Why There Was World War
SARAJEVO, Serbia, Franz Ferdinand, Pan-Slavism, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Gavrillo Prinzip, Montenegro—strange names, strange places to many today, but over a half century ago they had acquired a fatal familiarity for people everywhere, as the nations were swept into the world’s worst war up to that time.
Had you been living in the springtime of 1914, you would hardly have suspected that the world you knew so well would soon be blasted and disfigured. True, the world was still keeping a watchful eye on the “cockpit of Europe”—the Balkans—where local wars had recently ended. But to all intents the world was at peace and would remain at peace in the foreseeable future.
What, then, were the events and circumstances, the attitudes and policies that ignited this conflagration—a holocaust that scorched and charred most of the nations of the world?
The immediate cause was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. But how could one assassination have such far-reaching consequences? Well, the victim was heir presumptive to the thrones of Austria and Hungary. His assassin, Gavrillo Prinzip, a young Serbian student, shot him to death as he rode through Sarajevo. The motive? Even at this late date the question is largely undetermined. But from this incident stemmed a train of events that had the whole world embroiled in war within a few short weeks.
The Austro-Hungarian government made demands upon the government of Serbia. The Great Powers—Russia, France, Germany, Great Britain—found themselves unable or unwilling to act for prevention of a general European war. Instead, all the latent forces that had been gathering for decades and even centuries seemed to have found an outlet. The result—WAR! What, then, were those forces that produced the horrors of war? Let us examine the four most important and influential—entangling alliances, nationalism, imperialism, militarism—and assess the part each played.
Dangerously, a series of alliances had lined up the nations into two rival power groups. France had suffered defeat in the Franco-Prussian war that ended in 1871. Germany initiated some of these alliances so as to isolate France and prevent her from taking revenge. First came a dual alliance with Austria-Hungary, followed by a triple alliance to include Italy. These, coupled with an agreement with Russia, seemed to leave France alone, helpless. Though largely secret as to terms, it was well known that these treaties provided for mutual assistance in event of war.
The accession of new leaders in Germany also swiftly changed the picture. William II was now emperor and Bismarck was dropped as chancellor. The new emperor failed to keep up friendship with Russia and alarmed Great Britain by his “saber rattling.” His program of naval expansion and demand for “a place in the sun” forced England to reassess her long-standing rivalry with France. Developments in the Far East, notably the Russo-Japanese war, had meantime softened British ill-feeling toward Russia. Thus the second power group took form—Russia, France, Great Britain.
So, in 1914, the powers of Europe were balanced off, three against three. Many felt that such a balance of power was the strongest assurance of peace. The events were to prove them wrong.
Were we to examine a map of the world as it was in the spring of 1914 and compare it with a modern map, we would see that it has undergone drastic changes as far as political boundaries are concerned. In what way, then, we might ask, did the location of boundaries in 1914 contribute to the start of the war?
First, it would be noted that the then existing empire of Austria-Hungary included many subject nationalities who resented their lack of national sovereignty. This was specially so in the Balkans, where Serbia wanted all Slavic peoples in the area under her jurisdiction. But Austria-Hungary had just recently annexed the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, despite their having a Slavic population. Russia’s dream of a Pan-Slavic union of some sort was also given a setback. So Russia felt obligated to back the Serbians.
In western Europe, meanwhile, there was another bone of contention. At the end of the Franco-Prussian war the victorious Germans had seized two provinces, formerly held by France—Alsace and Lorraine. French resentment smoldered over the loss of these strategic and commercially valuable territories. Then, too, Poland had lost to Germany (Prussia) sections of her Slav-populated territory, thus creating a sore spot with Russia. And Russia’s aim to expand toward warm-water ports on the Aegean Sea as well as on the Adriatic were blocked.
If we add to the above the national aspirations of such other states as Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, we can see that nationalism, as a disturbing factor, loomed large in the early 1900’s. Each ethnic group felt justified in seeking to achieve the liberation and the unity of all their kinsmen.
Not to be overlooked in the developments leading up to 1914’s debacle is the creation of the new national states of Germany and Italy during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Previously they had been loosely knit associations of petty states. Now, united and therefore stronger, they were disturbing to the older, better established states of France and Great Britain. The older powers had already seized large areas of the world as colonies from which to obtain the raw materials for burgeoning industries. Their early start had left only scraps for the newcomer states.
A look again at the world map of 1914 will show that such countries as Italy and Germany did hold overseas territories. Still, the best and the largest were in the hands of the British and French. By 1900, in Africa alone, these two powers controlled over five and a half million square miles of territory, having a population of over sixty-seven million. Germany and Italy, on the other hand, could claim only one and a half million square miles with about twelve million people.
Such great disparity led the Germans to demand a “place in the sun” in order that they might reap the supposed benefits of a large overseas empire—raw materials, monopolistic markets, controlled investment areas and added manpower. Lacking these advantages, the ‘have-not’ nations felt they were seriously handicapped in the competition of an increasingly industrialized world.
