The Great War Revisited

Published May 7, 2014

First Things - May 2014 issue

This article is adapted from the thirteenth annual William E. Simon Lecture, delivered on February 6, 2014.

In 1936, the British writer Rebecca West stood on the balcony of Sarajevo’s town hall and said to her husband, “I shall never be able to understand how it happened.” It was World War I: the civilizational cataclysm that began, according to conventional chronology, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was assassinated in the Bosnian capital on June 28, 1914, by Gavrilo Princip, a twenty-year-old Bosnian Serb.

World War I was known for decades as the “Great War.” It seems an apt title. For if we think of a century not as an aggregation of one hundred years but as an epoch, what we know as “the twentieth century” began with the guns of August 1914 and ended when one of the Great War’s more consequential by-products, the Soviet Union, disintegrated in August 1991. World War I set in motion virtually all the dynamics that were responsible for shaping world history and culture in those seventy-seven years: the collapse of dynastic power in the fall of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires; the end of the Caliphate; new nation-states, new tensions in colonial competition, and new passions for decolonization; the mid-twentieth-century totalitarianisms; efforts to achieve global governance; the next two world wars (World War II and the Cold War); the emergence of the United States as leader of the West; serious alterations in the basic structures of domestic and international finance; and throughout Western culture, a vast jettisoning of traditional restraints in virtually every field, from personal and social behavior to women’s roles to the arts.

It was the “Great War” in other ways, too. Human history had never seen such effusive bloodletting: twenty million dead, military and civilian, with another twenty-one million wounded and maimed. Beyond that, the Great War created the conditions for the influenza pandemic that began in the war’s final year and eventually claimed more than twice as many lives as were lost in combat.

Sixty-five million soldiers, sailors, and airmen were called to their respective national colors in a struggle that evoked great acts of valor. Between 1914 and 1918, more than six hundred Victoria Crosses were awarded to British and Dominion troops. In Australia, Anzac gallantry during the 1915 Gallipoli campaign is still remembered as the formative experience of Australian nationhood. Names like Sergeant York and Eddie Rickenbacker continue to inspire courage among Americans.

The Great War also raised profound ethical questions about war, about nationalism, and about moral judgment in political and military affairs. It was the war during which the idea that “the great and the good” governed society by natural birthright was interred; the war in which the British poet Wilfred Owen, awarded the Military Cross for heroism in combat, wrote that those who had experienced a gas attack “would not tell with such zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory/The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori.” Owen and the other British anti-war poets were not alone in thinking that something had gone badly awry between 1914 and 1918. No less enthusiastic a warrior than Winston Churchill could write, in the war’s aftermath, that “all the horrors of all the ages were brought together, and not only armies but whole populations were thrust into the midst of them. . . . Neither peoples nor rulers drew the line at any deed which they thought could help them to win. . . . Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran.”

These jarring juxtapositions—between a young fanatic’s terrorist act in provincial Sarajevo and the continental carnage that followed; between inspiring episodes of extraordinary heroism and a debilitating sense of civilizational guilt that things had ever come to such a pass—have shaped interpretations of the Great War over the past century. At one hermeneutic pole, the war is regarded as a virtually incomprehensible act of civilizational suicide. That conclusion, first shaped by the failures of the post-war Versailles Treaty to restore order in Europe, by the anti-war writings of poets like Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and by German novelist Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front, was later accepted by such eminent historians as Britain’s Lewis Namier (who called World War I “the greatest disaster in European history”) and Columbia University’s Fritz Stern (for whom the Great War was “the first calamity of the twentieth century . . . from which all the other calamities sprang”). At the other pole of judgment, the Great War was a necessary piece of nasty work that prevented a militaristic Germany from dominating Europe politically and economically.

Nor has a firm consensus been established on who started the Great War, or, to put it another way, why it all happened in the first place. In wrestling with that elusive question, the twenty-first-century student of the Great War may actually be aided by our era’s fondness for using narrative as an analytic tool. Thus Christopher Clark, Cambridge historian, usefully reminds us that, in seeking to understand how such a cataclysm could have begun, we must reckon with the fact that

all the key actors in our story filtered the world through narratives that were built from pieces of experience glued together with fears, projections, and interests masquerading as maxims. In Austria, the story of a nation of youthful bandits and regicides [i.e., Serbia] endlessly provoking a patient elderly neighbor got in the way of a cool-headed assessment of how to manage relations with Belgrade. In Serbia, fantasies of victimhood and oppression by a rapacious, all-powerful Habsburg Empire did the same in reverse. In Germany, a dark vision of future invasions and partitions bedevilled decision-making in the summer of 1914. And the Russian saga of repeated humiliations at the hands of the central powers had a similar impact, at once distorting the past and clarifying the present. Most important of all was the widely trafficked narrative of Austria-Hungary’s historically necessary decline, which . . . disinhibited Vienna’s enemies, undermining the notion that Austria-Hungary, like every other great power, possessed interests that it had the right robustly to defend.

