Thursday, November 11, 2010

Armistice Day

It was on this day in 1918 that the fighting officially ended on the western front, bringing an end to the First World War, a conflict which, few would deny, put the final nail in the coffin of the old, traditional Europe. The human cost was beyond imagination and only surpassed 20 years later by World War II. Even then, many countries lost far more troops in the First World War than in the Second. In addition to the individual lives that were lost the conflict was also the end of an era in world history and certainly western civilization. By the time it was over the German Empire was gone, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was gone, the Russian Empire was gone and the Ottoman Empire would soon be. Revolutionary communism had been set loose on the world, ethnic nationalism was set looose in the Balkans and the Middle East, the United States had been drawn out of isolation to become a world power and faith in traditional institutions had been shattered. In the end, when it was all over, people -and not a few- looked at the millions of deaths, the fallen civilizations, the political and social chaos and asked; was it all worth it?

That remains something to struggle with even now, at least for those willing to give it sincere thought. Was the pride of Serbia worth such a horror? Was Alsace-Lorraine? Any given cause seems pretty small and inconsequential when weighed against the millions of casualties and fallen empires. Finding someone to blame is never as easy as it seems in such cases though there were certainly guilty parties. The murderers of the Archduke, the Austrian Foreign Minister, the French ambassador in St Petersburg, the German "blank check" and so on can all be justly blamed along with other individuals and actions. However, even if one were to say that Serbia should have been crushed that Europe might live or that Belgium should have been sacrificed so that more peoples could have been saved -it still doesn't add up. The simple reason being that if the Archduke had not been murdered Austria-Hungary and Serbia would have found another reason to fight. So long as Serbia made Austria her enemy to advance their goal of a "Greater Serbia" and so long as the Austro-Hungarian military advocated the elimination of Serbia once and for all they were going to find an excuse to have at each other. Likewise, so long as France seethed over the loss of Alsace-Lorraine they would have sooner or later found some excuse for fighting Germany. Britain had long wanted to eliminate the naval and industrial competition of Germany and if Belgium had not been violated they could have found another reason.

As I see it, the question as to whether the conflict would have been a world war or just another Balkan war was decided by Russia. Some may (and have) disagreed with me, but Russia was the first power to threaten intervention in what was an Austro-Serbian conflict. Germany, of course, had voiced support for her Austrian ally but the Germans were not about to intervene with military support to help the Austrians. No one would have expected Austria-Hungary to need any help defeating Serbia (though as it turned out the Serbs were a tougher nut to crack than anyone had imagined) but Russia was ready to send in troops to support her fellow Slavs. That does not mean that the fault lies only with Russia of course but as I see it there would have been no wider war if Russia had washed her hands of Serbia and let them take their punishment from the Austrians. How that scenario would have progressed, who can say? What can be said with a fair amount of certainty is that once Russia intervened some countries spread the war freely but others were locked in. Germany was bound to help Austria fend off the Russian attack and France was bound to help Russia which meant Germany was bound to invade Belgium to have any chance of success in fighting both.

Britain chose to join in (contrary to popular perception she was not actually obligated to defend Belgium), the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria chose to join in and, let us be honest, Italy and Romania were effectively bribed into coming in. Lest this all be too depressing we can at least find some virtue in the fact that the soldiers at least had pure motives; duty, patriotism, love of country and so on. In most cases the monarchs felt they had no choice in the matter. Emperor Francis Joseph was lied into war when you come down to it. The Tsar struggled terribly over the decision. The German Kaiser tried to call the whole thing off but was defied by his top general. King George V was not really making the decision to go to war and Albert I of the Belgians simply had it thrust upon him. Sultan Mehmed V thought it was a terrible mistake but was not really the man in charge anymore either. However, if some nations were forced into the war the absolute disaster that was made of the peace was forced on no one but the defeated. That is where perhaps the greatest tragedy of the armistice truly resides.

No one forced the major allied leaders to commit the muddled stupidity that resulted in the Treaty of Versailles. It was just the sort of incoherent mess that one could expect to come from the collaboration of a manipulative Welsh socialist, a vindictive French radical (former communard) and a preachy American progressive with no concept of reality. Whereas the Congress of Vienna that ended the Napoleonic Wars was presided over by conservative, practical statesmen, the conference at Versailles was presided over by deceptive, inconsistent, ideological liberals all with conflicting views and goals. No one left happy, no one left satisfied, even on the winners' side and honestly I am sometimes amazed that it only took twenty years for war to break out again. But that's another story. In any event, the conflict that brought down four empires, the war to end war that resulted in a peace to end peace came to a close 92 years ago today. We are still struggling to repair what was destroyed on that day.


  1. You can not imagine what I'm agree with his words, from the relative objectivity that gives me to Be a student of history, rather than being a Spanish subject, which as you know was one of the few European countries neutral during the Great War, I think was a mistake led by hatred and irrationality rather than any national cause justifiable, any offense or casus belli ... the truth is that was a catastrophe that ended the civilized world as was known, infecting all of death, illness, relativism, socialism ...

  2. We mourn the Old Europe every day...

    I agree about the comparison between the Congress of Vienna and the Treaty of Versailles. Vienna prevented major war between the Great Powers for one hundred years, while Versailles instigated it twenty years later on.

    As has often been said, there would have been no World War II without World War I, but there would have also been no Hitler with a Kaiser, no Balkans Conflicts with an Emperor, no Middle-Eastern conflict with a Sultan, and no U.S.S.R. with a Tsar.

  3. Very true, and another important point is that at Vienna the French were included in the talks and not shut out like the Central Powers were at Versailles. World War One was just a horror from start to finish and I cannot think of one totally good thing that came from it. It was unnecessary, it should not have happened and even on a national level, what was gained was certainly not worth the cost.

