It was more than 50 years ago that Barbara W. Tuchman's The Guns of August was published; and since then, the stream of books about the Great War of 1914-1918 has not stopped. This August is the centenary of the guns beginning to fire, and a new flood of books marks the occasion. I couldn't read them all, so I chose Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914.
A senior fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto, MacMillan asks an interesting question in her admirable centennial contribution. "Most of the copious literature on the events of 1914 understandably ask why the Great War broke out," MacMillan writes. "Perhaps we need to ask another sort of question: Why did the long peace not continue? Why did the forces pushing towards peace — and they were strong ones — not prevail? They had done so before, after all. Why did the system fail this time? One way of getting at an answer is to see how Europe's options had narrowed down in the decades before 1914."
Of War & Peace
MacMillan traces how the efforts at creating a European balance of power in the 19th century seemed successful by the turn of the 20th century. Yet that very web of alliances and agreements, designed to prevent any one power from becoming too powerful — and thus tempted to make war — actually accelerated Europe's march to war in the summer of 1914. There were plenty of miscalculations, not least of which was a seeming incapacity to imagine what we would now call the "narratives" of other countries, and Europeans resigned themselves to war "persuaded that their nations were the innocent parties under attack from menacing foreign forces."
The Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary felt menaced by Serbian nationalists after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne. Serbs felt menaced by incorporation into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Russia felt menaced by eastern expansion of the central powers of Austria- Hungary and Germany, and so pledged itself to the aid of Serbia. Germany felt menaced by nations to the east and west desirous of constraining its rising power, and so felt obligated to cement its ties to Austria-Hungary in battle. If Germany was going to fight Russia as a consequence of the Dual Monarchy attacking Serbia, then France would enter the battle on the side of Russia. Britain, in turn, felt menaced by German advances through Belgium into France, and so it too would fight. There is a certain madness to it all now — defensive alliances for peace driving everyone towards war — but at the time, everyone thought that dealing with real or imagined menaces was better done sooner rather than later.
And so the Great War began. MacMillan points out that in August 1914, it was thought that the war launched would be not a "great war" but a shortterm skirmish, with most soldiers mobilized in August telling their families that they would be home for Christmas.
She writes, "What few realized was that Europe's governments had an untested but great capacity to squeeze resources out of their societies, whether through taxation, managing their economies or freeing up men for the front by using the labour of women, and that Europeans themselves had a stoicism and doggedness which could keep them fighting through the long years to come even as the terrible losses mounted. What is surprising about the Great War is not that European societies and individuals eventually buckled under the strain — and not all did, or not completely — but that Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary endured for so long before they collapsed into revolution or mutiny or despair."
With hindsight, the guns of August began firing after what can now — to borrow the title of another of Tuchman's books — only be considered "the march of folly." The folly would continue for four years. In a cruel turn of events, it was precisely the political and economic progress of the 19th century producing productive economies over wide territories that provided the resources required for such a war. If 19th century Europe had more little wars, if it had fewer unifications and alliances, if it were only poorer, the devastation of the Great War would not have been possible. And devastating it was.
"All the horrors of all the ages were brought together, and not only armies but whole populations were thrust into the middle of them," Winston Churchill would write. "Neither peoples nor rulers drew the line at any deed which they thought could help them to win.... Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran. When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific Christian states had been able to deny themselves; and they were of doubtful utility."
Civilized, scientific and Christian — how could the great nations of Europe throw themselves into such a horrific slaughter for apparently no purpose, or at least no purpose proportionate to the bloodletting?
George Weigel, who, before writing the definitive biography of Saint John Paul II, published a careful study on the Christian just war tradition and its applicability to contemporary international relations that takes up that question provocatively.
"Sorting through the vast literature analyzing the origins of World War I is beyond any one person's capacities," Weigel said in a 2014 lecture titled "Why? Reflections on the Centenary of the Great War." "Indeed, I suspect that the question, 'Why did the Great War happen?' will never be finally settled, if it hasn't been settled by those tens of thousands of books and articles previously noted. Perhaps, though, it is time to consider a different question, rarely explored but no less urgent: 'Why did the Great War continue?'
