100 Years After World War I: What Have We Learned?

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100 Years After World War I

What Have We Learned?

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Several years ago, during a visit to Germany, I toured the home of Kaiser Wilhelm II at Potsdam. The Kaiser's home is located within a large estate that includes another great residence, Sans Souci, home of the famous emperor Frederick the Great.

The Kaiser's home, called the New Palace, is a larger and more sumptuous home than the other. Originally built as a guest palace, it later became the home of the last Hohenzollern rulers. The furnishings in the home would fill more than 50 railroad cars!

For me the most interesting location in the whole palace was the smaller room on the north end of the second floor. Kaiser Wilhelm II used it as a dining area. In that room, in August 1914, he signed orders mobilizing German armies and setting off events that led to what would become known as "the Great War"—World War I. It was fascinating to be able to picture the Kaiser sitting at a small kitchen table putting his name to official documents that committed troops to the maelstrom of war.

A few feet from this room is the largest, most ornate chamber in the palace, the Marble Room. Floor-to-ceiling windows run its entire length. At a window just outside the kitchen you can stand and see across the estate through an avenue of trees for more than two miles in the distance. It is a long view.

The day of my visit I stood at that window and wondered if perhaps the Kaiser might have arisen from his table after signing the orders and walked into this room and stood for a moment to gaze out across his land. Might he have thought about what he had just done? Could he have considered how far-reaching was the decision he had just made?

Certainly he did not see how many years into the future that one decision would last—neither did he comprehend the lives that would be changed nor a world reshaped. He was not alone in failing to grasp the far-reaching impact—the long perspective, if you will—of the war that would be called "the war to end all wars."

Long-term consequences continue to impact our world today

Today, as the world marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of that great conflict, it still deals with the consequences of the decisions made by the Kaiser and other European leaders.

World War I resulted in the breakup of two world empires whose influence had shaped Europe and the Middle East. The Hapsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary had ruled in Europe for nearly 400 years. As part of the Holy Roman Empire, its influence at one time reached as far as California and the American Southwest.

Austria was one of the initial protagonists in the war. Austrian belligerence after its Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo in June 1914 pushed the great powers to the brink by early August. Austria's manpower was quickly ground to dust by the machine of war, and by 1918 that once-mighty empire was at an end.

Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire, centered in Constantinople (now Istanbul in modern-day Turkey) had ruled most of the Middle East and large parts of Eastern Europe for centuries. Twice in history its troops had come close to rolling up all of Europe and adding those lands to its Islamic empire. But both times its armies advanced no further than the gates of Vienna.

A succession of corrupt and incompetent rulers had eaten the heart of the Ottoman Empire by the start of the war in 1914. Vassal states in Europe and the Middle East were eager for independence. Allied with Germany and defeated by the West in the course of the war, this empire likewise collapsed, and it was left to the victors—primarily Britain and France—to carve up the Middle East and redistribute it into a patchwork of new states such as Jordan, Iraq and Syria.

The lines on the map delineating the borders of these new nations made little sense within the region's ethnic and religious context. Many of the conflicts in the region over the past century are the direct result of ill-advised decisions made in the wake of the World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

When you read headlines today of genocide in Syria, the launching of rockets into Israel from terrorist encampments in southern Lebanon and Gaza, or the continuing unrest among refugees throughout the region, you are seeing the fruit of decisions made by leaders who had to pick up the pieces from the collapse of empires in 1918.

What Kaiser Wilhelm II set in motion and what leaders decided afterwards developed into a series of events that span the last century. The long view of history is critical to understanding why today's world continues to experience unresolvable conflict.

Old roots of modern conflicts

Every evening when I sit down to watch the news I see commercials asking for donations to help wounded warriors from the Middle East conflicts that have embroiled American troops for more than a decade. I see heart-wrenching stories of men and women who were wounded and survived their injuries from bombs and bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The wonders of modern battlefield medicine have allowed these soldiers to survive and return home. But tragically, their lives often are a shadow of what they once were. They require years of rehabilitation and ongoing help.

No doubt many of them, their families, and those watching these stories ask why—why were we there, and what is the cause of these wars? Why were they in such remote lands fighting someone else's battle? What is the solution, if any? There are answers to these questions.

Iraq was one of the nations carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire following World War I. A ruler, a member of the Hashemite family from Arabia, was put in place. His name was King Faisal I. His tenure lasted only a short time until a revolt led to his ouster and a French mandate was imposed. What ensued, and remains, was sporadic unrest through the 20th century, with different rulers providing different versions of incompetence and inept leadership.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by Islamic terrorists, the United States and its allies attacked and overthrew terror-sponsoring regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. When America toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, it not only deposed a corrupt strongman, but it "broke" the fragile and mostly peaceful coexistence of very different peoples. Westerners little understand the deep differences and longtime divisions between ethnic groups in that region.

