Hunting Rats in the Trenches, Jozef Van Doninck [ca. 1915], Europeana, CC Cover

Why the Great War Remains the First “Modern War”: Rethinking the Origins of World War I in the Twenty-First Century

This month (August 2014), the First World War celebrates its hundredth anniversary. The event has occasioned a variety of commemorative addresses and reflections on the meaning of the Great War and its place in history. Considered the first “modern war” due to its expansive scale, astonishingly high mortality rates, impact on civilian society and transformative influence on military technologies, tactical innovation and diplomacy, the First World War has never ceased to provide historians with a subject of seemingly endless speculation and controversy.

The question of origins has proven a particularly thorny issue among historians. From the notorious “war guilt” imposed on Germany in the immediate aftermath of the conflict to Fritz Fischer’s critical analysis of German war aims in 1914, one school has persisted to lay blame for the outbreak of the war at the feet of Germany.1  Other more pragmatic and, one may add, less ideologically driven, historians have seen fit to parcel out blame in more or less equal measure, chalking up the conflict to a toxic mix of imperial rivalry, unbridled nationalism and diplomatic miscalculations. As Joachim Remak once put it, when it comes to the First World War, “all were sinners, and all were sinned against.”2

Yet with the coming of the war’s centennial, we may ask what relevance the Great War continues to hold for us today. Does the event have anything new to teach us, and what potentialities might a twenty-first-century perspective have for reassessing its legacy? Moreover, given the current state of warfare and international politics, does the Great War still merit consideration as the first “modern war”? The answer, I believe, is a resounding “yes.”

In 2002, I recall reading a transcript of President George W. Bush’s speech given on the occasion of a graduation commencement ceremony at West Point, a speech that prefigured what would soon become known as the “Bush Doctrine.” In the speech, the President declared:

“We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best . . . If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long. Our security will require transforming the military you will lead, a military that must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world. And our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.”3

Crown Prince of Germany [1914], Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Crown Prince of Germany [1914], Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
To my mind, there was nothing particularly novel in this declaration, and as an historian I was inclined to draw evident historical parallels. My first consideration was Crown Prince Wilhelm’s Germany in Arms published in 1913, in which the heir apparent did not mince words when outlining the dire international and military circumstances facing the German Empire in the early twentieth century. Noting Germany’s “unfavorable geographic frontiers” and encirclement by hostile powers, he insisted that Germany was obliged “more than any other country to place all its confidence in its good weapons.” “Upon the German Empire is imposed,” he concluded, “. . . the sacred duty of watching carefully that its army and its navy be always prepared to meet any attack from the outside.”4  These sentiments were echoed among various sections of the German political class, running from the left’s idea of a “defensive war” to the right-wing Pan-German nationalist Heinrich Class’ suggestion that Germany was compelled to pursue “a defensive war . . . in an aggressive way.”5

Whether we are inclined to talk about a “defensive war” or the more contemporary notion of a “preemptive strike,” it would be this very motive given by Germany to explain its decision to mobilize in the summer of 1914. Had the military “failed to guard against [the] peril” of Russian mobilization, the argument ran, it “would have compromised the safety and the very existence of Germany.”6  In seeking historical context for current geo-political strategies and attitudes, we may also rethink the origins of the Great War and the causes often attributed to it.

Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Countess Hohenberg, Countess Baillet de Latour [1913], Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Countess Hohenberg, Countess Baillet de Latour [1913], Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress
The same holds true for Austria-Hungary’s plunge into the abyss in 1914. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand has commonly been considered the pretext for carrying out a long-anticipated war against Serbia and eradicating the source of the Pan-Slav nationalism so detrimental to the multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire. There is much truth to these claims. Yet historians have often tended to overlook or minimize the cultural and political contexts which framed reactions to the assassination and Austria’s response.

