Well, for this one, I know I am in the minority, and so hopefully provoke a few people to thinking. I am purposely not going to take a philosophical or religious perspective. I believe there are compelling thoughts there that challenge the prevailing view that wars are sometimes necessary and even favorable, especially when the outcome favors the nation from which we derive. Most would applaud the Western allies’ victory over Germany and Japan in the second world war, even if regretting the millions of lives lost.
What sparked my thought process here is based more from a historical perspective, and I owe much thanks and appreciation to Dan Carlin and his podcast ‘Hardcore History’. I recently finished a 6 parter entitled ‘Blueprint for Armageddon’, which focused almost entirely on the four years of war between 1914 and 1918, otherwise known as the First World War. Whilst this was a fascinating and engaging history lesson and covered much of the chronology of those years, what really struck me was the fact that this and other historical events can never be taken in isolation. In particular, the impact of the First World War on what would become an even greater loss of life and devastation between 1939 and 1945.
The first of these awful conflagrations was kicked off by a single event in Sarajevo, Serbia, when Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, was assassinated by a ‘Lee Harvey Oswald’ style gunman with the name Gavrila Princip. Now, there are plenty of assassinations that never lead to any kind of war, let alone a major war involving most of the world’s nations. But in this case, country after country was drawn in due to honoring of treaties, invasion of neutral territory and other political expediencies. Millions died and, in many battles, in numbers never before seen and circumstances that rarely gave any real advantage to the winning side. These were bloody encounters where both sides were subject to the ‘meat grinder’ of death unleashed across lines that barely moved for most of the war. It was only towards the end, when extreme weariness and lack of supplies alongside desertion of most of the countries formerly supporting Austria-Hungary that Germany threw in the towel and were subject to the imposed peace terms of the allies in the treaty of Versailles. This included the annexation of land, and specifically a piece of land called the Sudetenland with a majority German population, given to Czechoslovakia as it was then called. This piece of land would be crucial in igniting the Second World War.
Germany almost won the war in 1917, when the Russians collapsed in the wake of the 1917 revolution and the US had not yet committed to fighting with the western allies. Instead, they suffered defeat, surrender and loss of territory to cap a bitterness and despair at the massive loss of life and devastation of their economy.
It was from this deep-seated bitterness and defeat that Hitler wrote his manifesto, ‘Mein Kampf’. This book played cleverly to the wounded and bitter psyche of the German people over the next few years and coupled with the devastated economy from the war, he was able to command enough support not only to become the leader of the country, but to introduce a brand of fascism that derived from the sense of victimhood and the brooding Xenophobia of the day. Hitler’s first act of war in 1939, only 21 years after the treaty of Versailles, was to invade the very Sudetenland that had been given to Czechoslovakia and the rest, as they say, is history.
All this historic preamble is given to emphasize a fascinating lesson about war. First of all, the numbers. Around 15 million died in WW1, around 70 million in WW2. In other words, WW2 wiped out the equivalent of more than the current population of the entire United Kingdom in 6 years. I don’t think anyone can even comprehend what this really means in human terms, suffering and the impact on everyone who lost family and close friends. It is highly likely the second war would never have occurred had the first not taken place. AND the first occurred as a direct result of the assassination of an heir to a throne of a country that no longer exists. It is fairly safe to say that that one royal murder triggered a chain reaction that cost 85 million lives. Could this have been avoided? Undoubtedly. How would that have been achieved? Instead of retaliation against the Serbs, was it not enough that the 19 year old gunman was tried and convicted of the murder. We cannot predict what might have happened, but we should at least ponder the possibilities. Perhaps another pretext would have presented itself. But 20th century history suggests that pacifism in the face of provocation might just have saved the unimaginable impact of 85 million deaths. It should, at least, cause us pause to think whenever war rears its devastating head!
This is an interesting question. John Ramsden, in his series for The Modern Scholar: “The Great War and the World it made,”–which I greatly enjoyed, describes the assassination of Ferdinand within the context of the surrounding political circumstances throughout Europe at the time. He likens that context to being the powder-keg, and the assassination to being the match. In this, he explicitly makes historical parallels to other cases in world history where call it war-tending political contexts (for want of a more artful description) did not result in wars, noting even that at one point the US and Britain were on the brink. There’s a lot more to be said about this, but I don’t know how interesting it would be so…
Thanks for the perspective – I appreciate you taking part in the discussion – it certainly gives me some more food for thought
Thanks and thanks for the recommendation on the podcast
As you may know, the “bulletproof” vest had just been invented and a sample was made available to the Archduke… unfortunately for him and soooo many others, he declined to wear it.