2018 marks 100 years since the end of the First World War. As fighting rages in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, and as international leaders brag about who has the biggest nuclear button, it looks like the world is set against marking the centenary with a period of global peace. Perhaps war and conflict are just part of human nature? Or is that a dangerous way to think about the world?

One hundred years after the end of WWI, Debating Europe is launching a series of online discussions dedicated to examining the legacy of the Great War. We’ll be looking at the origins and impact of the First World War, and what lessons can be drawn one hundred years later.

Let’s start by looking at what our readers think about the origins of WWI. We had a comment from Zogu, who gives the classic argument that the First World War was sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Is he right? Or was that merely an excuse for a conflict that was largely inevitable, given the rise of Germany and Europe’s confusing web of diplomatic alliances?

Could WWI have been avoided if the Archduke had not been assassinated? And if the First World War had been avoided, might the peace have held over the long-term? Without Versailles, could Hitler and the Second World War have been avoided? Would the Russian Revolution never have happened? And the Cold War with it? Or are we being silly? If war hadn’t broken out in the summer of 1914, would the Great Powers have been at each others’ throats within a couple of years anyway?

Obviously, it’s all wild speculation. But we can at least, more modestly, ask what might have happened if Archduke Franz Ferdinand had lived. To that end, we spoke to Professor Margaret MacMillan, celebrated historian and author of the books Peacemakers: the Paris Conference of 1919 and The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War. What would she say?

Well, that’s a very good question. I don’t like to think that things are inevitable. I mean, you could have said during the Cold War that it was inevitable the Soviet Union and the United States would fight each other, yet they didn’t.

I think it is quite possible that the First World War needn’t have happened, and sometimes great catastrophes happen because of accidents. I think the decision by the Archduke to go to Sarajevo was one of those fateful decisions. His decision to stay in Sarajevo after the first assassination attempt and then go to the hospital to see the man who had been wounded in the first assassination attempt, his chauffeur taking the wrong turning and his car getting stalled, those were accidents.

I think if the Archduke had not been killed, things might have turned out very differently. Ironically, he was one of the key voices in Austria who had always opposed war on Serbia up until this point. So, with his death, that restraining voice was removed and the Austrian hawks had the excuse which they’d been looking for to try and destroy Serbia.

So, yes, I think it’s an interesting question. I don’t think the First World War was inevitable. I think it is always possible to avoid war, and we should always think in that way. If we think things are inevitable, then we just throw our hands up and don’t do anything. So, yes, I think accident played a very large part in the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

For another perspective, we put the same question to Professor Norman Davies, an equally renowned historian and author of the magisterial Europe: A History. How would he respond?

Careful historians don’t like the word ‘inevitable’. If the Archduke had not been assassinated as he was, history would have been different. Nonetheless, a major conflict between the Great Powers was quite likely by 1914 because of the military buildup, and also because of the diplomatic structures of the time, pitting the Central Powers against France and Russia, and then Great Britain. So, if it wasn’t one spark, it may well have been another. But history is about what happened, not about what didn’t happen.

What should we think of the First World War? We had a comment from Aubrey, who thinks the First World War was a tragic mistake and that we should learn from history to ensure nothing like it ever happens again. Is that the right way to characterise it?

One hundred years after its end, how should we regard World War I? Was it a necessary war fought bravely? Or was it an avoidable catastrophe caused by incompetent leaders? Should we subscribe to the “Blackadder” reading of WWI as a shameful page in the history of all sides?

What would Professor Norman Davies say?

The First World War was certainly a catastrophe. It killed tens of millions of young people, and a lot of civilians. But that, of course, was not foreseen at the beginning. Was it necessary? You have to ask: Was it necessary for whom? I tend to think it was necessary for Germany, which was threatened on the one hand by Russia, the largest of the combatant powers, which was in an alliance with France. I tend to think it wasn’t necessary for Britain, which joined the war voluntarily. Britain, then the greatest imperial power in the world, had imperial interests it wanted to defend, but I think that looking back it was a huge miscalculation. Whatever the aims were at the beginning of the war, they were soon lost in the gigantic struggle which went on for four years…

Was the First World War inevitable? Could the World Wars have been avoided? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: Public Domain – H. D. Girdwood

58 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Andrew Potts

    All the elements of the WW! are present today Press propaganda, establishment out of touch with the people, Empires loosing their grip, industry changing work conditions, new methods of warfare, Expansionist ideology, new ideas of socialism. Global business, the chances are it will happen again but different. It might have already started.

