Nothing is inevitable. Nothing is immutable. The First World War was a cataclysm that blew apart the world order, wrecked the first great age of globalisation, destroyed or mortally wounded nearly all of the giant empires that governed most of the earth’s population.
It left unstable, illegitimate or even criminal regimes which provoked further wars and instability. 100 years later violence in the Middle East and the Ukraine, and deep divisions across the Balkans, have important roots in what happened during and just after the conflict.
There is a tendency to assume that an event this influential, this earth shatteringly destructive, must have been the product of deep structural forces which forced politicians and society into a war and which mere individual decision makers were powerless to resist. Huge events, so the thinking goes, cannot just be the product of bad luck, a miscommunication, lost order, or individual judgement.
Bad luck can lead to cataclysm
Sadly, history shows us they can. The Cuban Missile Crisis is a good example of when choices mattered. The world was spared a catastrophic nuclear war because Kruschev backed down, and the Kennedy brothers were clever enough to ignore some of the advice coming their way and conceded on deployment of some of their ballistic missiles.
In 1983 Stanislav Petrov disobeyed strict protocols when he was on duty in the Soviet early warning command centre when the equipment told him the USA had just launched a nuclear strike and he rightly assumed it was a malfunction, so did not pass that information up the chain of command. He is known as ‘the man who saved humanity.’
Had the USA and the Soviet Union gone to war in the second half of the 20th century future historians, if there were any, would have wisely pointed out that war between these two super powers, with multiple points of friction, armed as never before with giant arsenals with dodgy command and control mechanisms, and deeply antagonistic world views was absolutely inevitable. Yet it did not happen.
A militaristic high society
There were lots of forces driving Europe to war in 1914. Traditional elites still saw themselves as a warrior caste. Child princes and grand dukes, strutted around in military uniforms, sons of the aristocracy read militaristic books like G. A. Henty before joining Guards Regiments from St Petersburg to London.
Emperors and Kings often appeared in military uniforms. War was regarded as a legitimate tool of statecraft. It was also regarded as natural and inevitable. Every state in Europe had been forged and sustained on the battlefield.
Military conquest had delivered vast empires to the European powers. By 1914 no corner of the globe was free from formal control or heavy influence from Europe or her former colonies like Argentina or the USA. Control over other peoples was normalised. It was even regarded as hugely positive.
Misreading Darwin had convinced many that the strong and powerful should swallow the weak and disorganised. It was the fastest way to spread the benefits of Christian civilisation. Periodic wars would clean out the dead wood and even revitalise societies.
Domestically, elites found themselves confronted with new challenges. Socialism, feminism, modern art and music all shook traditional structures. Many old politicians thought that war was a purgative that would scour away these degenerate influences and force the people to return to old certainties: God, Emperor, tradition.
The assassination and 1914 ‘July crisis’
None of this however made war inevitable. It was the decisions taken by the individuals in response to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo that ignited the war, triggering a chain of alliances, which like NATO’s Clause V, were actually designed to prevent it. Some decision makers had deeply personal reasons for going to war.
Austrian Chief of Staff Conrad von Hotzendorf dreamed that victory on the battlefield would allow him to win the hand of the married woman he had become utterly infatuated with. Tsar Nicholas of Russia was so worried about prestige that he thought he had to back Serbia, even if it meant war, because otherwise his own position would be under threat.
The German Kaiser, Wilhelm, was deeply insecure, he panicked just before German troops rolled into France and tried to stop the invasion and send them east towards the Russians instead. His generals told him this was impossible, and the Kaiser backed down, believing himself to be a victim of events rather than their master.
The First World War was not inevitable. Weirdly, it was the belief by too many of Europe’s decision makers that war was inevitable, that made it so.