World War One was, according to H.G. Wells, the “war that will end war”. Seventeen million people died in the First World War, and yet the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, is reputed to have replied cynically: “This war, like the next war, is a war to end war.”

Over a century later, war is still with us. From insurgencies and civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Ukraine, to drug wars in Mexico, to sabre-rattling over North Korea, we have yet to find the “war that will end war”. Each war seems to lead to the next, with resentments and bitterness brewing in the interim until they reach a boiling point.

So, are the conditions right today for another global conflict? Or is that too deterministic a view of history? Can we break the cycle of endless wars and genuinely achieve peace between (and within) states everywhere in the world?

One hundred years after the end of WWI, Debating Europe has launched 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.

What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Andrew, arguing that the elements that led to World War One are still present today. He mentions nationalist press propaganda, a shifting geopolitical power balance, new technologies transforming working conditions, new methods of warfare, etc. Is he right? Or is it overly-simplistic to draw parallels with the world over a century ago?

To get a response, we took Andrew’s comment to Dan Carlin, host of the immensely popular Hardcore History podcast. Carlin has previously released a series of episodes looking in-depth at the First World War (and he also hosts a podcast on contemporary American politics called Common Sense). Did he think Andrew was right to draw parallels between the situation today and the run-up to WWI?

I think so. Here’s the difference though: I do think that the advent of nuclear weapons is a variable that might change everything. It’s possible to suggest that there already might have been another World War, in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, had nuclear weapons not been the inhibiting factor.

The same thing could apply in the future, but if you look at the way that the power relations are shaping up when you have imbalances in the system – for example look at China today and how their place on the world stage is not yet commensurate with population, GDP, those kind of things – that’s a very similar situation to what Germany was in before the two world wars. You get these imbalances, which almost create fissures and fault lines that you can see, creating an earthquake potentially. As I said, nuclear weapons may be inhibiting that somewhat.

Also you see a typical balance of power relationship going on whenever you have one overwhelming super power; it’s natural – according to the balance of power principles – for the other great powers to start working together to counteract that power. I do think you see that with China and Russia.

So, I guess the short answer to the question is: yes, if there were no nuclear weapons, I would be shocked that it wasn’t closer to war now; with nuclear weapons we might have a permanent situation where everything stays beneath that all-out conflict level. Maybe that’s a good example why we have the asymmetrical war, the cyber war, the influencing of each other’s elections. Maybe that’s a level below outright war that can still be done without triggering all of the modern 21st century weapons, that makes an all-out war between nations kind of unthinkable today.

For another perspective, we also put Andrew’s comment to Dan Snow, presenter of numerous award-winning history programmes for the BBC, and host of the podcast Dan Snow’s History Hit. How would he respond?

I think he’s very right. It doesn’t mean we’re going to face the same set of circumstances, but I would add to [Andrew’s list] domestic challenges to political and cultural elites. So, if you look at Trump’s America, it’s an older, whiter, more male backlash against the perceived march of liberal, multi-ethnic, multi-confessional society. And if you look at Germany and Austria [in the run-up to World War One] in particular, you see traditional elites feeling under siege and believing that a war would allow them to unify this changing nation behind them. And I think that’s something that’s going on today.

But, yes, I agree that there was an adjusting geopolitical balance [in 1914], nationalism is a big one, the reaction to globalisation; the fear that a global liberal elite is betraying more conservative, nationalist identity. So, yes, I do see lots of those factors at play today.

We also spoke to Professor Norman Davies, a renowned historian specialising in the history of Europe, Poland, and Britain, and author of Europe: A History. Did he think there were parallels between now and the situation in 1914? And what lessons did he think could be drawn from the run-up to the First World War that might still apply today?

Well, there’s always a lesson to be learned from major wars. Namely that it’s very easy to enter them, and it’s very difficult to get out of them. There were several major attempts to end the First World War, but it went on until one side got a slight advantage and then exaggerated this into claims of victory. In war, people lose their sense of balance, reason, moderation, and ‘winning’ the war becomes all-consuming. That is, I think, a branch of human folly.