To which one could add: the French nightmare of a demographically robust Germany completing the absorption of Alsace and Lorraine, achieving European economic supremacy, and rendering France incapable of defending itself unaided; the classic British grand strategy of preventing any one power from achieving hegemony in continental Europe; Italian fantasies of revived Roman glory; American indifference to European politics; Japanese colonial ambitions in European-dominated Asia; and a number of other incompatible, and thus dangerous, “narratives.”

A century into the debate over causation, one suspects that the question “Why did the Great War happen?” will never be finally settled. Perhaps, though, it is time to consider a different question, rarely explored but no less urgent: “Why did the Great War continue?” Why, at the end of 1914, when the military situation had ossified on both the western and eastern fronts, did Europe find it impossible to call a halt? As the train of European civilization careened toward the edge of a cliff, why was Europe unable to recognize impending disaster and find a different path toward the future? Why, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it in his 1983 Templeton Prize lecture, did Europe, “bursting with health and abundance,” fall into “a rage of self-mutilation that could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever”?

Thinking about these questions may shed more light on the crises of our civilization and the challenges of statecraft in the twenty-first century than would devising an all-purpose explanation for how the war began in the first place. Even so, there are lessons to be learned from recent attempts to deal with that question, so a centennial reflection on the Great War rightly begins there.

Contemporary considerations of how the war began start from the premise that there is more than enough blame to go around. Indeed, a close reading of the historical record provides sobering insights into the follies of which statesmen are capable: follies that are even more startling when one considers the seeming placidity of European life in early 1914. Here was a continent accustomed to disarmament conferences and international arbitration, where men and women traveled freely, without passports; a continent in which ancient enemies France and Germany seemed to have entered a period of stable relations; a continent of unprecedented wealth that was the undisputed center of world-historical initiative. Yet within a little over five weeks, it all unraveled.

The survey of miscreants can begin with Serbia. For while the Great War was not “caused” by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip’s shots, fired in aid of Serbian irredentism, did set in motion the chain of events that eventually led to the eruption of the guns of August across the continent.

From the mid-nineteenth century on, Serbian national identity centered on a passion to gather all Serbs into a single state. But because Serbian historical resentments and future ambitions did not easily fit the demographic and political realities of the Balkans, a culture of deception, embodied in clandestine political societies and violent conspiracies, came to play a disproportionately large role in Serbian politics, eventually laying the ideological and logistical foundations for the deadly events of June 28, 1914. And as Serbia was drawn into the tangled web of alliances that France, fearful of Germany, was weaving throughout central and eastern Europe, the encouragement of Serbian adventurism by Russia, self-appointed tutor of the Slavic peoples, reinforced Greater Serbia radicals in their impression that the Habsburg Empire would soon unravel, with Pan-Serb redemption to follow.

Then there was Austria-Hungary. Walking through central Vienna today, one cannot help being struck by the cornerstones of the city’s splendid public buildings, many of which bear dates from the early twentieth century. The wheels were about to come flying off the venerable, and seemingly solid, Habsburg Empire, yet no one seemed to know it: Vienna was building for an imperial future that was a phantasm.

In 1914, that false sense of enduring Habsburg solidity was embodied in the Emperor Franz Joseph, who had been on the throne since 1848. The empire’s incapacities and fractiousness, by contrast, were displayed in its ramshackle political structure, in which the two dominant ethnic groups, Germans and Hungarians, shared power over a hodgepodge of restive peoples, each of whom had been developing its own national consciousness throughout the nineteenth century. The net result was the curious combination of durability and restiveness that led Viennese journalist Karl Kraus to joke that the Austrian situation was always “desperate, but not serious.”

But Kraus’s joke eventually fell flat. It was not widespread public outrage over the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir and his consort that brought the Habsburg Empire to war; Franz Ferdinand had been unpopular in Viennese governing circles and throughout the empire. Rather, war came because of the determination of the Dual Monarchy’s political and military leadership to buttress Austria-Hungary’s hold over the southern Habsburg lands, using the Sarajevo murders as the excuse for the war they had long wanted to fight against the advocates of Greater Serbia. Yet eager as they were to take on the Serbs, the dithering of Vienna’s policymakers and military leaders, compounded by Berlin’s irresponsibility in underwriting Austrian incompetence with a blank-check guarantee of support, was a major factor in helping turn what might have been another local Balkan fracas into a continental conflagration.

