The war to end all war

“One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.”– Otto von Bismarck (1888)


One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” – Otto von Bismarck (1888)

The events that trigger change in the world, chaos and complexity theories suggest, are often the tiny things. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, and a storm ravages half of Europe.

The assassination 100 years ago in Sarajevo of the little-known heir to a declining empire, in many capitals a blip on a quiet news day, had the same relationship to the European storm that would become the first World War, a single domino falling that would bring down three empires and fan the flames of revolution and change the face of the modern world. The American historian Fritz Stern called the war it “the first calamity of the 20th Century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang.”

In commemorating the events of that fateful decade of 1912-22 , during which history itself seemed to have accelerated at breakneck speed, The Irish Times has been marking with a series of supplements the great national moments in which our fellow countrymen and women reshaped and redefined Ireland. But we are also remembering those, and here the first World War, in which this country and its people were swept up involuntarily on the great tides of the world stage, bit players in a bigger drama, though one which we also shaped and which left its own indelible mark on us.

The fifth of our “Century” series is an attempt to describe/explain from the perspectives of the capitals of Europe what happened in the 37 days between the killings in Sarajevo on the 28th of June 1914 of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife by a Serb nationalist, and the declaration of war by Britain on Germany. It is a countdown to war that confounds the simplistic post-Versailles single-cause rationalisation – “German militarism” – that the war’s winners needed to proclaim it a “just war “. A lethal cocktail of Balkan nationalism and shifting borders, great-power rivalry, secret alliances, strategic miscalculations, and even jealousies in the single royal family of Europe, all contributed, with many more ingredients. Not least, the tussle for political power within Germany.

And we played our own significant part too in the descent into war. Ireland’s turmoil over home rule, and the preoccupation of the British with the possibility of civil war here, played a key part in Germany’s miscalculation and uncertainty about whether Britain would come to France’s aid, and in London’s dithering over the same issue.

That prevarication was decisively overcome by John Redmond’s pledge that nationalist Ireland would defend the country against German invasion, and his willingness to put the home rule agitation on hold. Jerome aan de Wiel’s fascinating account in this supplement of that largely untold story of Ireland’s part in the road to war is an important perspective.

Thirty five thousand Irishmen would die in British uniform – for all too long forgotten and unhonoured here – in the war that saw the mobilisation of 65 million under arms and took 20 million civilian and military lives. HG Wells spoke of it as, and many hoped against hope it would be, “the war to end all war”. But, as Walter Lippman would write , “the delusion is that whatever war we are fighting is the war to end war”. The delusion was also that, as Kaiser William told German troops in 1914, “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” Delusions about stability, and the old deference, about the rock-like permanence of the social order, about how to fight and win wars ... all casualties too of the calamity of mud and trenches of Flanders fields.

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