"Why, at the end of 1914, when the trench lines in the West were already fixed from the English Channel to Switzerland, and a situation incapable of rapid resolution (if militarily more fluid) had taken shape in the East, did Europe find it impossible to call a halt?" Weigel asks. "Why, as the train of European civilization threatened to careen over a cliff and shatter on the rocks below, was Europe unable to face the possibility of impending disaster and find a different path towards the future? Why, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it in his 1983 Templeton Prize lecture, ["Men Have Forgotten God"], did Europe, 'bursting with health and abundance,' fall into 'a rage of self-mutilation that could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever?'"
Turning to Solzhenitsyn indicates the kind of answer that Weigel thinks adequate to the question. If, in Churchill's words, a civilized, scientific and Christian Europe fell upon itself with a depravity stopping short only of cannibalism, then perhaps Europe was not as civilized, scientific and Christian as it thought it was in the summer of 1914. Solzhenitsyn, born exactly one month after the armistice of November 11, 1918, learned one answer to the carnage from his elders as he grew up in post-war, post-tsarist, Bolshevik Russia: Men had forgotten God.
Perhaps that is too simple. It is too simple, and perhaps of marginal relevance, to why the decision was taken to fire the guns of August. Yet Solzhenitsyn's answer might be just simple enough to answer the question of why the guns kept firing, the cannon fodder kept being sent, the poison gas was released, the cities were razed — why the war became so brutal. Could it be that a Europe that had forgotten God had forgotten too the limits of war? Could it be that a Europe unrestrained by God was unable to restrain itself in the conduct of war?
Solzhenitsyn wrote history through the deeply Christian eyes of his Russian Orthodox faith, but on the point of secularization in 19th century Europe, he agrees with the greatest Marxist historian of Europe since the French Revolution, Eric Hobsbawm. According to Hobsbawm, the start of the war marked the end of the "long 19th century" — a period starting with the French Revolution in 1789, when science, art and culture started to erode traditional religious beliefs.
"Religion, from being something like the sky, from which no man can escape and which contains all that is above the earth, became something like a bank of clouds, a large but limited and changing feature of the human firmament," Hobsbawm wrote, summing up how the world of 1914 was different than Europe a century earlier.
I have long been persuaded that 20th century secularism cannot be understood apart from the calamities of the two world wars, after which entire populations lost hope in the civilizations that fought them and lost faith in the Christianity that shaped them. What Weigel, following Solzhenitsyn, suggests is that those Christian cultures that failed so spectacularly between 1914 and 1918 were already more vestigial than vibrant. Like all questions related to the Great War a century after it began, it defies a definitive answer, but it is worthy of serious consideration.
"What Max Weber described in 1918 as a 'disenchanted world' turned out, in its first major crisis, to be a terribly dangerous world, in which, as Weber wrote in "Science as a Vocation," 'the ultimate and most sublime values... retreated from public life,'" Weigel concludes. "The Religion of Humanity promoted by what Henri de Lubac called 'atheist humanism' found itself unable to check ancient racial animosities, tarted up in the modern fancy dress of eugenic and racial theories, and emboldened by a Promethean will-to-power that underwrote lurid forms of nationalism in which the national Other was thoroughly dehumanized. Thus the disenchanted world led to inhumanity on an unprecedented scale in the Great War — and then gave birth to even worse horrors in communism and German national socialism."
This invites a reversal of how the story is usually told. It is worth considering Weigel's proposed alternate reading at length:
"According to one telling of the story of modern European history, modern forms of political authority arose precisely to put an end to the slaughters caused by competing religious authorities during and after the Reformation. Whatever truth there may be in that rendering of the tale, it should also be recognized that the erosion of religious authority in Europe over the centuries — meaning the erosion of biblically informed concepts of the human person, human communities, human origins, and human destiny — created a European moral-cultural environment in which political authority was no longer bound and constrained by a higher authority operative in the minds and consciences of leaders and populations.