Finally, we put the question to Professor Margaret MacMillan, an equally esteemed 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. Did she see parallels between today’s politics and the period before (or immediately after) the First World War?

Yes, you can always find parallels. The important thing is to remember that history does not repeat itself exactly, because every historical time is different and, of course, because something has happened in the past it also affects the present. So, you can’t have a repeat of the past because the past has already happened and affected the present, but that doesn’t mean we can’t suggest parallels. In fact, I think they can help us to think about the present.

So, the situation after the First World War was a time of transition internationally, with rising powers and other powers that were declining. There were currents that swept through the world in the 1920s and 1930s – these were political currents perhaps more than religious ones; for example, you had the spread of Fascism and Bolshevism. So, you had an international society and international ideas.

I think we have more stability in our world than they had in the 1930s. We don’t have quite the same challenges that we had then; we have better international institutions for one. But, yes, there are things in the 1920s and 1930s – after the First World War and between the wars – that perhaps help us to think about the present. We have a rise of populist movements, a discontent of people in many countries with their leaders who seem to be failing them. There are parallels there.

Are the conditions right for another world war? Or have nuclear weapons changed the dynamic? Is it a mistake to draw parallels with the world over a century ago? 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 – Agence Rol
PORTRAIT CREDITS: Norman Davies / CC Cezary Piwowarski; Margaret MacMillan / CC Central European University; Dan Snow / CC IPUP York Image Galleries; Dan Carlin (used with permission)


29 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Ivan

    Yes, the atrocities of Marxism, Socialism and National Socialism have been ignored and people once again believing the empty promises of the Socialist death cults. The difference is this time Asia, China, Africa & the Middle East will be ready to fight over what will be left of Continental Europe & North America.

    Socialism is cancer, Capitalism is the cure.

    • avatar
      Uli

      its like drinking more alcohol to cure the hangover or no?

    • avatar
      Wendy

      Capitalism is failing also. It is no longer the remedy in this age of automation. It is time for a new “ism” entirely.

    • avatar
      Ivan

      Capitalism has lifted 1 billion people out of poverty in the last 20 years alone and as improved the lives of billions more, it only fails when a small number of people do not follow the rules and cheat the system, as the 2008 crash showed. .

      The strange thing about automation is there are billions more people on the planet and most of them are in work even though it was said automation it would increase unemployment. Capitalism is by no means perfect but compared with the alternative it is a god send. In my opinion self employment is the future, making multinationals even richer than they are now is a mugs game.

    • avatar
      Paschalis

      you are mixing up crony capitalism with capitalism

    • avatar
      John

      Paschalis – are you suggesting the two are somehow distinct? “Free market” capitalism inevitably dissolves into cronyism.

    • avatar
      Ivan

      Ivan Burrows you don’t know what socialism is, refrain from talking about it until you do.

    • avatar
      randomguy2018

      I disagree. Both Socialism and Capitalism have caused problems.
      Socialism fails and last century saw the problems.
      Capitalism is guilty also for greed, bombing and invading, usury, and ignoring the masses.

  2. avatar
    Wendy

    The conditions are right for revolution and civil war.

  3. avatar
    John

    Full-blown, armed conflict between great powers? Nah. As Carlin points out, nukes have taken that option off the table. Or, at least,as the Einstein quote goes “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

  4. avatar
    Eds

    I’m not sure about a WW but certainly for division amongst remaining EU members.

  5. avatar
    Bódis

    The globalist elite like to push for war propaganda, they employ warmongers and some even might like to start wars in order to obtain resources, markets and transport routes that they do not yet have in addition to increasing revenues from weapons sales.

    Do you want to have peace? Give the globalists and their puppets the finger!