  4. Your post is so interesting, thank you! I think Russia - personified in Tsar Nicholas - felt obliged to defend Serbia when the Tsar received a request for help from Prince Alexander. Nicholas (personifying Russia!) then did everything in his power to avoid war. He suggested the meeting between all Foreign Ministers, going to the international tribunal in The Hague, wrote personal appeals to the Kaiser...No, I don't think Russia was to blame. I think Conrad von Hotzendorf and the other members of the war party in Vienna were behind it. They refused all offers of negotiation.
    Britain...I am a proud English person but my forebears killed in WW1, all of whom I honour and respect, died because they were roused by some jingoistic oratory, raised to the notion that they were defending their families and this would be a jolly jaunt from which they would come back as heroes...In fact they died to protect the interests of a few greedy people and lot of inept politicians. They actually died for nothing. And I do not doubt their courage in so doing.

  5. To build on what Aurelien Nicot said, its ronic that most peopel I speak to today think Monarhcy lads to Briutal Excess, and is a recipee foer war and bloodshed, whilst Democracy breeds greater persnal Fredom as well as Internaitonal Peace, and yet the Major COnflicts of WW1 and WW2 as well as he Changed world tat resulted in is Aftermath saw the dwnfall of Monarchies and ise of Democracy, which seems ot have crresponded to far more Brutality.

  6. To Christina; I would never "blame" Russia or any one country for the war certainly but none of the facts you mention counter the fact that it was the ultimate involvement of Russia that turned a possible Balkan war into a world war. Certainly Serbia would have taken a drubbing from the Austrians, most of the world saw them as being in the wrong anyway, but Russia staying out would have kept Germany out which would have kept France out etc. That is not to assign sole responsibility to Russia or any other country, that's just the way the cookie crumbled. Additionally, sympathies for Serbia aside, it should have been clear that Russia was in no shape to fight in 1914 and should not really have done so for any reason save their own national defense.

    To Zarove; you are as usual correct. Wars did not become "total" until they became "democratic", the "Nation in Arms" did not exist until the revolutionary era and no regimes have been so aggressive, cruel and militant than those with "people's" or "democratic" in their names.

  7. I thought of my day excursion to Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina as I read this. As we toured the ancient town, our tour guide who was a veteran of the 1990s Balkan Wars, asked a rhetorical question--we fought (other neighboring countries) for what?
    The town still bears war damages but it's still worth visiting today for the history and culture.

    On a cultural note, one of the mosques in town has a beautiful rug that Emperor Franz Joseph gave as a gift during a visit there.

  8. Versailles is rightly derided - it was harsh enough to leave the Germans seething, but not harsh enough to stop them reaching bloody vengeance (though I doubt anyone really counted on that horror we call appeasement. Feeding the crocodile that it might eat one last. Gee, talk about living on your knees).

  9. This is such a great post, I really struggled to say something today, just should set this link instead.

  10. To MB; thank you, to Mr Wells; that fear was not lost on many of the men who had the most contact with the Germans: the military men. Marshal Foch and General Pershing I know both said that the terms were far too light and Germany would soon recover to try again. Of course if they had not been so harsh with the Germans it might not have mattered but they did exactly the wrong thing in alienating and infuriating the Germans but them putting them on the honor system to be good about it.

    To Elisa; that is interesting about the Kaiser and the mosque, not something most people are aware of. Of course A-H was Catholic and the Catholic Church would always have pride of place in the Hapsburg empire but Jews and Muslims alike were also treated fairly and with all respect by Kaiser Franz Josef and his successor. Everyone thinks of Austria-Hungary as the enemies of the Ottoman Turks; which they were for most of European history, but they were good allies in the war and Kaiser Karl actually sent an Austrian expeditionary force to the Middle East to support the Ottoman war effort.

  11. Wonderful post! The Treaty of Versailles was one of the worst treaties in history. Honestly, it was more of a war treaty than a peace treaty. It didn't help, however, that the United States refused to support the League of Nations. I don't really blame Americans though, we lived in isolation from the rest of the world and weren't ready for a more international role.

  12. A good post. As I said on my own blog yesterday, World War I was the greatest tragedy to ever befall the west -- the Second World War and virtually any other diplomatic disaster since you might care to name can in some way trace its cause to the First World War.

    I agree with you in assigning the lion's share of responsibility to Russia for turning what would have been a Third Balkan War into World War I. The Austro-Hungarians had every reason to want to punish the Serbs, Serbian intelligence was hand in glove (so to speak) with the Black Hand and the Austrians knew it. No country would have behaved differently following the murder of a significant political figure by terrorists connected to a neigboring foreign power. The Russians, of all people, should have seen the necessity of monarchial solidarity with Vienna on that point.

    Turning to Versailles, I would argue that, oddly enough, Germany came away from the treaty stronger in geopolitical terms that it had been in 1914. Germany's territorial losses were grave and (in the east at least) rather unjust, but she lost no industry and not much population, and instead of having a strong Russian Empire on the east, she was borded by nothing but weak petty states everyplace but to the West. The prohibition on unification with what was left of Austria was also a mistake -- had the German areas of what was left of Austria Hungary been allowed to join with Germany (or the option at least left open for later), that would have gone a long way towards reconciling German opinion to the rest of the settlement.

    As it turned out, the allies bought themselves the worst of all worlds: they took just enough from the Germans to anger them, and give the cranks and lunatics a potent talking point, but nothing that would permanent danage Germany as a great power. Never do an enemy a small injury.

    The fall of the German monarchies was a tragedy for everyone -- Germany, but, as it turned out, the rest of Europe also.


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