As for Germany, the political fall of Otto von Bismarck, who had assembled the German Empire in “blood and iron,” ironically helped pave the way toward a general European war. Bismarck worried that “the great European war will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans”; but he also thought preventive war to forestall Russian hegemony in southeastern Europe an idiocy. After dismissing the Iron Chancellor in 1890, Kaiser Wilhelm II reversed Bismarck’s alliance policies, brushed off Russia, and encouraged a belligerent Austro-Hungarian policy in the Balkans, thus setting the stage for Russia’s alliance with France. Concurrently, Wilhelm decided to challenge British naval supremacy by building his own ocean-going fleet, which in turn accelerated British efforts to come to terms with ancient foe France, now bound to Russia.

Kaiser Wilhelm’s personal volatility was another factor in the diplomatic and political death spiral that began in July 1914. Yet, prior to those fatal weeks, it was Wilhelm who, in yet another historical irony, typically came down on the side of peace when decisions had to be made. Thus, in March 1914, the Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, was told by the German ambassador in Vienna that there would be no war of the sort Conrad sought against Serbia and Russia, because “two important people are against it, your Archduke Franz Ferdinand and my Kaiser.” In the aftermath of the assassination of his friend, the Habsburg heir, however, Wilhelm pivoted again and gave Austria-Hungary what amounted to an absolute guarantee of German support—a guarantee that, whether Wilhelm recognized it or not, made a general war virtually inevitable, as Russia would think itself obliged to come to Serbia’s aid, France was bound to support Russia (and thus go to war with Germany), and Britain, newly reconciled to France and committed to permitting no hegemon on the continent, would find it very difficult to remain aloof.

Wilhelm was not the only irresponsible party in Germany, however. The German chief of staff, Helmuth von Moltke, thought war with Russia inevitable and wanted to fight it sooner rather than later. The German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, miscalculated the likelihood of Russia’s going to war for Serbia, even as the kaiser miscalculated his personal influence on Tsar Nicholas II. Both chancellor and kaiser miscalculated the effects of their blank check to Austria-Hungary as it was formulating its post-assassination ultimatum to Serbia (which Serbia swallowed hard and, essentially, accepted). The German military leadership, and conservative German political circles, saw a general European war as a nation-rallying opportunity to stem what they perceived as a rising tide of social democracy, thereby reasserting both traditional authority and the kind of fierce nationalism that social democrats were thought (wrongly, it turned out) to reject as a matter of internationalist conviction.

Nor were the German and Austrian governments entirely honest with each other. Austria claimed to be punishing Serbia for the Sarajevo assassinations, when the assassinations were the excuse for the punitive war Austria had long sought against its turbulent neighbor. The Germans promised to keep Russia and France at bay in the confidence that they would never have to do so, thus issuing a blank check they thought would not be cashed. The military men in the Central Powers were equally unforthcoming. Austrian Chief of Staff Conrad expected Moltke to handle the Russians while the Austro-Hungarians put paid to Serbia. Moltke did not share with Conrad the German general staff’s determination to fight a holding action in the East while striking what they believed would be the decisive blow at France through Belgium—a stratagem that left the incompetent Austro-Hungarian military in the lurch and virtually ensured British entry into the war, given British guarantees of Belgian neutrality.

The net result of all this folly is neatly summed up by historian David Fromkin, who notes that, as of August 4, 1914, Germany “was fighting Russia, France, Britain, Luxemburg, and Belgium—all supposedly to prop up Austria, which, as of August 4, was still at peace with all of them. Yet Germany was not at war with, or fighting against, Serbia, the only country with which Austria was at war and which, according to Vienna, was the country that posed the threat to Austria’s existence.”

Russian, French, and British stupidities also loom large in understanding the Great War’s origins. Nikolai Hartwig, Russia’s minister in Belgrade from 1909 until his death during the July 1914 crisis, was a militant pan-Slavist who encouraged Serbian aggressiveness in the half-decade before the Great War. Russian policy in the crucial last days of July 1914 was also driven by the conviction that a Russian failure to stand by Serbia at all costs would be lethal to Russia’s role as leader of the Slavs. Thus pan-Slavic ideology helped shape the fateful Russian decision to be the first great power to declare general mobilization, from which much followed.