It should be recalled that during the late nineteenth century, states were confronted with a growing threat of political violence, often attributed to conspiratorial societies with international sponsorship. In the wake of the 1871 Paris Commune, the French journalist and critic Émile Montégut condemned the ongoing war against “the civilized world” perpetrated by the Communist International which had recently torn France apart. “This is war, war declared openly,” he claimed, “not for one cause or another or against a particular country, but against all things and all countries at once.”7  The French politician Jules Favre went further, warning European statesmen of the “cosmopolitan insurrection aimed against all social principles.”8  In 1894 the French president Sadi Carnot was stabbed to death by an anarchist in Lyon in broad daylight, soon followed by the assassinations of Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Cánovas del Castillo by an Italian gunmen in 1897, the assassination of US President William McKinley and the killing of Italian King Umberto I at the hands of an anarchist. In late 1898, the murder of Empress Elizabeth of Austria at the hands of the Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni prompted the calling of an international congress in Rome to facilitate international cooperation and coordination between states against the anarchist threat.

Untitled Photograph, Wilhelm Sandvoss [May 1918], Montdidier in the Somme.  License.
Untitled Photograph, Wilhelm Sandvoss [May 1918], Montdidier in the Somme. License.
In light of the mounting international efforts to stem the tide of a “barbaric” transnational movement pitted against the “civilized” world, the actions of Gavrilo Princip were by no means exceptional. More to the point, in such an atmosphere, Austria-Hungary could conceivably expect a fair measure of international support. The official investigation conducted by Austrian authorities in July 1914 revealed that Princip and his accomplices had received training, arms and financial support from rouge generals within the Serbian military tied to the terrorist group the Black Hand. The report was keen to note that the Black Hand encouraged “a tradition amongst those ready to commit crimes” and provided them with the “instruments of murder” necessary for carrying out their plans.9  The explanatory letter for Austria’s ultimatum released on 23 July was even more revealing. Serbia was referred to as a “center of criminal agitation” and sponsor of “terrorist agitation” acting “in opposition to the will of Europe.” The Habsburg government was “convinced” that in in pursing an aggressive course it was in “full agreement with the sentiments of all civilized nations, who cannot permit regicide to become a weapon that can be employed with impunity in political strife, and the peace of Europe.”10

Three British soldiers in trench under fire during World War I [1916]. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Three British soldiers in trench under fire during World War I [1916]. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Germany as well invoked the criminal intent of Serbia and the challenge it posed to civilized society as it beat the war drum in 1914. “This crime must have opened the eyes of the entire civilized world, not only in regard to the aims of the Serbian policies directed against the conservation and integrity of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, but also concerning the criminal means which the pan-Serb propaganda in Serbia had no hesitation in employing for the achievement of these aims.”11  Austria’s efforts to “tame Balkan nationalism”—to use historian Robin Okey’s phrase—were, by 1914, being presented as part of a larger international consensus against political violence, “cosmopolitan” conspiracy and rouge states that harbored terrorists bent on carrying out crimes against civilized order.12

Naturally, there is room for cynicism. Germany certainly had ambitions of dominating Europe and pursuing an ambitious Weltpolitik and saw the July Crisis as a golden opportunity; certain members of the Austrian military had long contemplated the necessity of dismembering Serbia and used the assassination as a pretext to actualize these plans; general anticipation that a European war was inevitable blunted political judgments on all sides. Yet in light of recent world events and the current global War on Terror which continues to influence international political discourse and state security measures, the path to war in 1914 acquires a chillingly contemporary dimension. We do not have to speculate on how a world power might respond to an international terrorist threat half way across the globe. Yet what if that threat lay right across the border, some 700 kilometers away?

As we reconsider the meaning and implications of the First World War on its centennial, it perhaps pays to question how the present offers a chance to rethink and reassess the origins of the conflict that brought Europe into the twentieth century. If the Great War remains the first “modern war,” it is worth speculating on the meaning implicit within this epithet for us today.


Credit for cover image.