You can pick your own specific anniversary; the exact date doesn’t really matter. But a hundred years ago today Germany declared war against France, the day after it had started the invasion in the west by occupying Luxembourg, and two days after it had declared war on Russia. The following day Germany invaded Belgium, in clear violation of its treaty obligations, and Britain in response also entered the war.
Europe, almost entirely at peace for the previous 40 years, therefore tumbled into the First World War, which laid waste the world’s economies, killed something like 16 million people and brought down in succession the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German and Turkish empires.
Unquestionably, the scars of the First World War are still present in the collective memory of the belligerent nations. But is there more to it than just history and commemoration? Are there lessons for today that we can learn from the outbreak of such a devastating war after a long period of peace?
It’s common to say that prior to 1914 a great European war had become “unthinkable”, and that when it came the war was at least partly the result of complacency. The great powers had become used to the idea that they could bluster and threaten one another but that nothing bad would really happen. Then one day, through a series of miscalculations, that pattern was broken and disaster ensued.
Various pessimistic pundits draw the moral that our own long period of peace could end in a similarly catastrophic fashion.
But that picture is only a half truth. For 40 years the powers had done more than bluster: they had engaged in an incredibly destructive arms race, building up huge conscript armies and battle fleets for no conceivable purpose except to one day use against one another. And when war finally came, although there was certainly miscalculation involved, there was also an explicit willingness of the German rulers to bring it on sooner rather than later, in case their strategic advantage against Russia should disappear.
The period of peace that Europe has enjoyed in our time is not only longer – now almost 70 years – it is institutionally much more solid. It has been a long time since anyone could construct a plausible scenario in which any of Britain or France or Germany or Turkey or the United States would go to war against each other. Structures like NATO and the European Union have done their job, although whether their success is more cause or effect can still be debated.
The threats and talk of war that were routine in European diplomacy before 1914 simply do not happen now. Even in relation to Russia, the only real wild card left in the European pack, talk is of sanctions rather than war. (With good reason, since there is no doubt about the result of a NATO vs Russia conflict.)
Even turning the focus worldwide, it’s hard to identify a war between so much as middle-ranking powers for more than a generation. The Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979 and the Iran-Iraq war that began the following year are probably the latest clear cases. War still plagues many parts of Africa and the Middle East, but in the terms our ancestors understood it, of developed nations fighting each other with conventional armies on roughly equal terms, it is all but extinct.
To be sure, warnings against complacency are always welcome. The world is still a dangerous place in many ways, and some things are getting worse rather than better. But we can probably dispense with the idea that Europe, or anywhere else much (China vs Japan may perhaps be an exception), is at risk of returning to the model of great power conflict that prevailed a century ago.