    23/05/2018 Dan Carlin, host of the Hardcore History podcast, has responded to this comment.

    23/05/2018 Dan Snow, presenter of numerous award-winning history programmes for the BBC, has responded to this comment.

    23/05/2018 Norman Davies, historian specialising in the history of Europe, has responded to this comment.

    23/05/2018 Margaret MacMillan, historian, has responded to this comment.

  2. avatar
    Pankaj Kathait

    The biggest mistake which Japan did was to attack Pearl harbour which infact saved Europe.

    • avatar
      Antoine Che

      🤔 “Saved Europe” ?
      You mean that it could be half destroyed by bombings and occupied until today?

    • avatar
      Pankaj Kathait

      Saved from becoming a German colony.

    • avatar
      Micheál de Staic

      Not really because the Soviet Union would eventually wear down the Nazi

    • avatar
      Jovan Ivosevic

      Not really. The furthest the Wehrmacht got into Russia was on december 5, 1941, on the outskirts of Moscow. That was two days before Pearl Harbor. Following the winter counteroffensive of 1942 Barbarossa stalled and by the end of that year the 6th army had gotten itself surrounded near Stalingrad at which point the victor of the war had already been decided. Pearl Harbor is why the Red Army only reached the Elbe and not the Atlantic Ocean.

    • avatar
      Pankaj Kathait

      And on Dec 8 the US declared war on Japan Dec 7 was the Pearl Harbour hence Europe was saved.

    • avatar
      Jovan Ivosevic

      Lol I guess if you mean saved Europe from communism, your Europe doesn’t include central and eastern Europe.

    • avatar
      Pankaj Kathait

      Yes walter it was a surprise attack I agree with you. Trash.

    • avatar
      Felix Leisinger

      WW1, not 2….

  3. avatar
    Nick Komselis

    All the leaders of that time have equal responsibility for the massacre. It takes two to tango.

    • avatar
      Ivan Burrows

      But it only took one to invade Poland.

    • avatar
      Nick Komselis

      It was 2 actually who invaded poland simultaneously. Read history!

    • avatar
      Ivan Burrows

      Nick Komselis lol, thanks for proving yourself wrong.

    • avatar
      Nick Komselis

      I am not wrong. Hitler shared Poland with the ussr.

  4. avatar
    Ivan Burrows

    As long as there are lunatics with a flag and a plan to unite Europe there will be wars & the current crazed ideology in Brussels will inevitably lead to another one. This time we may not come and save you from yourselves.

    • avatar

      The 2nd WW was started by people that DIVIDED people according to race, religion, sexual orientation, etc thinking that one is better and entitled to more than others. Oh, hang on, that has been the gist of your posts here as well…

    • avatar

      Oh, hang on, there’s a flag in your profile picture as well…

    • avatar
      Tarquin Farquhar

      I agree with you Ivan.

      In fact, I believe, that history is NOT repeating itself re WW2, it is rhyming with itself.

      In WW2 we had the Nazis and their physically violent methods to European domination. In 2018 we have the EU with their subtle mind-f~#@ aggression.

      The same agenda for both disturbing events, although this time the approach is far stealthier and less [so far at least] physically violent.

  5. avatar
    Paolo Gazzola

    Nationalism and war are like fundamentalism and war: brother and sister.
    Wait, Nationalism is fundamentalism.

  6. avatar
    Pan Sol

    the first 2 no, but WW3 can be avoided if west stop provocate Russia

    • avatar
      Ivan Burrows

      You are incorrect, the first was an attempt by Germany to unite ‘Europe’ under one flag and one anthem, the second was for the exact same reason but done using a fake ‘European’ version of democracy. Sound familiar ?

