World War brought about the downfall of four emperors: the Russian Czar, the Turkish Sultan, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor and the German Kaiser. The decaying and unjust Czarist government had for several years been threatened by revolution; and the horrors of the war into which the Czar had led his people were enough to turn them decisively against his government. During 1915 alone, Russia lost more than two million men, either killed or captured. Finally the Russian soldiers refused to be driven into battle and began to shoot their officers. In February 1917, the Czar abdicated; and on December 5, 1917, the new communist government of Russia signed an armistice with Germany.

The German Chief of Staff, General Ludendorff, then shifted all his troops to the west in an all-out offensive. In March 1918, he threw his entire army into a gigantic offensive which he called “the Emperor’s Battle”. The German army drove forward, and by June they were again on the Marne, only 50 miles from Paris. However, the Allies counterattacked, strength­ened by the first American troops, and using, for the first time, large numbers of tanks. The Germans fell back, and by September they had lost more than a million men in six months. Morale in the retreating German army was falling rapidly, and fresh American troops were landing in France at the rate of 250,000 per month. Ludendorff realized that the German cause was hopeless and that if peace were not made quickly, a communist revolution would take place in Germany just as it had in Russia.

The old feudal Prussian military caste, having led Germany into disaster, now unload­ed responsibility onto the liberals. Ludendorff advised the Kaiser to abdicate, and a liberal leader, Prince Max of Baden, was found to head the new government. On November 9, 1918, Germany was proclaimed a republic. Two days later, an armistice was signed and the fighting stopped.

During the last years of the war, the world, weary of the politics of power and nationalist greed, had looked with hope towards the idealism of the American President, Woodrow Wilson. He had proposed a “peace without victory” based on his famous “Fourteen Points”. Wilson himself considered that the most important of his Fourteen Points was the last one, which specified that “A general association of nations must be formed... for the purpose of affording mutual guaranties of political independence and territorial integrity of great and small states alike.”

When Wilson arrived in Europe to attend the peace conference in Paris, he was wildly cheered by crowds of ordinary people, who saw in his idealism new hope for the world. Unfortunately, the hatred produced by four years of horrible warfare was now too great to be overcome. At the peace conference, the aged nationalist Georges Clemenceau was unswerving in his deep hatred of Germany. France had suffered greatly during the war. Half of all French males who had been between the ages of 20 and 32 in 1914 had been killed; much of the French countryside had been devastated; and the retreating German armies had destroyed the French coal mines. Clemenceau was determined to extract both revenge and financial compensation from the Germans.

In the end, the peace treaty was a compromise. Wilson was given his dream, the League of Nations; and Clemenceau was given the extremely harsh terms which he insisted should be imposed on Germany. By signing the treaty, Germany would be forced to acknowledge sole responsibility for having caused the war; it would be forced to hand over the Kaiser and other leaders to be tried as war criminals; to pay for all civilian damage during the war; to agree to internationalization of all German rivers and the Kiel Canal; to give France, Belgium and Italy 25 million tons of coal annually as part of the reparations payments; to surrender the coal mines in Alsace-Lorraine to France; to give up all foreign colonies; to lose all property owned by Germans abroad; and to agree to Allied occupation of the Rhineland for fifteen years.

The loss of coal, in particular, was a death-blow aimed at German industry. Reading the terms of the treaty, the German Chancellor cried: “May the hand wither that signs such a peace!” The German Foreign Minister, Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, refused to sign, and the German government made public the terms of the treaty which it had been offered. French newspapers picked up the information, and at 4 a.m. one morning, a messenger knocked at the door of the Paris hotel room where Herbert Hoover (the American war relief administrator) was staying, and handed him a copy of the terms.

Hoover was so upset that he could sleep no more that night. He dressed and went out into the almost deserted Paris streets, pacing up and down, trying to calm himself. “It seemed to me”, Hoover wrote later, “that the economic consequences alone would pull down all Europe and thus injure the United States.” By chance, Hoover met the British economist, John Maynard Keynes, who was walking with General Jan Smuts in the pre-dawn Paris streets. Both of them had received transcripts of the terms offered to Germany, and both were similarly upset. “We agreed that it was terrible”, Hoover wrote later, “and we agreed that we would do what we could... to make the dangers clear.”

In the end, continuation of the blockade forced the Germans to sign the treaty; but they did so with deeply-felt bitterness. Describing the signing of the Versailles treaty on June 28, 1919, a member of the American delegation wrote: “It was not unlike when in olden times the conqueror dragged the conquered at his chariot wheel.”

While he participated in the peace negotiations, Wilson had been absent from the United States for six months. During that time, Wilson’s Democratic Party had been without its leader, and his Republican opponents made the most of the opportunity. Republican majorities had been returned in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. When Wilson placed the peace treaty before the Senate, the Senate refused to ratify it. Wilson desperately wanted America to join the League of Nations, and he took his case to the American people. He traveled 8,000 miles and delivered 36 major speeches, together with scores of informal talks urging support for the League. Suddenly, in the middle of this campaign, he was struck with a cerebral thrombosis from which he never recovered.

