Today we celebrate Armistice Day (aka Veterans Day aka Remembrance Day) because 95 years ago today, the armistice was signed between Germany and the allied powers (at 11:11 CET), marking the end of The War to End All Wars.
I knew a lot about World War II since both my parents were active duty, and the history of America’s “Greatest Generation” was prominent when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s. But I had only fragmentary knowledge of WW I, other than a vague understanding of the combatants and how they were similar to (and different from) those 25 years later.
That has changed since I read July 1914: Countdown to War, a marvelous new history detailing the month that led up to World War I. Its author, Prof. Sean McMeekin, trained at Stanford and Berkeley and is now a professor in Turkey. He’s drawn upon the archives of the various combatants, with citations pointing to specific memoirs, cables and other internal documents.
Americans (of my and my parents’ generation) were trained to think of Germany as evil, whether under the Führer or the Kaiser. McMeekin paints a much more nuanced picture. In short form
- Austria sought to punish Serbia because its irregulars assassinated the emperor’s brother, but was incompetent to conduct either diplomacy or a short punitive war;
- Russia was ready and waiting for an excuse to destroy Austria and seized upon Austria’s threats against Serbia to do so;
- Germany felt it had to back Austria, without realizing how reckless its allies were and how perfidious its enemies were;
- France and Russia conspired to draw Germany into war — and lied about their intentions — even though Russia was the first of the European Great Powers to mobilize for war;
- All three powers sought to manipulate Britain to their side, but France was a better liar than Germany, and Britain was too incompetent to know what was really going on until too late.
It was also interesting to note that this was probably the last time in history where inherited monarchies played a significant role in the nature or timing of major decisions by European governments. The monarchs of Austria, Hungary, Belgium, Germany and Russia all figure prominently in their respective government decisions.
It’s impossible to determine whether war was inevitable, or whether a war under other circumstances would have ended differently. But by assassinating the Austrian leader, Serbia was rewarded by dismembering of the Austro-Hungarian empire and taking away Slovenia and Croatia from the Austrian territory. And Britain was drawn into a war where it had no real national interest, and lost nearly a million men for its mistake. Meanwhile, even before Lenin, Russian leaders sought influence and power through military might rather than economic growth and the well-being of its citizenry.
Overall, it appears that both Germany and Britain would have benefited — and found common ground — with more effective intelligence services that understood the intentions (and actions) of the other Great Powers. As with “weapons of mass destruction” decades later, faulty intelligence can lead to military disaster.