Wednesday, June 25, 2014

WWI in the WSJ


Margaret MacMillan, author of The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, writes about World War I in The Wall Street Journal:

What is harder to pin down and assess are the war's long-term consequences—political, social and moral. The conflict changed all the countries that took part in it. Governments assumed greater control over society and have never entirely relinquished it. Old regimes collapsed, to be replaced by new political orders. In Russia, czarist autocracy was succeeded by a communist one, with huge consequences for the rest of the century.

The scale and destructiveness of the war also raised issues—many of which we still grapple with today—and spread new political ideas. President Wilson talked about national self-determination and making the world safe for democracy. He wanted a League of Nations as the basis for international cooperation. From Russia, Lenin and his Bolsheviks offered a stark alternative: a world without borders or classes. The competing visions helped fuel the Cold War, which ended just 25 years ago.

Before 1914, Russia was a backward autocracy but was changing fast. Its growth rate was as high as any of the Asian tigers in the 1960s and 1970s; it was Europe's major exporter of food grains and, as it industrialized, was importing machinery on a massive scale. Russia also was developing the institutions of civil society, including the rule of law and representative government. Without the war, it might have evolved into a modern democratic state; instead, it got the sudden collapse of the old order and a coup d'├ętat by the Bolsheviks. Soviet communism exacted a dreadful toll on the Russian people and indeed the world—and its remnants are still painfully visible in the corrupt, authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin.

The war also destroyed other options for Europe's political development. The old multinational empires had their faults, to be sure, but they enabled the diverse peoples within their boundaries to live in relative harmony. Both Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans were trying to work out ways of encompassing the demands of different groups for greater autonomy. Might they have succeeded if the war had not exhausted them to the point of collapse? We will never know, but since then, the world has suffered the violence and horrors of ethnic nationalism.

The armistice of 1918 ended one gigantic conflict, but it left the door open for a whole host of smaller ones—the "wars of the pygmies," as Winston Churchill once described them. Competing national groups tried to establish their own independence and to push their borders out at the expense of their neighbors. Poles fought Russians, Lithuanians and Czechs, while Romania invaded Hungary. And within their borders, Europeans fought each other. Thirty-seven thousand Finns (out of some 3 million) died in a civil war in the first months of 1918, while in Russia, as many as a million soldiers and many more civilians may have died by the time the Bolsheviks finally defeated their many opponents.

The war had brutalized European society, which had grown accustomed during the largely peaceful 19th century to think that peace was the normal state of affairs. After 1918, Europeans were increasingly willing to resort to other sorts of force, from political assassinations to street violence, and to seek radical solutions to their problems. The seeds of the political movements on the extremes of both the right and the left—of fascism and communism—were sown in the years before 1914, but it took World War I to fertilize them.


Read the rest here. The WSJ also has stories about women on the home front, the poets of WWI, how WWI led to the Great Depression, the end of the British Empire, and warfare--plus some book reviews.

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