World War I ended 100 years ago. Something similar could happen again.

Opinion10.11.2018Siegfried Herzog
World War One

On November 11, 1918, the armistice to end World War I (WWI) was signed. Forty countries had gone to war, nine million soldiers and more than six million civilians had died in more than four years of fighting. The full horror of a war waged by industrialized powers was unleashed. The carnage and destruction destabilized all European societies, led to the overthrow of three old monarchies and produced new totalitarian regimes, communism in Russia in 1917, and fascism in Italy in 1922.

However, this was hundred years ago and the world has moved on. Is any of this history still relevant? Here are three lessons that the world needs to remember in order to avoid a repeat performance.

1. As Christopher Clark has pointed out in his magisterial work on the causes of WWI, “The Sleepwalkers”, none of the chief combatants really desired war in summer of 1914.

The problem was that when the crisis of July arose after the assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by a Bosnian Serb fanatic secretly backed by the Serbian secret service, none of the main powers did enough to find a peaceful solution. Germany backed Austria, Russia backed Serbia, France backed Russia, and no one really tried to find a way for everyone to back down. Political elites were too worried about domestic repercussions in case they looked weak, and the decision-makers did not understand their counterparts in other countries well enough. Their mutual perceptions were dangerously simplistic and, in many cases, overly negative, ascribing darker motives than actually existed.

This is a problem that still afflicts the world, and with the decline in quality journalism reporting on international affairs, mutual ignorance and misperceptions between major powers is, if anything, a problem that is increasing.   

2. The relationship between the major powers had been deteriorating in the decades preceding the war due to a rise in nationalistic rhetoric and politics.

Governments stirred up nationalism to paper over domestic political and social conflicts, and an expansion of the military was sold to the public as a patriotic necessity. In Germany, for example, a mass movement was organized in the shape of the “Fleet Society” in order to support the construction of a battle fleet. In the British dominions like New Zealand, the construction of British Battleships was supported by public subscription drives. Fanatical nationalism was also used as a tool to destabilize multi-ethnic empires like Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman empire, sometimes using methods of terrorism copied from the anarchists that posed a grave threat to society at the time, having assassinated a Russian Czar, an American president and narrowly failed to kill the German emperor in the preceding decades.

Both terrorism and a return of jingoistic nationalism are forces that have gained ground in recent years, and they cause growing strain on both societies and on the relations between countries.

3. The horror of WWI (and the even more devastating WWII) led to the creation of supranational organizations to ensure closer cooperation between nations and to prevent a retreat into political and economic nationalism that had preceded WWI.

The decades preceding WWI had seen a steady rise of protectionism, and this had in turn created fears in many countries that their access to markets and raw materials would be endangered.

Today we have the United Nations to help keep the peace at the global level, regional groupings like the European Union and ASEAN that bind countries closer together in a web of co-operative relationships, both political and economic, and we have trade agreements like the World Trade Organization that are tasked with keeping the global trading system open and accessible.

All these institutions are under severe strain today. The United Nations has not been able to act decisively due to the differences between the major powers dominating the Security Council. The WTO is under severe strain as new forms of protectionism are gaining ground. The European Union is threatened by Brexit, and ASEAN has not yet acquired a common political voice. In the background lies the difficult question of how to engage a rising economic and military power that upsets the status quo – Germany before 1914, China today.

The hope had been that stronger international organizations and forms of cooperation would enable us to better deal with the challenges and strains a changing world produces. As the world turns its back increasingly on the international architecture it had built in response to the horrors of the World Wars, it should realize that it does so at its peril.


Siegfried Herzog is the Regional Director for Southeast & East Asia of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, a German liberal organization.