Without Wilson’s leadership, the campaign collapsed. The American Senate for a second time rejected the peace treaty, and with it the League of Nations. Without American participation, the League was greatly handicapped. It had many successes, especially in cultural and humanitarian projects and in settling disputes between small nations; but it soon became clear that the League of Nations was not able to settle disputes between major powers.

Postwar Germany was in a state of chaos - its economy in ruins. The nation was now a republic, with its capital in Weimar, but this first experiment in German democracy was not running smoothly. Many parts of the country, especially Bavaria, were swarming with secret societies led by former officers of the German army. They blamed the republican government for the economic chaos and for signing a disgraceful peace treaty. The “war guilt” clause of the treaty especially offended the German sense of honor.

In 1920 a group of nationalist and monarchist army officers led by General Ludendorff staged an army revolt or “Putsch”. They forcibly replaced the elected officials of the Weimar Republic by a puppet head of state named Dr. Kapp. However, the republic was saved by the workers of Berlin, who turned off the public utilities. After the failure of the “Kapp Putsch”, Ludendorff went to Bavaria, where he met Adolf Hitler, a member of a small secret society called the National Socialist German Workers Party. (The name was abbreviated as “Nazi” after the German pronunciation of the first two syllables of “National”). Together, Ludendorff and Hitler began to plot another “Putsch”.

In 1921, the Reparations Commission fixed the amount that Germany would have to pay at 135,000,000,000 gold marks. Various western economists realized that this amount was far more than Germany would be able to pay and in fact, French efforts to collect it proved futile. Therefore France sent army units to occupy industrial areas of the Ruhr in order to extract payment in kind. The German workers responded by sitting down at their jobs. Their salaries were paid by the Weimar government, which printed more and more paper money. The printing presses ran day and night, flooding Germany with worthless currency.

By 1923, inflation had reached such ruinous proportions that baskets full of money were required to buy a loaf of bread. At one point, four trillion paper marks were equal to one dollar. This catastrophic inflation reduced the German middle class to poverty and destroyed its faith in the orderly working of society.

The Nazi Party had only seven members when Adolf Hitler joined it in 1919. By 1923, because of the desperation caused by economic chaos, it had grown to 70,000 members. On November 8, 1923, there was a meeting of nationalists and monarchists at the Bürgerbräu Keller beer hall in Munich. The Bavarian State Commissioner, Dr. Gustav von Kahr, gave a speech denouncing the Weimar Republic. He added, however, that the time was not yet ripe for armed revolt.

In the middle of Kahr’s speech, Adolf Hitler leaped to the podium. Firing two revolver bullets into the ceiling Hitler screamed that the revolution was on: it would begin immediately! He ordered his armed troopers to bar the exits, and he went from one Bavarian leader to the other, weeping with excitement, a beer stein in one hand and a revolver in the other, pleading with them to support the revolution. At this point, the figure of General Ludendorff suddenly appeared. In full uniform, and wearing all his medals, he added his pleading in addition to Hitler’s.

The Bavarian leaders appeared to yield to Hitler and Ludendorff; and that night the Nazis went into action. Wild disorder reigned in Munich. Republican newspapers and trade union offices were smashed, Jewish homes were raided, and an attempt was made to seize the railway station and the post office. However, units of policemen and soldiers were forming to resist the Nazis. Hitler realized that the Bavarian government officials under Kahr had only pretended to go along with the revolution in order to escape from the armed troopers in the beer hall.

At dawn, Hitler grouped his followers together for a parade to show their strength and to intimidate opposition. With swastika flags flying, the Nazis marched to the main square of Munich. There they met troops of Bavarian government soldiers and policemen massed in force. A volley of shots rang out, and 18 Nazis fell dead. Many other Nazis were wounded, and the remainder scattered. Hitler broke his shoulder diving for the pavement. Only General Ludendorff remained standing where he was. The half-demented old soldier, who had exercised almost dictatorial power over Germany during the last years of the war, marched straight for the Bavarian government troops. They stepped aside and let him pass.

Adolf Hitler was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. After serving less than a year of his sentence, he was released. He had used the time in prison to write Mein Kampf.

6. Lessons from the First World War

We are now approaching the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. It is important for society to look back at this catastrophic event, which still casts a dark shadow over the future of human civilization. We must learn the bitter lessons which it has to teach us, in order to avoid a repetition of the disaster.

As we have seen, World War I had its roots in the fanatical and quasi-religious nationalist movements that developed in Europe during the 19th century. Nationalism is still a potent force in today’s world, but in an era of all-destroying weapons, instantaneous worldwide communication, and global economic interdependence, fanatical nationalism has become a dangerous anachronism. Of course, we should continue to be loyal to our families, our local groups and our nations. But this must be supplemented by a wider loyalty to the human race as a whole.

Hearing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, with Schiller’s words, most of us experience a feeling that resembles patriotism, but is broader: “All men are brothers!” Not just some, but all. The choral movement of the symphony is like a national anthem of humanity. All humans are brothers and sisters! All! All nations and races have contributed to the great monument of human civilization. It is a treasure that we all hold in common. We must join hands and work together for our common future. Human unity has become more and more essential, because of the serious problems that we are facing, for example climate change, vanishing resources, and threats to food security. The problems are soluble, but only within a framework of peace and cooperation.