It is this inability to understand the past and the root causes of conflict that can perpetuate wars today. America spent many years and many lives in Iraq trying to deal with the impact of political decisions made in the wake of World War I.  

The shape of the entire Middle East today was determined largely by a conference held in Paris at the Palace of Versailles at the end of the war. Leaders still try to sort through the consequences of the decision of the Kaiser and other leaders to plunge the world into the dark abyss of war.

What is the cause?

For a century now historians have examined the cause of the Great War. I grew up being taught it was all Germany's fault. German belligerence pushed the nations to war. It's a simple assessment, but it leaves out important elements.

Historians today focus on the entangling alliances of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and Great Britain with France and Russia. When one was attacked, the others were obligated to be drawn into battle. The prewar geopolitical map of Europe was a complex web of political alliances overlaying an antiquated system of family monarchal ties that doomed the continent to the cauldron of conflict erupting that long-ago August.

To illustrate, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II was cousin to the king of England. Another cousin, Empress Alexandra, was married to the Russian Czar Nicholas II. All traced their line back to England's Queen Victoria. You would think that such ties—they visited back and forth, and the Kaiser was a frequent guest at Windsor Castle—would act as a brake to the runaway train that led to the collision of nations. But it didn't.

What caused World War I? After reading several histories and analyses written during this centennial retrospective, the one cause that jumps out most to me is sheer incompetence. The leaders of that day saw war coming for years. Germany armed itself to the hilt—in fact it engaged in the first modern arms race with Great Britain. Plans for a German invasion of France were known to be in place for years prior to 1914. Nationalist urges in the Balkans were continual sparks, like matches repeatedly struck till ignited.

And when the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated on June 28, weeks of growing tension passed that all could see would lead to war —but no one, despite good intentions, could stop the inevitable. There simply was no prewar leader in Europe with the stature, wisdom and diplomacy to halt the insanity. It's one of the colossal failures of history that an interconnected Europe and wider world couldn't prevent the largest, bloodiest war to that time.

Historians mention the level of globalization that existed in 1914. Transportation and communication along with industrialization had created the first "age of globalization." Wealth flowed across the Atlantic between Europe and the United States. Advances in science and education were lifting the nations to a new era of prosperity. Social ills were beginning to be addressed. There was every reason to expect that a brighter age for all peoples lay on the near horizon. But the war ground these dreams, along with the lives of a generation of youth, into the mud of the battlefields.

Again, why? What ultimately underlies all this? Historians can recalibrate their studies and pore over the mountains of information seeking but not finding the ultimate cause for World War I. Yet there is one source that tells us the cause of conflict among human beings of any age. That source is the Bible, the Word of God.

What lies at the root of wars?

The book of James, written by the half-brother of Jesus Christ, contains the key explanation for war and conflict among the human race, great and small. Notice what he says:

"Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (James 4:1-4).

James lists within these verses the plot line for every war since Cain lifted his hand against Abel. From murder to battles to mass slaughter and world war, you see the seeds in these verses. From the envy and jealousy that pits brother against brother, father against son and husband against wife, it's all outlined here.

Unbridled lust and desire for power and control over land and resources move nations to war. Bloodthirsty desire to control the lives of men and women move dictators and kings to move armies against cities and lands.

The stories of World War I are those of petty, vile and base men who desired more—more power, more land, more prestige—more, more and more. And the result was indeed more—more death, more suffering and more destruction.

Like leaders who went before and have since followed after, they could not take a long view of life and history and make the right decisions for their people. They could not make sound decisions based on truth, justice and temperance—all of which are within our power to achieve, especially when mixed with greater humility and less pride.

These virtues—truth, justice and temperance—can be found in drawing near to God. Together they can help us all develop a friendship with God and become enemies of the culture of death so often spawned in today's world. They can help us change our lives on the inside and produce thoughts and actions that lead to peace.

Will you take a long view?

A study of a devastating war begun a hundred years ago can be an exercise in nostalgia and academic history. Only a few people alive today can even remember this war in their earliest memories. For we who take a moment to reflect on what happened, let's be sure to take away a lesson that helps us understand our present world: History existed before our birth, it marches on now, and decisions made by people long ago and far away continue to impact our lives today.

At the same time, know that the decisions you and I make in the present have an impact on our lives and the lives of others today and long into the future.

We must learn to take the long view on life. The world sorely needs leaders with a view different from leaders of the past. The world needs leadership with the long view, the view of what is best and will benefit all others and avoid the destructive and bloody scourge of conflict and war. We desperately need leadership with the long view to the world to come, when the world will know peace under the rule of the Kingdom of God.