French folly lay in a diplomacy that offered Russia a Gallic version of the German blank check to Austria, and in a military theory of the offensive that combined ignorance of the new technological realities of war with a gross misreading of German strategy, thus creating the military conditions for the possibility of the western-front stalemate that lasted from late 1914 until late 1918.

And then there was Great Britain. Few remember today that, when the bullet from Gavrilo Princip’s Browning semi-automatic hit Franz Ferdinand’s jugular vein, the United Kingdom was in political disarray, with parliament bitterly divided over women’s suffrage, labor unrest, and the budget. Even worse, the UK was on the brink of civil war in Ireland, with armed Ulstermen preparing to defy Irish Home Rule and the British Army on the verge of mass mutiny. Amid this domestic turmoil, the two British statesmen most responsible for foreign affairs, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, were slow to grasp the dangerous reality of the situation after the deaths in Sarajevo. On July 9, Grey still saw “no reason for taking a pessimistic view of the situation.” Twenty days later, Asquith wrote his confidant, Venetia Stanley, that attending an Army Council on July 29 was “rather interesting, because it enables one to realize what are the first steps in an actual war.”

The “actual war,” of course, began a few days later. And Britain entered it, not after a parliamentary vote or any consultation with the Dominion governments or parliaments, but after an August 3 speech in the House of Commons by a now-chastened Sir Edward Grey, making the case for British intervention in defense of Belgian neutrality against a German invasion. A British ultimatum to Germany followed, and was ignored. Thus what might have been a regional conflict, and had already become a continental conflict, became a global one.

Although this multiplicity of follies is telling, it would be a mistake to conclude that World War I began because of a sequence of accidents, for the leaders of the great powers uniformly believed they were rational actors pursuing attainable political objectives. That sense of rationality and rectitude was reinforced by the various national “mythscapes” previously alluded to. Churchill may have written his wife on the night of July 28, bemoaning the “wave of madness which has swept the mind of Christendom,” just as German Chief of Staff Moltke could warn his government a day later that, in the event of war, “the civilized states of Europe will begin to tear one another to pieces” in a conflict that would “annihilate the civilization of almost the whole of Europe for decades to come.” Yet, in the event, both Moltke and Churchill were prepared to risk that annihilation, given the “mythscapes” within which they made their decisions.

During the war itself, rationales for fighting shifted, even as continuities in grand strategy—Germany’s determination to preserve Austria-Hungary as a great power; Britain’s determination to save France and prevent German continental hegemony; Austria-Hungary’s determination to save itself as a multinational empire—played themselves out. Still, the ebb and flow between changing rationales for prose­cuting the war and consistent grand strategic goals does not get us to the root of the question of why the Great War continued.

By the end of 1914, it was clear on both the western and eastern fronts that a war of maneuver resulting in quick victory was impossible. The First Battle of the Marne and the First Battle of Ypres had frustrated Germany’s strategy in the West. Austrian incapacities in the East, plus the seemingly limitless availability of human cannon fodder for the tsar’s armies, had made it impossible for the kaiser’s forces to follow up on their victory at Tannenberg in late August 1914 and drive Russia out of the war. A war of attrition—a vast bloodletting in which the last nations standing, however shakily, would be the “victors”—now seemed inevitable. (Churchill, recognizing that strategic impasse and its lethal implications, proposed the Dardanelles campaign in 1915 precisely to break out of the gridlock that was ­bleeding Europe to death.)

Thus British military historian Max Hastings argues that, as awful as the situation was by the end of 1914, there was nothing for the western allies to do but carry on, until a combination of German exhaustion, American manpower, and the power of the tank broke the stalemate in the West (Russia having been driven from the war by the Bolshevik seizure of power in the fall of 1917). “Until 1918,” Hastings writes, “the fundamental options before the western allies were those of acquiescing in German hegemony on the continent, or of continuing to bear the ghastly cost of resisting this. It was, and remains, a huge delusion to suppose that a third path existed.”

But even if Hastings is right, the question still remains, why was that the case? Why were leaders who entered the war for what they understood to be rational purposes unable to find a path beyond the irrationality of civilizational suicide, something that seemed more than merely possible as early as January 1915? Some answers can be found in the various “mythscapes” that shaped national identities and aspirations in Europe in 1914, and in the more tangible, if incommensurable, vital interests for which leaders believed themselves to be expending their country’s manhood. Yet one should probe deeper into the cultural subsoil of latenineteenth- and early twentieth-century European life in pursuing the question of why the Great War continued. For beneath the surface of a seemingly placid and prosperous continent were distorted ideas and virulent passions that help account for the otherwise inexplicable, or at least deeply puzzling, lack of some “third path.”

