Guns of August time!
WWI destroyed not only lives, but also three empires in Europe – those of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia – and, with the collapse of Ottoman rule, a fourth on its fringe. Until the Great War, the global balance of power was centered in Europe; after it, the United States and Japan emerged as great powers. The war also ushered in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, prepared the way for fascism, and intensified and broadened the ideological battles that wracked the twentieth century.
The question we face today is whether it could happen again. Margaret MacMillan, author of the interesting new book The War that Ended Peace, argues that, “it is tempting – and sobering – to compare today’s relationship between China and the US with that between Germany and Britain a century ago.” After drawing a similar comparison, The Economist concludes that “the most troubling similarity between 1914 and now is complacency.” And some political scientists, such as John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, have argued that, “to put it bluntly: China cannot rise peacefully.”
Historical analogies, though sometimes useful for precautionary purposes, become dangerous when they convey a sense of historical inevitability. WWI was not inevitable. It was made more probable by Germany’s rising power and the fear that this created in Great Britain. But it was also made more probable by Germany’s fearful response to Russia’s rising power, as well as myriad other factors, including human errors. But the gap in overall power between the US and China today is greater than that between Germany and Britain in 1914.
Drawing contemporary lessons from 1914 requires dispelling the many myths have been created about WWI. For example, the claim that it was a deliberate preventive war by Germany is belied by the evidence showing that key elites did not believe this. Nor was WWI a purely accidental war, as others maintain: Austria went to war deliberately, to fend off the threat of rising Slavic nationalism. There were miscalculations over the war’s length and depth, but that is not the same as an accidental war.
Among the lessons to be learned from the events of 1914 is to be wary of analysts wielding historical analogies, particularly if they have a whiff of inevitability. War is never inevitable, though the belief that it is can become one of its causes.