The War to End All Wars
The memory of the Great European War, of millions of young men fighting and dying to win a few yards of shell-pocked mud, was enough to convince many that war was an ugly, irrational, pointless endeavor which civilized nations should have the good sense to avoid in perpetuity. They hoped that something good could emerge from the mass of suffering, that this worst of all wars would also be the last.
Modern minds, in the knowledge that this war would only be the First to earn the dubious honor of being a “world war”, have looked back on the inter-war idealism as hopelessly naive. I myself have ridiculed their dream, and still do feel safe predicting that wars will be with us for some time yet.
But in some sense, the dreamers and pacifists were right. World War One did not instantly bring perpetual peace. But it was the beginning of the end for European war.
In the ninety years since World War One, only a single inter-state war has erupted in Western or Central Europe, and the prospect of another seems quite unlikely. The length of the peace and the current absence of plausible threats to it marks a major departure from millenia of European history, a history often remembered as one war after another.
There remained only one detour on the road to peace. World War Two would wrest from the First World War the grim title of deadliest war of all time. New technology and extreme mobility meant that the Second World War would be fought very differently. But while the how of the war was very different, the why was largely the same. The unification of Germany fundamentally changed the geopolitical balance of Europe. The Germans thought that their newfound strength deserved recognition. The spirit of the age was one of imperialism and social Darwinism. German philosophers had spent a century glorifying the will to power and dismissing morality as born of slavery and meant for the weak.
Before each World War, the geopolitical situation of a rising Germany able to dominate its neighbors combined with a philosophical and ideological situation which made Germans willing to invade their neighbors. Just as with previous attempts by the Hapsburgs and the French to establish European hegemony, Germany’s naked desire to dominate the Continent inspired her neighbors, individually less powerful that her, to form coalitions able to defeat her. Geopolitics functioned as always. Fundamental change came not when the European map was redrawn for the thousandth time, but when the hearts and minds of Europeans were realigned.
Human beings are naturally aggressive, and tend to cluster into groups distrustful of outsiders. A disposition toward war is bred into our very beings. It is there in babies jealous for food, there in children fighting in streets and in playgrounds. This tendency from our nature requires a strong dose of “nurture” if it is to be overcome. Instead many children of the time learned from parents and teachers that war was honorable and glorious and that other countries were untrustworthy and must be taught respect. Nurture, rather than fighting the worst tendencies of nature, reinforced them.
World War One drove people to deeply question the beliefs that allowed such a war to take place. Germany had sent a generation to die on French soil and gained nothing. Germans questioned their beliefs, but in the end elected a man who give their beliefs one more try, saying in essence- we had the right idea, we just didn’t try hard enough. So they did try harder, they even succeeded in conquering France. But a second defeat, this time with Germany not only bled dry but also bombed out and occupied, finally convinced them. They didn’t need to fight harder, or come up with a better plan of invasion; they needed a total gestalt shift. They needed to look at their neighbors and see people like themselves, people who could be lived with.
You put you hand into a fire and it gets burned. You might wonder if your technique of fire-touching was incorrect. The more scientifically minded way wonder if fire caused pain or was only sometimes correlated with it. But if you get burned again, and worse than the first time, you learn your lesson, and stop touching the flame, lest it consume you. It took two World Wars, but Germany and Europe along with them learned their lesson. The next geopolitical imbalance, pitting the U.S. and Western Europe against the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, lasted forty years, but saw no no major war. The Americans and the Russians had learned along with Europe, and saw major wars in Europe as a very last resort. Gone were the days when a European nation would dare to, or even desire to invade their neighbor.