"It will doubtless seem to some too simple to suggest that the most penetrating answer to the grave questions posed here — why did the Great War begin and why did the Great War continue — is the answer suggested by Solzhenitsyn: It all happened, in no small part, because 'Men [had] forgotten God.' Yet just as the political stupidities that led to war in the late summer of 1914 bear lessons for the 21st century... so do the moralcultural conditions that underwrote the Great War and its continuation.
"The European world that went to war in 1914 — the world that nearly destroyed itself over the ensuing four and a half years and that may yet be seen to have drained itself of its civilizational vitality in that period — was a European world in which it was widely believed that Europeans, masters of the world's lead civilization, could create the world and the future without the God of the Bible. What they proved, however, was that they could only build a world against each other, which was a world with no future."
In those first days of August 1914, when Austria- Hungary was already at war with Serbia, and as Westminster was taking the decision to go to war with Germany, then British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey spoke what may be the most famous words about the Great War: "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."
Many lifetimes would be cut short in the years ahead, and an even greater darkness would descend upon Europe in another great war, and then after that the Iron Curtain would keep half of Europe in the darkness of totalitarianism for another half century. Hobsbawm would characterize 1914 as the opening of a brutal, dark century — mercifully abbreviated — that would last until the defeat of the Soviet Empire in 1991. Could it be that the lamps that went out all over Europe in 1914 were preceded by the diminishing light of faith in the century previous?
The answer finds an echo in the fact that the dismantling of the Soviet Empire, begun in 1989, was the fruit of a revolution that was in large part moral and religious. We mark the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Iron Curtain later this year, and those questions will be taken up then.
Erasing the Bo rders of 1918
This summer there is no shortage of writing about the Great War. The Wall Street Journal has produced one of the more innovative contributions, illustrating how the inventions of the Great War have shaped the world that we live in. The monarchies of Germany and Russia ended with the war, and the Dual Monarchy of the Habsburgs came to an end in Austria-Hungary. The Habsburg Empire was not the only one to be dissolved; the Ottoman Empire was dismantled, too. Poland was resurrected; new countries were established in southern Europe; and the Middle East and some established countries — Canada and Australia most importantly — founded their national identities consecrated by the sacrifices of Vimy Ridge and Gallipoli. Ordinary life, too, was changed, what with income taxes and daylight savings time and blood transfusions.
The world of the post-war settlement has proved remarkably enduring, but in 2014, parts of the settlement of 1918 are being undone. Some of these developments are welcome.
It was the First World War that gave rise to the common use of passports. Before 1914, documentary requirements had become diluted as travel over long distances became more popular beyond the very wealthy. Large numbers of Europeans routinely travelled between countries with no standardized documentation. The hostilities of the war led governments to insist on stricter controls, and in 1920 the League of Nations adopted the protocols that led to our contemporary use of passports. By the 1950s, a 19th century European would have been befuddled by all the paperwork required to do what he was accustomed to doing unencumbered. The Iron Curtain made free passage — or any passage — between the capitals of the former Dual Monarchy, Vienna and Budapest, impossible. But in Western Europe, too, the borders were thickened, and the short drive from Brussels to Paris or Milan to Geneva now required stopping at the border for an inspection of papers.
In recent years, this legacy of the Great War has been undone in Europe — even as, post-9/11, Americans are trying to thicken borders elsewhere. The Schengen Agreement of 1985 established a limited zone of border-free travel — the Benelux countries and former combatants Germany and France.