There was Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which, it seems, had an effect not only on science and religion but on politics as well, as the survival of the fittest came to be understood as the victory of the most lethal, rather than the triumph of the best adapted. That misconception of evolutionary theory as a scientific justification for the fierce arms races that preceded the Great War fit readily into a moral-cultural environment that had been profoundly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche: by his irrationalism, his proclamation of the death of God, his notion of regeneration through destruction, and, perhaps above all, his celebration of the will to power.

Nietzsche’s Prometheanism could take many forms, including radical political willfulness. Marry such willfulness to a mindless faith in technology, and the outcome was something unprecedentedly lethal. A new order of magnitude in military capabilities was not complemented by a parallel development in strategic and tactical wisdom; military leaders tried to compensate with ever greater exertions of will; those exertions produced ever greater numbers of casualties, which were then interpreted as evidence of a willingness to endure greater suffering and loss. (Nietzsche was not the only problem here. Henri Bergson’s theory of élan vital as the driver of human development helped shape the French army’s passion for the offensive, which almost cost France its national life when, in the late summer of 1914, General Joseph Joffre’s Plan XVII ran into the hard truth that men’s chests are ill-fitted to stopping machine-gun bullets.)

Xenophobia and national-racial theories also played a large and destructive role in pre-war European high culture and politics. These irrationalities, and the instability and murderousness to which they could lead, were obvious in the Balkan hinterlands, but the great powers were not immune to the racial, eugenic, and ethnic toxins of the age. Although Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II exchanged “Willy and Nicky” letters for years, beneath the surface bonhomie in the monarchs’ guild there were deeper and uglier convictions in play—convictions about the ultimate incompatibility of Teuton and Slav that shifted perceptions of war, as the classic great power calculations of men like Bismarck and Salisbury a generation earlier were supplanted by images of an inevitable racial struggle to the death.

The dark view of the future of the early twentieth-century German ruling class—expressed in the kaiser’s 1912 warning that Germany would “have to fight this racial war” if necessary to save Austria’s position in the Balkans—found its mirror image in the pan-Slavism that was a powerful factor in Russian governmental and diplomatic circles. German contempt for Russians and Russian resentment of German achievements seemed, in Berlin and St. Petersburg, to have been vindicated by the brief Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. Thus minor regional conflicts were understood as confirmation that a racially fated continental death struggle was near at hand. We may think, today, that no such racial Armageddon was inevitable. But German and Russian fatalism about the inevitability of a race-based general European conflict went some distance in bringing that very conflict about.

Social Darwinism, Nietzschean irrationalism, xenophobia, and historical fatalism were acids eating away at notions of honor that had long tempered European politics and war making. For concepts of honor must be informed by prudence, the cardinal virtue the ancients called the “charioteer of the virtues,” lest honor become an excuse for cruelty rather than a restraint on it. And as Churchill would later write, there was little restraint shown by any of the combatants in the Great War:

Germany, having let Hell loose, kept well in the vanguard of terror; but she was followed step by step by the desperate and ultimately avenging nations she had assailed. Every outrage against humanity or international law was repaid by reprisals often on a grander scale and longer duration . . . The wounded died between the lines: the dead mouldered into the soil. Merchant ships and neutral ships and hospital ships were sunk on the seas and all aboard left to their fate, or killed as they swam. Every effort was made to starve whole nations into submission without regard to age or sex. Cities and monuments were smashed by artillery. Bombs from the air were cast down indiscriminately. Poison gas in many forms stifled and seared the soldiers. . . . When it was all over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves: and these were of doubtful utility.

The complex process that Owen Chadwick described in his 1973–74 Gifford Lectures as the nineteenth-century “secularization of the European mind” surely played its role in all this—and especially in the erosion of any sense of rules or restraint in world politics or the conduct of war.

In the Europe of 1914, biblical understandings of the human condition and the moral life had been under assault for well over a century, from both within and without the churches. From without, Auguste Comte’s positivism (empirical science is humanity’s only reliable teacher), Ludwig Feuerbach’s subjectivism (the biblical God is a mere projection of human aspiration), and Karl Marx’s materialism (the spiritual world is an illusion) meshed with Nietzsche’s will to power to erode any biblically or theologically informed understanding of public life and political responsibility. From within, the more radical forms of historical criticism of the Bible and what was then known as liberal theology had, many thought, emptied the Christian creed of serious intellectual content. Evacuated of substance, the churches that professed those creeds and read that Bible became ever more expressions of ethnic and national consciousness—a process exacerbated by the subordination of many European Christian churches to state power through the mechanism of religious establishment.

