The Guns of August

British 8 inch howitzers Western Front

By Angus Kirk McClellan '05

“The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime,” said Sir Edward Grey in 1914. Some lights reignited after The Great War, but in many ways, the glory of Europe was extinguished forever.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of a war that mushroomed from a binary dispute in Southeastern Europe to a near suicide of the West, setting the stage for world developments that shaped the civilizations we know today. On August 28, 2014, The Wilson Center held a panel discussion on the political, economic, and social movements surrounding the First World War and how they influenced some of today’s current events. Dr. James Simms moderated the evening’s panelists: Drs. Ralph Hattox, Roger Barrus, and James Frusetta of H-SC. The program was based on a similar discussion during the Summer College program in June.

What started as a local war between Austria and Serbia, said Simms, grew into a European and world war. Alliances held by Serbia and Austria entangled dozens of other countries, many of which were defending themselves, protecting trade routes, or preventing the rise of new superpowers. To achieve those ends, Europe nearly annihilated itself in a few short years. Resultant power vacuums and revolutionary ideologies led to World War II and the deaths of tens of millions more people. Simms touched on the parallels between those times and today.

One result of the war was France’s assumption as the dominant superpower in the West. Her military had suffered a 75% casualty rate, however, and so she was reluctant to confront Hitler militarily during his rise to power. Her hesitance, among other reasons, facilitated Germany’s aggression in the 1930s. 

In parallel, the United States is still the dominant superpower in the Western world, despite having fought two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “When you are the dominant superpower, you have a responsibility,” said Simms. He mentioned the current rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and America’s obligation to confront the Islamic threat more effectively to avoid a stronger and more effective future enemy.

But perhaps the “sorry state of affairs we see today,” as Hattox described the Middle East, might never have developed had the Allied powers acted differently toward the Ottoman Empire at the close of the war. He spoke at length on the final gasp of the Sick Man of Europe.

Charles I Austria Hungary, Mehmet V, Mehmet VI, Hampden Sydney

The Ottomans joined the Germans and Austrians in 1914, contrary to British interests. Britain needed to protect the Suez Canal to secure her trade with India. During the war, after a failed attempt to bombard Istanbul directly from the sea, the British were forced to “slug their way up through Syria” by land to confront the Turks.

They befriended tribes of nationalist Arabs along the way, whom they promised a free and independent Arab state after the defeat of the Ottomans. At the Syrians’ request, it would have been a unified, constitutional monarchy, and if needed, they would have had “tutors from the United States [or Great Britain] teach them how to govern themselves.” but the plan failed to materialize at Versailles and in the United States. “The moment of opportunity 90 years ago had come and gone,” lamented Hattox. The possibility of a strong, blossoming, Western-led, peaceful Syrian state had withered on the vine before having a chance to come to fruition.

Meanwhile in Russia, the Bolsheviks were overthrowing the provisional government and murdering the Imperial family. The war had provided an opportunity for Vladimir Lenin and his band of Marxist followers to wrangle control of the emerging Soviet Union. They applied their revolutionary tactics to politics and the economy in their new positions of power. Barrus provided insight during the discussion.

“The lesson that the Bolsheviks took away from the war was the crucial significance of centralization of power, discipline, and organization. That’s how they took power, and as they settled in, that’s how they ruled. ... This centralization was not just political and military, it was also economic.”

“And you have to give the devil his due,” said Barrus. That centralization of power was key in the Soviet’s victory over Nazi Germany. By government direction, entire towns and factories were physically uprooted and shipped east during the German invasion, creating space and providing time for Stalin to rebuild the Red Army. But after World War II, in peacetime, Soviet central economic planning ultimately failed, as proved in widespread famines, mass executions, waste and mismanagement, and finally the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

And yet bolshevism influenced progressives in the United States, where central economic planning and nationalization materialized first in wartime mobilization and again in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies of the 1930s.

“I think the key to understanding our own politics now is we are revisiting that question of organization, centralization, and mass mobilization versus the old ideas of individualism and classical liberalism. And our politics show that divide.... Under Clinton and certainly Obama, [we are] in a certain sense pushing the limits of the old progressive model. And we’re seeing a reaction in the form of the Tea Party,” said Barrus.

Hitler Mussolini Hampden Sydney

Yet despite the fundamental differences between Marxists and classical liberals, they both “really like rationalism. They share a belief in reason,” said Frusetta. He spoke on the emergence of fascist movements in Europe after World War I. Enlightenment ideas such as “the focus on reason, the material universe, natural rights, positivism—fascists hate all of this. ... Fascists primarily believe that the modern world is flawed.”

Frusetta pointed out that toward the end of the 19th century, cracks in Enlightenment rationalism and materialist thinking were widening. The revolutionary doctrines of the French had caused mass executions and gross injustices, a military dictatorship, and war. Philosophers, psychologists, and others were arguing that capitalism and industrialization were separating people from their land and neighbors. After the horrors of World War I, “people began questioning the rational order of the universe.”

“Liberalism failed. Communism, not so nice. Fascism promises a revolution against communism, against democracy, against high finance, against capitalism, all of which are undermining fascist national identity, emotion, and living standards. Fascists are revolutionaries.”

In Germany, for example, the old conservative order was dissolved, the idea of nobility was dismissed, and fascists wanted national unity based on blood. All people are equal, the Marxists may argue, but for German fascists, “all Germans are equal,” said Frusetta.

The disillusionment caused by World War I provided the catalyst for fascist ideas to take hold. It was through the rise of fascism in Germany that we saw justification for the Third Reich’s annexation of Germanic territory in the 1930s. This and other aggressions led directly to World War II, the results of which have shaped the modern world.

During the question-and-answer portion of the discussion, Barrus noted the similarities between mid-20th century Soviet expansion and Vladimir Putin’s current expansion into the Ukraine—both of which are based on common ethnic identities. At Simms’s prodding, Barrus hinted that, based on Putin’s philosophy, the baltic States may be Putin’s next objectives.

“Putin’s approach to the near abroad—that anywhere there are Russian speakers Russia has a right to intervene, to protect those Russian speakers—that sounds like a modern, updated version of Pan-Slavism,” said Barrus. “Pan-Slavism then and Putin now are basically a justification for intervention anywhere and everywhere, regardless of the threat there is of major war. Putin is taking advantage of Europe’s weakness, and there needs to be a push-back.”

In comparing Hitler and Putin, Simms said, “Putin has limited aims. He’s not going to go after Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia.... I understand [Putin’s philosophy]. But he’s smart enough to know when to stop. With Hitler, you were never going to appease him.”

The discussion could have continued but for lack of time. It was largely agreed, however, that the results of World War I spawned the rise of fascism, communism, and so the deaths of millions of people. Stronger central governments, heavily regulated economies, Russian expansion into Ukraine, and the rise of radical Muslim movements in Syria and Iraq all have their roots in the war to end all wars.

Could Europe have prevented the Great War? Probably not. “It was almost inevitable,” according to Simms. But could we still have avoided so many of the problems we face today, despite the war’s transpiration? Perhaps.

“It would have been better if Germany had won,” Simms concluded.