    • avatar
      Jakub Rozdżestwieński

      > Germans trying to unite europe in WWI
      > Democracy in WWII Germany


    • avatar
      Ivan Burrows

      Jakub Rozdżestwieński .

      1. 1914 – Germany wanted to be a world power and given the size of the British empire at the time its only options was to conquer & unite Europe under the German banner..

      2. 1932 The National Socialists were ‘elected’ into power by the German people, only after Mr Hitler was appointed chancellor did they take total control of Germany and then start their empire building to unite Europe under one banner..

  7. avatar
    Liri Kodhelaj

    None could of these wars could have been stopped. Wars will be humanity`s companion as long as there is exploitation of man by man that brings injustice and inequality.

  8. avatar
    カメニャク マリオ

    The first one… hardly. It can trace its cause and effect ever since 1848. The second one could have been avoided by making a more sane Versailles treaty. But the question is if that would have just delayed WW2?

  9. avatar
    Jude De Froissard

    No….nationalism and imperialism of the time were a few of the main causes of the first w.w. Revenge and injustices were also the few causes of W,W. 2. But these are very simple analysis. …many more causes were in the making of both W.W.
    And to complete …..we are still paying for the mistakes made after W.W.1. especially in the middle east and some parts of east europe and africa.

    29/01/2018 David Stevenson, Professor of International History at the London School of Economics (LSE), has responded to this comment.

    29/01/2018 Volker Berghahn, Professor of History at Columbia University in the United States, has responded to this comment.

  10. avatar
    Nelson Peter

    The second one was the… “revenge of the Sith”. So, if ww1 was avoided, maybe the conditions for ww2 could not exist too. If the three cousins (kaizer, king, kzar) just took a place around a table and talked as a… family, milions and milions of lives could be saved….

  11. avatar
    Dobromir Panchev

    Ordinary people just don’t care about what’s going on until the war is tomorrow and there is no way back.

  12. avatar

    No….nationalism and imperialism of the time were a few of the main causes of the first w.w. Revenge and injustices were also the few causes of W,W. 2. But these are very simple analysis. …many more causes were in the making of both W.W.
    And to complete …..we are still paying for the mistakes made after W.W.1. especially in the middle east and some parts of east europe and africa.

  13. avatar
    George Guydosh

    We can not judge those times with current ideologies. Back then nationalism and unilateralism (aka “sovereignty”) was the main ideology.

    • avatar
      Ivan Burrows

      sovereignty still is the main ideology which is why Brussels wants it.

    • avatar
      George Guydosh

      Never mind that “Brussel” is the actual member countries who are voluntarily becoming members

  14. avatar
    Jovan Ivosevic

    It was not avoidable. In 1871, both the UK and France individually produced more tons of steel than Germany. By 1910, Germany was producing more steel than the UK and France combined. It’s why those two buried a thousand year rivalry to band together – necessity.

    There was no way that Germany was going to leave the world as it was, with two weaker imperial powers holding more African and Asian possessions than the Germans which were a source of raw materials and prestige. It was bound to happen and it’s why Germany gave Austria-Hungary a green light in 1914 when it issued the ultimatum to Serbia. Germany wanted that war because they thought they could win it and needed that war because they could take French colonies in the world.

  15. avatar
    catherine benning

    Could the World Wars have been avoided?

    I am assuming this is referring to WWI &II?

    Quite definitely WWI was unnecessary. The assassination of the Kaiser and excuse to let loose on their dreams of triumph. No nation in its right mind would go to war over the bumping off of a hyped up Royal.

    On the other hand, WWII was an impossible situation as Hitler was determined to invade all of Europe and remove their sovereignty nation by nation. Add to that the massacre of 12 million people in various concentration camps, along with his intended genocide of the Jewish people as scapegoats. There was no alternative.