  6. avatar
    Cila

    quando o povo começa a interessar-se por política … a guerra é útil para alguns!

  7. avatar
    Wendy

    The conditions are never right for another world war and they’ll never arise unless man’s destruction urges win the day.

  8. avatar
    peter mcloughlin

    I believe things are right (or wrong more correctly) for another world war.
    While no two periods of history are identical it is important to try and see patterns. The pattern of history shows power (manifested as interest) present in every conflict of the past – there is no exception. History also shows us that every nation/civilization eventually gets the war it is trying to avoid, only a matter of time; most crucially this applies to nuclear war. Decision-makers convince themselves they will not face that war of annihilation, that the course they take will not lead to that fate: all because the prize of power is too great.
    This is why the world is moving towards nuclear war. But this is only an assertion without the facts. They can be found in the essay, Patterns of History,
    http://www.ghostsofhistory.wordpress.com/

  9. avatar
    Paul X

    How can you even ask the question? … after all, according to the EU propaganda machine it is them that has maintained the peace since WW2…..so as long as the EU exists, we can all sleep safe in our beds at night

    • avatar
      Tarquin Farquhar

      @Paul X
      Great posting!

  10. avatar
    Ivan

    Fascism (or at least views similar to fascism) is getting support. Not sure if there will be war like wars in the 20th century but problem is still serious.

  11. avatar
    Liam

    In my opinion, we are definitely headed for another world war and I believe it will be the US to initiate. Only because you can now see it is losing its grip on global dominance. Their presence in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea has caused alot of instability. Their invasion of Iraq, Lybia. The regime changing. Nations are fearing of US invasion, like North Korea. Now you see more and more propaganda from the media. The childish rhetoric between nations against the US. You’re seeing the trying of ousting the dollar. Nations standing up to the US. Allies disagreeing with US decisions. In my opinion there is no chance for any kind of peace in today’s world. The increase in arms sales will tell you that. So to answer that question, yes, the conditions are right for a world war.

  12. avatar
    randomguy2018

    Europe (not EU) needs to find peace with all its members. And stop being involved in Imperial American games.
    Some countries like NATO too much, some countries want to leave,
    and others like Russia too much.
    Why not just have Europe for Europeans?

    Its likely US and Israel which will cause havoc and have done so in the Middle East through covert actions and bombing. Then blaming the regional governments. And making up stories about gassing, controlling the whole fake news mainstream media.

  13. avatar
    catherine benning

    Are the conditions right for another world war?

    What an odd question. Are conditions ever right for world war? If the EU feel there is right conditions for it, let us all know so that we can be very sure not to produce such a condition in our lifetime.

    Then we have to ask ourselves, were conditions right for the other world wars we had? And why is it only world war. What about the umpteen wars taking place right across the planet presently? Are they to be passed over as they supposedly do not include the world?

    What about the deliberate chaos caused by the West over a variety of countries in order to be able to impose their dominance where they see fit. Especially if those countries are strategic in advancing world dominance. Or, as importantly they have something to pillage.

    Here is a list of today’s strategic wars. How many of them are either instigated or supported by the West? Are those conditions suitably right for world war?

    Sweden and Denmark seem to think so.

    The EU being set up as an idea of bringing peace to a war torn Europe and NATO backing it up as a threat should others step out of line, what are the heads of this organisation doing to make sure no conditions will ever be ‘right for another world war’? That is what they have been conning the tax payers money for all these decades. And if they cannot do that as they promised, then they should be giving back all the money taken under false pretences so far.

  14. avatar
    Jokera

    Yes. The Great Powers are rearranging. UK is pulling out of the Germany dominated EU. In WW3 Germany will destroy her ally France as they did with Austria-Hungary in WW1 and with Italy in WW2.
    The winners block is forming again: UK + US + Russia despite all the controversies.

