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!