Add to all this the anti-clericalism that shaped class consciousness among rapidly secularizing European workers during the Industrial Revolution, and the strange forms of neo-paganism that surfaced in European high culture in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and one can begin to understand that, while millions of German soldiers went into battle wearing army-issue belts with buckles bearing the inscription Gott mit uns [God with us], the God in question had little to do with the God of the Bible and his moral injunctions—as witness the actions of those Bavarian infantry, presumably including pious Catholics, who in 1914 razed the village of Dahlin in Lorraine and shot its priest for his supposedly French sympathies.

The effects of this century-long assault on the Christian worldview can also be detected among churchmen who, like many others, drank deeply from the wells of a nationalism that seemed beyond the reach of Christian moral critique. Thus when the College of Cardinals met in September 1914 to elect a successor to Pope Pius X (an acute analyst of the signs of the times who repeatedly predicted a guerrone—a terrible war, or, literally, “great war”), the German Cardinal Felix von Hartmann said to the Belgian Cardinal Désiré Mercier, “I hope that we shall not speak of war,” to which Mercier shot back, “And I hope that we shall not speak of peace.”

A German chaplain put it even more vehemently to the troops he addressed: “Rage over Germany, you great holy war of freedom. Tear down all that is rotten and sick, heal the wounds on the body of our German people and let a breed grow, a new breed, full of reverence for God, faithfulness to duty, and brotherly love.” The Catholic bishop of the Austrian diocese of Seckau got matters exactly backwards when he celebrated the outbreak of war as “the end of culture without God, without Christ, [and of] high politics without religion.” But his fervor was mild compared to that of the German pastor who cast the war in explicit, if debased, theological terms: “It is a hard task that you are called upon to undertake, but one that is essential to your people’s salvation. Even amid death and destruction you can become wonderful evangelists for idealism.” Or the Anglican bishop of London, who urged his congregants to “Kill Germans: kill them, not for the sake of killing, but to save the world; to kill the good as well as the bad. . . . As I have said a thousand times, [this is] a war for purity.” Given such pious rodomontade, is it any wonder that an apocalyptic-messianic distortion of nationalism became evident in virtually all the countries that fought the Great War?

What Max Weber famously described as a “disenchanted world” turned out to be a terribly dangerous world. The Religion of Humanity found itself unable to check ancient racial animosities, tarted up in the fancy dress of modern eugenic and racial theories, and emboldened by a Promethean will to power that legitimated lurid forms of nationalism in which the national Other was utterly dehumanized. Thus the disenchanted world led to inhumanity on an unprecedented scale in the Great War—and then gave birth to even worse horrors in communism and German national socialism.

According to one account of European history, modern forms of political authority arose to end the slaughters caused by competing religious authorities during and after the Reformation. Whatever truth there is in that telling of the tale, it should also be recognized that the erosion of religious authority in Europe over the centuries—meaning the erosion of biblically informed concepts of the human person, human communities, human origins, and human destiny—created a European moral-cultural environment in which politics was no longer bound and constrained by a higher authority operative in the minds and consciences of leaders and populations.

Some will doubtless think it too simple to suggest that the most penetrating answer to these grave questions—Why did the Great War begin and why did the Great War continue?—is the answer suggested by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn thirty years ago: It was because “Men [had] forgotten God.” Yet just as the political follies that led to war in the late summer of 1914 bear lessons for the twenty-first century—such as the necessity of taking seriously the “myth­scapes” within which others live, however fantastic or irrational they may seem to us, and the impossibility of the great powers that stand for order in the world remaining idle while the forces of disorder gather strength—so do the moral-cultural conditions that underwrote the Great War and its continuation.

The European world that went to war in 1914—the world that may yet prove to have bled itself of civilizational vitality in the Great War—was one in which the masters of the world’s leading civilization believed they could create a humane future without the God of the Bible. What they proved, however, was that they could only build a world against each other, which was a world with no future.

And from that, too, there are lessons to be pondered, in this centenary year and beyond. For we, too, often seem blinded by terrible things. It would be well to think about the causes of that blindness in order to address the paralysis to which it frequently leads in matters both foreign and domestic.

George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. This article is adapted from the thirteenth annual William E. Simon Lecture, delivered on February 6, 2014.

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