logo


no avatar

IDEMA: How the ghosts of World War I still haunt us

• May 16, 2018 at 3:00 PM

A few years ago, I stood on Franz Joseph Street in the exact place where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on a Sunday morning in 1914. He was the heir to the throne of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and the assassin was part of a Serbian conspiracy called the Black Hand.

The Austrians believed this conspiracy was supported by members of the Serbian government, which was true. Austria gave Serbia an ultimatum, which was rejected. This assassination changed the course of world history. So, a street corner in Sarajevo in Bosnia marks the spot where this happened with footprints in cement where Princip stood. Soon after this rejection, Austria declared war on Serbia.

Once Austria declared war on Serbia, Russia declared war on Austria, then Germany declared war on Russia and vice versa. Then France, Russia's ally, declared war on both Germany and Austria. When the German army invaded neutral Belgium in order to attack France and slaughtered many citizens, England declared war on both Germany and Austria.

George Washington in his farewell address warned us against alliances overseas that would entangle us. Here we see what entanglements did to the history of the world.

America got involved in the final months of the conflict after Germany declared unlimited war on all shipping with their U-boats. We lost more than 50,000 soldiers in this conflict.

After the war ended, the Spanish flu epidemic — helped in part by the movement of soldiers and civilians around the world due to the war — may have killed as many as 50 million people.

World War I led to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, which gave us modern Syria, Iraq and Turkey. The war also embittered a young Austrian soldier, Adolf Hitler — who, along with many Austrians and Germans, vowed revenge. This revenge, of course, was World War II. America lost more than 300,000 in that war, and millions died in Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Africa.

World War I also led to the Russian Revolution. Russia was in chaos in 1917 due to losses on the front and hunger at home. Germany saw an opportunity to get Russia out of the war and took advantage. Germany sent to Russia an exiled Russian radical, Vladimir Lenin, then living in Switzerland. Germany gave him a special train to get him there with the mission of starting a revolution — which, of course, he did. And Russia did get out of the war, which gave Germany many more divisions to keep the war going on the western front.

So what happened to Serbia, the cause, arguably, of the war? Once the world war broke out, Serbia was a minor part of the action and ended up being part of a country called Yugoslavia. So World War I was the father of the Balkan wars of the 1990s when Yugoslavia broke up and ancient hatreds were unleashed.

We can trace our war in Iraq back to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Without World War I, there would have not been an Iraq, or a Syria, our present concern. Also, without World War I, there would have been no worldwide agreement to ban chemical weapons, a scourge of World War I. Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people led to the president's order to destroy the factories building those weapons.

What can we learn from this sketch of how World War I shaped history?

(1) The men in all of the countries who declared war in 1914 were what we call "chicken hawks." The leaders in any of the countries who entered the war in 1914 could have prevented it with political courage and foresight about what this war would do to citizens of all the countries, not to speak of the soldiers. In our world today, such leaders as Putin, Trump and Assad are making decisions affecting thousands of innocent people and potentially millions. None of them served in combat. They are removed from the blood and guts of combat. Are they equipped to decide the fate of hundreds of thousands of people? I do not see any wisdom being applied in Syria, nor did we see any in the Iraq War. Failure of leadership is a constant in so many wars.

(2) History teaches us that an event that seems remote from most countries (e.g., an assassination) can lead to worldwide conflagration, as we saw in 1914.

(3) Such events can lead to what we call “blow back." The first Gulf War led to Osama bin Laden's vow to avenge American occupation of Saudi Arabia, to him a sacrilege. His vow of vengeance led to 9/11, which in turn led to our attack on Iraq (which had nothing to do with 9/11), which in turn led to the rise of ISIS and our involvement in Syria.

(4) Americans do not know their history and all the connecting links. As many have said, our failure to understand history will doom us to repeat it. It seems to me that World War I was a dress rehearsal of much of our subsequent history. We need to put our phones down and turn off social media and study history by reading books!

— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune community columnist

Recommended for You

    Grand Haven Tribune Videos