If you knew that you were in the crosshairs for devastating slaughter, what would you do? Would you do everything in your power to understand what was going on and act? Or would you allow an unrelenting cascade of absurd assumptions and blinding emotions to take its toil?
The latter, tragically, is what many historians conclude that highly educated statesmen, diplomats, kings, emperors, generals and political leaders all collectively yielded to a century ago.
In a modern age where we take mechanized carnage for granted—from drone-fueled bloodletting in the Middle East to digital barbarism in video games—it may be a challenge to fully appreciate the scope of the butchery that was World War I. Today, one might ask: What truly went down a century ago?
The unprecedented and unparalleled introduction of industrial weaponry, a subsequent multinational arms race, and total all-out war in 1914 deeply brutalized the European Continent on two fronts, felled great empires, and destabilized Europe together with much of the world. Further, for the first time in human history it introduced massive death from the sky (mechanized aircraft-based warfare) and from underwater (submarines capable of launching torpedoes to destroy steel-hulled ships from far away).
Tragically, the Great War made possible the Bolshevik Revolution, thus helping herald into world status a formerly untested and obscure political philosophy—Soviet Communism. During this war a staggering 37 million people lost their lives, often in an inhuman and pitiless fashion. Millions more suffered incapacitating injuries. The continent-wide carnage swallowed whole national economies, leaving millions without food or shelter.
Future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill later summed it up: "All the horrors of all the ages were brought together; not only armies but whole populations were thrust into the midst of them" (emphasis added throughout).
How did any of this happen? What could possibly be worth this ruinous price? And what lessons can we learn from all this today?
The consequences of flawed thinking
From a 21st-century historian's perspective, the phrase "the war to end all wars"—as World War I became known when America finally entered the conflict—mockingly underestimates the catastrophic ravaging power that engulfed Europe from 1914 to 1918.
As the ragged and exhausted nations stumbled toward the Treaty of Versailles in 1918, the global political landscape was forever changed in a manner no one would have dreamed of only four years earlier. In short order four great imperial dynasties—German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Turkish—would vanish from the world scene. In their gaping geopolitical vacuum would emerge a new world order, one that included a savage totalitarian regime in former Mother Russia that in time slaughtered many millions of its own citizens.
Instead of traditional territorial disputes, flawed thinking drove the world to the brink of savagery. The stunning fact remains that essentially everyone naively thought the war would commence and conclude in five short months—"the war will be over by Christmas" was the generally accepted prediction in August of 1914.
Also unforeseen, the culmination of this same global conflict would consequently lay a dangerous foundation of smoldering national resentment. It would be on this very blood-soaked foundation that fresh barbarism and mind-numbing worldwide war would arise anew in the form of Adolf Hitler and the Axis Powers barely two decades later.
Didn't anyone see this coming?
The answer, astonishingly, is no.
German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck did accurately predict that "some damned foolish thing in the Balkans" could trigger multinational conflict. However, the now-universally accepted "spark" in 1914 that blazed into a globe-spanning conflagration —the assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand—was not initially viewed as any kind of major event.
As historian Zbynk Zeman later wrote: "The event almost failed to make any impression whatsoever. On Sunday and Monday [June 28 and 29, 1914], the crowds in Vienna listened to music and drank wine, as if nothing had happened." A few months later, virtually the entire world was engulfed in hideous trench warfare. Few really saw the scope of the global conflict coming.
Why were people blinded? Instead of learning the harsh lessons of the impact of advancing technology, bad intelligence and the blinding power of unrestrained nationalism from the American Civil War, the Russo-Japanese War and other then-recent conflicts, national leaders and key influencers chose to overlook critical information and forge forward to unmitigated disaster.
As the fires of rampant nationalism burned brighter and brighter on the European Continent in 1914, other more rational minds looked on in incredulous dismay. In the United States, the Woodrow Wilson presidential administration vowed neutrality toward the European insanity. The American people agreed, and the United States successfully stood apart from the roiling conflict for two years after the guns of August opened fire.
War came to the Americans only after German submarines started sinking U.S. ships in the Atlantic and a coded German message surfaced that promised Mexico large portions of American soil if it would declare war on its northern neighbor.
Ignoring key warnings
In the months and years preceding the onslaught of the Great War, numerous signals and ample warnings emerged that should have fully caught the attention of those in power. Underestimated and unchecked, the power of national folly ran abreast of unprecedented diplomatic absurdity, even stupidity.
Given the open scope of rising tensions, massive military buildups, and the pile-on of complex alliances, nothing should have surprised world leaders in the final race to all-out war. Many historians note with dismay how opportunity after opportunity to avoid conflict was tragically squandered for no good reason. In hindsight it's difficult to imagine how blind so many experienced leaders, diplomats, influencers and generals were to the potential carnage that was materializing right in front of them.
Yet blind they were.
And 37 million people would die gruesomely as a tragic consequence of that blindness.
What lesson can we learn from this today? Are we blind to looming catastrophe in the second decade of the 21st century?
A red sky warning?
The appearance of a red-tinted sky in either the morning or evening tells an experienced person much in terms of what to expect from incoming weather. Speaking nearly 2,000 years ago, Jesus Christ used this natural phenomenon to underscore a key point for us today:
"When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times" (Matthew 16:2-3, New International Version).
Many biblical passages warn of a time when rampant evil and lawlessness will abound, including a disdain and rejection of God's laws revealed in Scripture. That willful rejection will lead directly to serious global consequences—both self-inflicted and ultimately put in place by God Himself.
How bad are those consequences? The inevitable result of collectively and willfully breaking God's commandments to humanity will directly lead to a time when "there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again" (Matthew 24:21, NIV).
This time of global "great distress," called in other Bible versions the "Great Tribulation," will be so intense and so world-engulfing that if God does not intervene to stop it, "no one would survive" (Matthew 24:22, NIV).
Could you be missing the warning signs?
Like the experienced leaders of 1914, could you today be missing what Jesus called "the signs of the times"? Jesus warned that the culmination of these "signs of the times" will come "at an hour when you do not expect" (Luke 12:40, NIV).
Urging His followers to take care and avoid being blinded to what was transpiring, He used this illustration: "Learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it [the prophesied sequence of great end-time events] is near, right at the door" (Matthew 24:32-33, NIV).
The Bible, the very Word of God, includes many prophecies of the future. Most of these focus on the coming age of the Kingdom of God, a time of marvelous peace and prosperity. But many also show that the coming of the Kingdom will be preceded by the aforementioned time of "great distress."
Unlike those diplomats and leaders of 1914, you can know what is coming and what it means for you. A new "horrors of the ages" is coming, as well as an incredible time of peace to follow. In 1914, they didn't see it coming. In the 21st century, will you?