The ambitions of imperialism were not confined to the colonial field. They included, too, the desire to build up spheres of influence in regions adjacent to the homeland. For example, Russia’s desire to dominate in the Balkans was matched by Austria’s ambitions in the same area. Germany promoted the Berlin-Baghdad railway, with a view to tapping the wealth of the Middle East, and thereby threatened the British position there. Russia, too, was pressuring Turkey for a share in control of the Dardanelles, so that she might have an outlet for her shipping.
Italy had aims, not only in Africa, but also on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea, which she hoped one day to convert into an ‘Italian lake.’ This placed Italy in competition with Russia, Serbia, Montenegro and Austria. France, in her efforts to improve her position in North Africa, offended Germany and Italy, both of whom entertained hopes with respect to Libya, Algeria and Morocco. Imperialism thus produced a maze of conflicting aspirations and created an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust.
Another powerful contributing factor leading inexorably to war was the development of military machines in all countries of Europe. After the Franco-Prussian war all the European nations adopted the German plan for universal military conscription. Thus by 1914 there were approximately three and a half million men in the standing armies and millions more in the trained reserves.
Each nation, of course, claimed that its preparations were merely for defensive purposes. Statesmen, too, were less willing to negotiate in good faith as long as they felt they had some military might back of them. But perhaps the most dangerous effect was the frame of mind this building up of armaments developed. In his book, The Roots and Causes of the Wars, J. S. Ewart declared: “Militarism is an attitude of approval of war as an elevating, ennobling occupation.” In each country the aim was carefully to prepare the population, physically and mentally, for the eventuality of war.
Thus, when Serbia angered Austria, Austria determined to punish Serbia, but then Russia backed Serbia, thus seemingly threatening Austria. Austria sought German support, while Russia, in turn, invoked French aid, and finally Great Britain came to the support of France. The wheels were turning and the world slipped mindlessly into war, without regard to the awful consequences.
And what were the consequences? The total cost of the war has been set at $337,980,579,657. The total dead reached the staggering figure of 13,000,000, with an additional 28,000,000 casualties. But did this vast expenditure of blood and treasure bring about any good and permanent results? Was there any basis for the boast of one author in 1918 who wrote: “Even the most practical money changer . . . must agree that the blood was well shed, the treasure well spent. . . . Millions of gallant, eager youths learned how to die fearlessly and gloriously. They died to teach vandal nations that nevermore will humanity permit the exploitation of peoples for militaristic purposes . . . [this resulted in] the spread of enlightened liberty and the destruction of autocracy.”
How far wrong that 1918 assessment was has been demonstrated by world events since. The war had not made the world safe for democracy. The war to end war had not been fought. Instead, it led only to an intensification and a multiplication of problems. The 1920’s saw the collapse of most of the economies of the world, followed by depressions and the rise of dictatorships in the 1930’s. Then came World War II, which in reality was only an extension of the first world war. And this war was just as barren of results as its predecessor. This war, too, ended on a hopeful note, but disillusionment soon came.
The decades since have seen only a continuation of wars, depressions, international tensions and anarchy on an ever-increasing scale. Despite all efforts to create a stable world society through international agencies like the League of Nations after World War I or the United Nations after World War II, world conditions go on deteriorating.
In his book In Flanders Fields, Leon Wolff had this to say about World War I and its results: “It had meant nothing, solved nothing, and proved nothing. . . . The moral and mental defects of the leaders of the human race had been demonstrated with some exactitude.” The same could be said about World War II. Even the churches have failed to arrest the downward course of events. P. W. Hausman, writing in The Encyclopedia Americana (1941 edition), said: “The world could not avoid war as long as it remained on the level of warfare. Ours was not a Christian world. And while the national pulpits preached Christianity [of their own brand], nations eyed each other, ready for blood.” Is the future any brighter?
During all those painful decades multitudes have wondered about the ultimate outcome. As far back as the closing years of the nineteenth century some wondered if there might not be some connection between world troubles and Bible prophecy. Said the editors of a 1914 publication: “The old theory that the earth is finally destroyed by one vast conflagration is brought vividly to mind when we behold the flames of war bursting out at once over nearly the whole of Europe, as if civilization and all peaceful progress were doomed.” But that war did not prove to be the Armageddon of Bible prophecy.
However, it is true that sincere Bible students did find evidence in the Bible’s own pages that the year 1914 was a marked year in human history. Unlike most other peoples today, these Bible students have also found the reason why human efforts go on failing to resolve the problems of peace and war among men. More important, they have found that the Bible holds forth promise that these conditions of woe and trouble on earth will shortly be terminated and replaced by a world system of things in which all the fondest hopes of peace-loving men and women will be realized.
But how will that come about? Not as a result of wars such as World Wars I and II, but by the power of Almighty God. (Rev. 21:1-4) A world without pain, sorrow or even death! No more wars such as have plagued mankind for some 4,000 years—only everlasting peace! Would you not want to live in such a world? If you would, direct your attention to the Bible, for it is the only true source of information that will enable you to attain that happy goal.