But many more countries have joined, so now the Schengen Area includes 26 European countries of some 400 million people who can travel unimpeded by the inspection of the State. Even a Habsburg prince would be impressed that it is possible to drive from Vilnius to visit Mount Vesuvius and never have to show a passport or declare one's goods. It is a freedom that in 1918 — or even in 1988 — would have been unimaginable, that Europeans would be free to move about their common European home. In the age of discounted air travel, the elimination of border controls for thousands of daily European flights — no passport required to travel from Reykjavik to Rhodes — is not only a great practical easement but a promising sign of harmony between peoples.
In other parts of the world, the erasure of 1918 borders does not offer such a prospect. During the Great War, the British and French concluded the Sykes-Picot Treaty 1916. It decided how the territories of the Ottoman Empire would be allocated after its presumed defeat at the end of the war. The drawing of Middle Eastern borders by British and French diplomats seemed like a good idea to them at the time, and the modern Middle East was made. The British mandate in Palestine would in due course give rise to the creation of the modern State of Israel. Other experiments have not proved to be as stable or democratic or prosperous, as for example in Iraq — a confection that respected neither natural topography nor ethnic balances.
One part of the Sykes-Picot settlement was effectively erased this summer, when the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized territories in both eastern Syria and western Iraq and declared the border between them now effectively erased. Whether this will emerge into a new caliphate, as its protagonists declare, or will simply be a no man's land of banditry and terrorism remains to be seen. Immediately on the borders of this proposed new caliphate are the nervous Kurds, wondering if the time has finally come for them to assert themselves against their Sykes-Picot dismemberment between Turkey and Iraq. Given that the new ISIS-controlled territory comes very close to Baghdad, it may just be that an expanding ISIS may simply inherit the old borders and maintain them if it makes it easier to secure their expanding territory.
However the developments in Syria and Iraq turn out, and whether or not ISIS will continue in global affairs as a more extreme and more lethal version of al Qaeda, a hundred years after the Great War, the question emerges again of what geopolitical form Islam will take. The end of the Ottoman Empire meant that for the first time in centuries, as against the various Christian empires of Europe, there was no balancing geopolitical expression of Islam. The issue was not so much the extent to which the various empires were religious but that Islam had a political and territorial expression in world affairs. In the century since, whether it be pan-Arab nationalism or, more recently, the rise of cross-national Islamic movements, the absence of an Islamic geopolitical unit has increased the sense of marginalization in the Islamic world. Even if the various alliances and unions of Europe and the West do not consider themselves Christian in any sense, the Islamic view of history is inclined to see them as just that. It is unlikely that the extreme jihadism of ISIS — especially as it murders thousands of fellow Muslims — will find a great resonance in the broad world of Islam, but it is their calculation that a declaration of the caliphate's return will resonate with Muslims who do not see themselves reflected in the geopolitics of a region dominated by a Jewish State and Arab States controlled by secular authoritarians of various kinds. The Arab Spring was hailed in the West as a possible turn towards liberal democracy. It may have been instead a turn towards a religious and geopolitical assertion against the Sykes-Picot settlement imposed upon the Middle East at the end of the Great War.
If Weigel is right that the diminishment of religion was one cause of the unravelling of Europe into war, it may be that assertive religion with a violent face may be at work now in unravelling the post- First World War settlement. At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, religion for good and for ill is undoing the world the Great War bequeathed us.
Archbishop s and assisted Dying
A bill to legalize "assisted dying" — assisted suicide, as we call it in Canada — was debated in the British House of Lords on July 18. On July 12, two retired Anglican archbishops wrote essays for the British press arguing against the Church of England's opposition to the bill.
It was unremarkable that Desmond Tutu, archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, would argue against Christian doctrine on disputed questions, for he usually does. In his essay for the Guardian, Tutu writes, "I revere the sanctity of life — but not at any cost." His long-time support of abortion rather undermines that claim. Tutu finds the whole talk rather unpleasant, for he finds that "the words euthanasia and suicide carry negative connotations." They do. Perhaps because they speak of negative realities. In any case, Tutu has long ceased to be a theological thinker instead of political activism [see "Small Talk" in this issue] of a rather superficial sort, trading on his noble anti-apartheid witness.