Monday, December 16, 2013

The Great War and our Great Unknown

It is comforting to look about us and simply not imagine any possible reason for there to be a major war. 

History teaches us that we really shouldn't get comfortable with that thought. 

The New Year will bring WWI once again to the front, as we look at what happened 100 years ago. This is good. We need more hard thinking - as 1914 has a lot to tell us about 2014.

In a simply outstanding article that needs to be read in full, Margaret MacMillan, warden of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, in the NYT lays it out;
The decades leading up to 1914 were, as now, a period of dramatic shifts and upheavals, which those who experienced them thought of as unprecedented in speed and scale. New fields of commerce and manufacture were opening up, such as the rapidly expanding chemical and electrical industries. Einstein was developing his general theory of relativity; radical new ideas like psychoanalysis were finding a following; and the roots of the predatory ideologies of fascism and Soviet Communism were taking hold.

Globalization can have the paradoxical effect of fostering intense localism and nativism, frightening people into taking refuge in small like-minded groups. Globalization also makes possible the widespread transmission of radical ideologies and the bringing together of fanatics who will stop at nothing in their quest for the perfect society. In the period before World War I, anarchists and revolutionary Socialists across Europe and North America read the same works and had the same aim: to overthrow the existing social order. The young Serbs who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo were inspired by Nietzsche and Bakunin, just as their Russian and French counterparts were.

Terrorists from Calcutta to Buffalo imitated one another as they hurled bombs onto the floors of stock exchanges, blew up railway lines, and stabbed and shot those they saw as oppressors, whether the Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary or the president of the United States, William McKinley. Today, new technologies and social media platforms provide new rallying points for fanatics, enabling them to spread their messages to even wider audiences around the globe.
Globalization can heighten rivalries and fears between countries that one might otherwise expect to be friends. On the eve of World War I, Britain, the world’s greatest naval power, and Germany, the world’s greatest land power, were each other’s largest trading partners. British children played with toys, including lead soldiers, made in Germany, and the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden resounded with the voices of German singers performing German operas. But all that did not translate into friendship.

Quite the contrary. With Germany cutting into Britain’s traditional markets and vying with it for colonies and power, the British felt threatened. As early as 1896, a best-selling British pamphlet, “Made in Germany,” painted an ominous picture: “A gigantic commercial State is arising to menace our prosperity, and contend with us for the trade of the world.” Many Germans held reciprocal views. When Kaiser Wilhelm and his naval secretary Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz built a deepwater navy to challenge British naval supremacy, the unease in Britain about Germany’s growing commercial and military power turned into something close to panic.

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