    Although the Coudenhove-Kalergi plan, put in place by the founders of the EU, is planning genocide for the entire indigenous European population of today and no one says too much about it. Add to that, the backers of this plan give those making such genocide possible, an annual prize for doing so. In other words, encouragement to stay on a path designed to eliminate Europeans.


    And and WWII


    • avatar
      Jovan Ivosevic

      Lol yeah the Germans would have been content to let the British dominate the world while being weaker than Germany. By the way didn’t you get a country of your own thanks to World War 1? Does that mean poles would have been happy to be Russian Austrian and German?

  16. avatar
    Joe Grixti

    Thats why we have to work for United States of Europe. Including the USSR…

  17. avatar
    EU Reform- Proactive

    Why wars? Avoidable or inevitable? The future can be decided- history only lamented!

    Shouldn’t such vital decision be left to voters on truly (direct) democratic principles (50%+1 to 75%) or still left and decided by a few distant elites (supranational representatives / “Commissions” etc)?

    There are build in dangers in “collective” military (supra) alliances (except beneficial economic ones), like Bushes’ partnerships of the willing, treaties, a legal political Union, pacts etc. Unconditionally desirable?

    Aren’t our modern political Empire builders- by “apparently” trying to avoid future wars- inviting different & new conflicts- yet unforeseen?


  18. avatar
    Christophe Walter

    Poland was defeated in a week, Britain had no right to declare war against a nation that not only didn’t attack them but had no intention of attacking them. Right through the 30’s Hitler attempted to form an alliance with Britain to counter the growing menace of Bolshevism/Communism. Look what happened after the war, Britain was broke and the Communists took over vast swathes of Europe. WWII therefore was the biggest mistake the Democracies made.

    • avatar
      Paul X

      Actually Britain and France had agreements to defend Poland and if they had actually stuck to the agreement the war would have been over there and then

  19. avatar
    Petr Frish

    Computer models simulate evolution of population composed of ‘doves’ which never fight and ‘hawks’ who always fight for food.
    Fight imposes a cost on animal, and food is a rewards fight in some cases. Studies show that population consisting only of ‘doves’ or only of ‘hawks’ is unstable. In the long run, over the many generations an equilibrium (called ESS. ‘Evolutionary Stable Strategy’ is reached, which contains both doves and hawks. The situation of humans is complicated by the fact that technology changed so fast, that we still react to danger with the gut feeling of Neanderthals.
    To avoid the war, we need to use current technology and learn how to communicate within the whole ‘known world’. A current example is an ‘debate’ of the president Trump vs.North Korea dictator Kim un. It as analyzed here https://redd.it/7a9sly in more detail.

  20. avatar

    A difficult debate for the Kremlin trolls. How are they going to make the EU look like a threat when the purpose of its creation was to avoid any more of them? They’s twisting and spinning and they don’t know what to do.

    • avatar
      Paul X

      The European Coal and Steel Community (1952) was the only thing created with a stated ambition of helping to maintain peace
      The treaty has long since been merged with others and its aims have been completely eclipsed by the economic ambitions of the EEC (1957) and the political and monetary (& federal) ambitions of the EU (1997)

    • avatar

      And the debate is not even about the EU!

  21. avatar

    War, what is it good for?.absolutely nothing!!.

  22. avatar
    catherine benning

    Could the World Wars have been avoided?

    Do you know which country had the most fallen? Or, the highest death rate in both these WW’s?

    Here is the answer,


    Trolls who are ignorant of history make fools of themselves with their fake news.

  23. avatar

    Facts, the US elites helped fund Hitler. in the hope he would destroy USSR,
    and then the Western Liberals would role in and take out Germany.
    Rocekfeller family (oil), Ford Family (check his work on Jews and got award from Hitler), Bush Family (Prescott Bush), all gave tons of aid.

    Truman (US president) stated they will fund both to weak them.

    Later the US gave some lend lease or help to USSR.
    Without US influence its possible the disaster of Nazi Germany and USSR
    would be smaller.

    Now All of Europe is too close with USA. Because of Marshal Plan and Atlantic groups like Bilderberg.

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