The War to End All Wars? Lessons of World War I Revisited

The role of World War I in shaping the twentieth century is becoming ever more obvious. It triggered the collapse of the three major empires of eastern Europe and central Asia: Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. It gave rise to the Russian Revolution and to the Soviet Union; it prompted the first major U.S. incursion into world affairs; and it both failed to resolve the problems of the Balkans and generated new ones in the Middle East. These perspectives on World War I have become even more immediate since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is small wonder, then, that in a 1998 opinion poll, French students ranked the war as the second most important event of the last century, trailing behind only its successor. In fact, the agenda in 1914 was so important that much of it is still on the table.

As commonplace as that realization may now be, however, it has not prompted a scholarly reassessment of the war itself. Its connotations of waste, futility, and military incompetence have remained remarkably persistent and indeed were restated in the two main British-authored works published to mark the 80th anniversary of 1918: John Keegan's World War I and Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War. For these authors, as for many of the conflict's participants, the war was a behemoth, possessed of a life and dynamic of its own and creating unintended consequences independent of the designs of either statesmen or generals. The war, or so the story goes, proved Clausewitz's much-abused aphorism spectacularly wrong: it was not a political instrument, but an end in itself.


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