100 years ago, a war that left the world unhinged

The News TribuneJune 29, 2014 

Poppies bloom in the walls of World War I trenches in Diksmuide, Belgium.


World War I was good for the South Sound. It was less kind to the rest of the world.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord is a legacy of the wild eruption of patriotism that greeted America’s entry into the Great War in 1917. Citizens of Pierce County created the original Camp Lewis when they voted 6 to 1 to buy and donate almost 70,000 acres for the military base.

The lopsided election – perhaps the widest margin of approval in county history – reflected the kind of innocent nationalism that sucked millions of soldiers to their deaths. America’s involvement was understandable: Germany was sinking American ships and conspiring to use Mexico to attack the United States. But the reasons Europeans started the war in the first place remain hard to comprehend.

It all started 100 years ago this weekend.

Saturday marked the centennial of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the spark that somehow set the world on fire.

The war destroyed the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which the archduke was in line to rule. It destroyed the German empire, the Turkish empire and ultimately the British empire. It discredited monarchy in general.

Today, powerful archdukes and the like are dim memories. Good riddance. Historians still argue about who deserves the most blame for the war, but the three leading suspects – Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary – were all dominated by kings or their cronies.

The last century has been tough on the human race. Governments have killed well over 100 million people in massive orgies of murders, including World War II, the Holocaust, communist revolutions and staged famines. Much of the horror had roots in World War I.

New industrial technologies empowered nations to kill people on a scale never before imagined. Machines for mass killing came into their own: high explosive shells and bombs, machine guns, chemical weapons, tanks, bombers and fighters.

The British used fast steel warships to starve Germany. The Germans tried to return the favor with its submarines. Deliberate assaults on entire civilian populations became the century’s new normal.

The war spawned even deadlier ideologies and hatreds. In Russia, Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin and other revolutionaries exploited Russia’s suffering to stage a coup and launch a reign of terror. Germany’s surrender left Adolf Hitler and other German veterans embittered by the myth that their country had been defeated by a Jewish-Socialist “stab in the back.”

They avenged 1918 by starting World War II. The Nazi atrocities were matched only by Stalin’s; he ultimately killed perhaps twice as many of the Soviet Union’s own people as Hitler killed in the Holocaust.

This centennial year should be full of history lessons. For Americans who want to figure out why so many things went murderously wrong over the 20th century, studying World War I is the best place to start.

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