Secondly, we can remember that the First World War started as a small operation by the Austrian government to punish the Serbian nationalists; but it escalated uncontrollably into a global disaster. Today, there are many parallel situations, where uncontrollable escalation might produce a world-destroying conflagration.

Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has frequently stated that, with or without US backing, Israel intends to bomb Iran, an act that would be not only criminal but also insane. Why criminal? Because it would violate both the UN Charter and the Nuremberg Principles. Why insane? Because the Middle East is already a deeply troubled region, and a military attack on Iran could escalate uncontrollably into a general war in the Middle East. Perhaps it could even escalate into World War III. Netanyahu has told the people of Israel that the attack would involve only about 500 Israeli deaths and that it would be over in a month. One is reminded of Kaiser Wilhelm’s words to his departing troops: “You will be home before the leaves are off the trees!”

In general, aggressive interventions, in Syria, Ukraine, the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere, all present dangers for uncontrollable escalation into large and disastrous conflicts, which might potentially threaten the survival of human civilization.

Another lesson from the history of World War I comes from the fact that none of the people who started it had the slightest idea of what it would be like. Science and technology had changed the character of war. The politicians and military figures of the time ought to have known this, but they didn’t. They ought to have known it from the million casualties produced by the use of the breach-loading rifle in the American Civil War. They ought to have known it from the deadly effectiveness of the Maxim machine gun against the native populations of Africa, but the effects of the machine gun in a European war caught them by surprise.

Each year the world spends roughly 1,700,000,000,000 US dollars on armaments, almost 2 trillion.


Today, science and technology have again changed the character of war beyond all recognition. In the words of the Nobel Laureate biochemist, Albert Szent Györgyi, “The story of man consists of two parts, divided by the appearance of modern science.... In the first period, man lived in the world in which his species was born and to which his senses were adapted. In the second, man stepped into a new, cosmic world to which he was a complete stranger....The forces at man’s disposal were no longer terrestrial forces, of human dimension, but were cosmic forces, the forces which shaped the universe. The few hundred Fahrenheit degrees of our flimsy terrestrial fires were exchanged for the ten million degrees of the atomic reactions which heat the sun....Man lives in a new cosmic world for which he was not made. His survival depends on how well and how fast he can adapt himself to it, rebuilding all his ideas, all his social and political institutions.”

Few politicians or military figures today have any imaginative understanding of what a war with thermonuclear weapons would be like. Recent studies have shown that in a nuclear war, the smoke from firestorms in burning cities would rise to the stratosphere where it would remain for a decade, spreading throughout the world, blocking sunlight, blocking the hydrological cycle and destroying the ozone layer. The effect on global agriculture would be devastating, and the billion people who are chronically undernourished today would be at risk. Furthermore, the tragedies of Chernobyl and Fukushima remind us that a nuclear war would make large areas of the world permanently uninhabitable because of radioactive contamination. A full-scale thermonuclear war would destroy human civilization and much of the biosphere.

Finally, we must remember the role of the arms race in the origin of World War I, and ask what parallels we can find in today’s world. England was the first nation to complete the first stages of the Industrial Revolution. Industrialism and colonialism are linked, and consequently England obtained an extensive colonial empire. In Germany, the Industrial Revolution occurred somewhat later. However, by the late 19th century, Germany had surpassed England in steel production, and, particularly at the huge Krupp plants in Essen, Germany was turning to weapons production. The Germans felt frustrated because by that time there were fewer opportunities for the acquisition of colonies.

The problem of building a stable, just, and war-free world is difficult, but it is not impossible.

According to the historian David Stevenson (1954-), writing on the causes of World War I, “A self-reinforcing cycle of heightened military preparedness... was an essential element in the conjuncture that led to disaster... The armaments race... was a necessary precondition for the outbreak of hostilities.”

Today, the seemingly endless conflicts that threaten to destroy our beautiful world are driven by what has been called “The Devil’s Dynamo”. In many of the larger nations of the world a military-industrial complex seems to have enormous power. Each year the world spends roughly 1,700,000,000,000 US dollars on armaments, almost 2 trillion. This vast river of money, almost too large to be imagined, pours into the pockets of weapons manufacturers, and is used by them to control governments. This is the reason for the seemingly endless cycle of threats to peace with which the ordinary people of the world are confronted. Threats are needed to justify the diversion of such enormous quantities of money from urgently needed social projects into the bottomless pit of war.

7. What is to be Done?

In the long run, the survival of human civilization can only be ensured by abolition of the institution of war.

No single person can achieve the changes that we need, but together we can do it. The problem of building a stable, just, and war-free world is difficult, but it is not impossible. The large regions of our present-day world within which war has been eliminated can serve as models. There are a number of large countries with heterogeneous populations within which it has been possible to achieve internal peace and social cohesion, and if this is possible within such extremely large regions, it must also be possible globally.

In the long run, the survival of human civilization can only be ensured by abolition of the institution of war.


About the Author(s)

John Scales Avery

University of Copenhagen, Denmark;
Fellow, World Academy of Art and Science