  15. avatar
    Wilbur

    The similarity to 1913 that concerns me is President Trump and Kaiser Willhelm… they both , born of “Blue blood” are on the outside of their Social groups… and want seek revenge while raising themselves to god given superiority. And both seem to have been able to give credence to the xenophobic fringes of their base. Add to that global arms race and a Void of world order following the end of the West’s “Cold War”. Add to that a wholesale transition from The Industrial Age to The so called Information Age. Just as the 1913 ongoing transition from an Agriculture Age into the Industrial Age.
    The establishment in power will hold on by any means possible until becoming overwhelmed by the new reality. The Royals of Europe resisted Industrial technology unless it benefited them. The technology the Royals unleashed in WW1 ultimately destroyed Old Europe and its order. The Digial Information revolution is dismantling the Industrial structure. The existing power base controled by Millionaire magnates is being eclipsed by Billionaire start ups who ignore the constraints that held back the previous Age. Our modern situation is more global now. It’s not just Europe deciding the world’s fate. The world will decide what to do with what’s left of the diminished West. The change is inevitable… the process is not.

  16. avatar
    Karl

    Both World Wars had a lot to do with controlling oil. Most of the strategy was around energy and it’s no different today with US National Policy tied to middle eastern oil stability and control-70% of known reserves. All the rest to me is window dressing mostly. Modern civilization rose from use of fossil fuels and after WW 1 Petroleum. With an ever increasing population and globalized economy getting everyone to share the food on the table without fighting is going to be interesting. The British ruled the Seas and after WW 11 the USA but the bankers can fund whoever and whatever they like and it seems they liked China with the largest human population since the mid 1970’s. India is rising and polluted like China used to be and older nations but long term? Well it’s simple! Hydrogen in some form or another sourced from water on earth is the only long term thing I’ve ever seen. We will have all kinds of jockeying for positions and maybe larger than normal “wars” too but hydrogen although 25% less energy than say gasoline in usable form doesn’t have the problems oil does sitting in nations you have to fight over. No matter what form of government or civilization you want you’ll need energy and I don’t see any other source. Real education is the key to minimizing “war” so it all depends on the rulers allowing true education rather than propaganda and programming the masses. In the USA that’s sadly not the case hence the risk for “war” is fairly high as they only have their military when all else fails. Since the 1950’s when I grew up the USA has become 100% more militarized and much more dumb. Cheap trick from the politicians to stay in power. “President” Trump can’t even complete a sentence publicly. Education has become propaganda and an uneducated people can be more easily led towards dumb things.

  17. avatar
    Karl

    Both World Wars had a lot to do with controlling oil. Most of the strategy was around energy and it’s no different today with US National Policy tied to middle eastern oil stability and control-70% of known reserves. All the rest to me is window dressing mostly. Modern civilization rose from use of fossil fuels and after WW 1 Petroleum. With an ever increasing population and globalized economy getting everyone to share the food on the table without fighting is going to be interesting. The British ruled the Seas and after WW 11 the USA but the bankers can fund whoever and whatever they like and it seems they liked China with the largest human population since the mid 1970’s. India is rising and polluted like China used to be and older nations but long term? Well it’s simple! Hydrogen in some form or another sourced from water on earth is the only long term thing I’ve ever seen. We will have all kinds of jockeying for positions and maybe larger than normal “wars” too but hydrogen although 25% less energy than say gasoline in usable form doesn’t have the problems oil does sitting in nations you have to fight over. No matter what form of government or civilization you want you’ll need energy and I don’t see any other source. Real education is the key to minimizing “war” so it all depends on the rulers allowing true education rather than propaganda and programming the masses. In the USA that’s sadly not the case hence the risk for “war” is fairly high as they only have their military when all else fails. Since the 1950’s when I grew up the USA has become 100% more militarized and much more dumb. Cheap trick from the politicians to stay in power. “President” Trump can’t even complete a sentence publicly. Education has become propaganda and an uneducated people can be more easily led towards stupid things with “war” being the dumbest.

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