Thursday, August 21, 2008

World War I

I just finished the book, An Illustrated History of the First World War by John Keegan. It was a pretty depressing book. WWI was a futile and brutal war. Millions dead and nothing at all gained (if there really are gains from war).

The war didn't really need to happen. Most people know that the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian activist, Gavrilo Princip was the event that plunged Europe into war but the assassination didn't mean the war was inevitable. In fact, the assassination occurred on June 18th (1914) but Austria-Hungary didn't send their impossible demands back to Serbia (the demands were really just something they'd been trying to force Serbia to do anyway and they used the assassination as an excuse) until July 31st. Based upon some national law or policy, July 31st was the last day Austria-Hungary could respond to the assignation, so they waited until the last minute.

Then Russia, who was worried about Austria-Hungary and German military might decided they needed to posture themselves, so they mobilized troops on July 31st. Germany, who had become the bully on the European 'block' had to flex their muscles, so they declared war on Russia and France on August 1st.

It wasn't really the assissination but the arms race and political posturing that lead to the war. The assissination simply gave Germany and Russia the excuse to do what they'd been working toward for almost two decades; declare war on each other. Around the turn of the century, Germany began exponentially building up their military strength, which made France and Russia very nervous. Germany had possession of lands that Russia and France believed was rightfully theirs, taken during wars in the late 19th century. Compared to their size now, it's hard to believe how big the German empire was before the end of WWI. It's also amazing when you realize Germany had the military strength to fight Russia on the Eastern front and France/ Germany on the western (same was WWII). Germany was the world's military 'big boy' for almost half of the 20th century. On a funny side note, Germany tried enticing Mexico onto their side toward the end of the war, promising them they could have Texas, Arizona and New Mexico back after the Allies were defeated.
The war was started by a bunch of politicians wanting to save face, prove their military might and expand their nation's boundaries. Pathetic little men, is what I think. Here's what their stupidity brought about:
  • 60 million soldiers fighting in the war with over 20 million civilian and military deaths.
  • The "lost Generation." A term that refers to all the young men who died in the war. 1/3 of all able-bodied German young men died in the war. Millions of men plucked away from European civilization.
  • The fall of empires that had stood for centuries and the birth of evil regimes such as Lenin's Communist Soviet Union and Hitler's Third Reich.
  • The West's over-involvement in the Middle East, resulting in the hostilities (read terrorism) we still experience today.
  • The development of more brutal and efficient forms of killing each other; tanks, machine guns, gas and bomber planes. Based upon all their previous wars, the European politicians actually believed it could be a short war, they had no idea what would happen over those 4 terrible years. The machine gun inflicted casualty numbers never before seen while they didn't yet have the technology or military tactics to counter that weapon. The Allies were able to turn the war to their favor in the summer of 1918 because they had put forth the effort to develop tanks during the war (and because President Wilson finally committed the US to the Allied side) while the Germans had depended upon their superior field tactics. It's amazing the technological advances that take place when we're trying to find more efficient ways to kill each other...
  • The October Revolution. Russia fell apart during the war, gave up in 1917 and was plunged in to a 4 year civil war that took the lives of 10 million Russians. The result of the Civil War was the rise of communism.
  • 100,000 US dead. 50,000 were killed in action and 50,000 were killed by the Spanish flu that swept Europe near the end of the war. The bombing of US ships by German U-boats, eventually persuaded President Wilson and US Congress to declare war. While the US didn't have the heavy machinery Britain and France had developed during the course of the war, they did have a million fresh troops.
    When Germany realized what the US's entry in the war would mean to the balance of man-power, they gave one last effort to push through Allied lines into Paris during the summer of 1918 to win the war before the US could mobilize its full force of soldiers. While Germany came close, they made a few tactical errors that slowed them down and since they no longer had any reinforcements to bring to the war (they'd used every single available man) and the US was now replenishing Allied armies, they eventually gave up. The US's doughboys and the leadership of John Pershing finally ended the 4 year war.
  • The guarantee that WWII would happen. The Treaty of Versailles, which ended the war, was used by the Allies to punish Germany. Germany tried to hold out as long as possible but the starvation of German people brought about by the Allies blockade of Germany forced them to sign. The Treaty forced Germany to surrender most of their land, disband their army and pay reparations to Allied nations. The terms of this treaty plunged Germany into economic depression and political chaos. It also brought about the rise of Adolf Hitler, The Nazi Party and the Third Reich. Hitler was a WWI vet who united Germany under an "us vs. the world" mentality, which wasn't entirely inaccurate. The Allies harsh treatment of beaten Germany guaranteed Germany would come back to fight the world again. In fact, one scholar believes there wasn't really two world wars, but one world war separated by two decades. That sounds logical to me.

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