When Empires Die: Thoughts on the Centennial of World War I, Part II
(Death and Transfiguration)
This is the second in a series on World War I and its parallels with our current times. After a review of the events leading up to the Great War and of its aftermath, this series will investigate current events in light of biblical prophecy.
Bosnia-Herzegovina was and is something of an anomaly. All the other peoples of the Balkans dwell in relatively homogenous regions. With the exception of the Albanians and Greeks, all those other peoples are Slavs, akin by language and culture to the Russians. By religion these Southern Slavs (or Yugoslavs) are either Roman Catholic (Croats and Slovenes) or Orthodox (Serbs, Montenegrins, Macedonians, and Bulgarians). Islam claims the majority of Albanians and a large portion of Macedonians, although there are many Roman Catholics (including the revered Mother Theresa) and Orthodox Christians among the Albanian population. Greeks, the other non-Slavic people, are also Orthodox Christians. By 1914 most of these Balkan peoples had emerged from centuries of Ottoman domination with states for themselves. Greece, Bulgaria, and Albania remain to this day largely within the borders they held a century ago. Serbia incorporated Macedonia and was a close ally of Montenegro. Croatia and Slovenia fell under the dominion of Austria-Hungary.
And then there was Bosnia. For nearly 600 years Bosnia was a frontier between the shifting borders of the Islamic Ottoman Turks and the Catholic Austrians and Hungarians. Those centuries brought many changes in population, resulting in a mixture of Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks. All are Slavs, but while the Croats and Serbs in 1914 could look to Great Power patrons and protectors in Austria-Hungary and Russia, respectively, the Bosniaks as Muslims were essentially on their own – a reality that became all too apparent to the world when Yugoslavia disintegrated in the 1990s.
By that fateful summer of 1914, Bosnia had been under Austro-Hungarian occupation for 26 years, thanks to a decision of the Congress of Berlin that awarded administration of the region to Vienna. In 1908 Austria-Hungary announced its intention to bring Bosnia permanently into the empire through formal annexation, an action that roused great anger among the Serbs and their Russian patrons. Already a smoldering fuse of seething ethnic and religious tensions, Bosnia became an armed bomb ready to explode. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s goodwill visit on June 28 to Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital provided an opportunity the Bosnian Serbs could not ignore. The assassination plot was concocted by the Black Hand, the Bosnian Serb secret organization that hoped to break Bosnia away from Vienna and join it with Serbia. They had help, if not full cooperation and direction, from Serbian military intelligence officials. The plan almost failed, but a chance turn of events and a wrong turn by the chauffer placed the Archduke’s car directly in front of one of the would-be assassins, Gavrilo Princip. Seizing the opportunity, Princip jumped onto the car and fired two shots, killing both the Archduke and Archduchess in short order.
What happened next was predictable. There was no more room in the old state system to expand or let off steam. The conflicting alliances left the actors with little choice if they were to preserve their national and imperial positions. The best laid plans of mice and men quickly went astray and events took on a life of their own. The Hapsburgs buried their heir apparent with full honors, and then pondered how to ensure this outrage received proper attention. It seemed the main culprit was Serbia, which had provided assistance to Princip and his accomplices. Retribution against Serbia could restore Vienna’s flagging prestige and provide another advantage over the Russians and Turks. Germany willingly offered advice and assistance, seeing in the crisis an opportunity to settle scores with Russia and France simultaneously. Indeed, the Germans had planned for almost a generation to wage war with both neighbors at once, seeing opportunity to defeat France quickly before turning on the much larger Russian Bear. The German strategy was called the Schlieffen Plan, and the Kaiser’s army was itching to execute it. At German urging, Austria-Hungary issued a humiliating ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, demanded a reply with full compliance within 48 hours, and began mobilizing its army. The Serbian reply agreed to all but one of Vienna’s demands, but that one point of disagreement (refusing to allow Austro-Hungarian law enforcement officers to operate on Serbian territory) was enough to justify a declaration of war on July 28. That same day Russia ordered a partial mobilization of its forces on the Austro-Hungarian border, but on July 30 Tsar Nicholas order a full mobilization. Germany responded on August 1 with declaration of war on Russia, full mobilization, and initiation of the Schlieffen Plan to invade Russia’s ally, France. Since that plan involved the transit of German troops through neutral Belgium, Germany demanded Belgium grant free passage of its armies on the way to France. The Belgians refused. Luxembourg did not even get the courtesy of an ultimatum. The result was the same nevertheless: Germans poured over the borders of both small states. On August 3, in the midst of that process, Germany and France declared war on one another. The violation of Belgian neutrality on August 4 prompted a declaration of war from Great Britain, bringing the last of the major Powers into the fray within one week. Seeing great opportunity, Japan joined the Allied side on August 23 and soon gained control of Germany’s Asian colonies. Thanks to German diplomatic initiatives and intrigue, Turkey entered the conflict when Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire on November 4.
Two Powers remained aloof from the fray, but only temporarily. In 1915, Italy cast its lot in with the Allies, opening a new front on Austria-Hungary’s Alpine frontier. In 1917, after three years of neutrality, the United States finally succumbed, thanks to a German diplomatic blunder. President Woodrow Wilson shared the sentiment of the American people that the war was a European problem, and therefore the United States should remain neutral. Besides, Wilson was concerned with more immediate problems in America’s backyard: unrest in Haiti, and civil war in Mexico, both of which required U.S. military intervention. Germany hoped to keep America distracted, and Mexico offered an opportunity. In January 1917, Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman instructed Germany’s ambassador in Mexico to persuade the Mexican government to declare war on the United States, in return for which Germany would promise recovery of Mexico’s lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. British intelligence intercepted the Zimmerman telegram and advised the Americans, prompting President Wilson’s request that Congress declare war on Germany. With that declaration on April 4, 1917, the entire world truly was at war.
And Then the World Changed
There is no need to delve into great detail on the worldwide military and naval actions of World War I, all of which are ably documented in print and in film. The scale of the conflict does require some comment. As immense as it was, the Great War to end all wars was eclipsed by its sequel, World War II. Consider these statistics as a measure of the conflict:
- On one single day, July 1, 1916, at the Battle of the Somme, Britain lost 60,000 men, about one-third of them killed. On April 21, 1836, the Republic of Texas won its independence after a decisive victory over Mexico’s forces at San Jacinto. The estimated population of Texas at the time, including Anglo-American Texians, Hispanic Tejanos, African-Americans, and American Indians, was 52,670.
- Between 1915 and 1923, Turkey initiated a policy of genocide against the Armenian people, during which the commonly accepted estimates hold that 1,500,000 Armenian men, women, and children died through murder, starvation, dehydration, disease, and brutality. The estimated population of San Antonio, Texas, in 2013 was 1,409,019.
- For ten months, from February 21 to December 18, 1916, France and Germany fought the longest and largest battle of the war at Verdun. Recent estimates place the number of casualties at 714,231 (377,231 French; 337,000 German), of whom 299,000 were killed (156,000 French; 143,000 German). On an average weekday in July 2013, the Washington, DC, Metro carried 758,489 passengers to their destinations.
- The abortive Gallipoli Campaign of April 25, 1915 to January 9, 1916, is still remembered in Australia and New Zealand on ANZAC Day (April 25), honoring the thousands of fallen from those nations. Total killed and wounded on all sides are 343,955 (180,305 Allied; 164,650 Turkish), of whom 113, 350 were killed (56,707 Allied; 56,643 Turkish). Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand contributed the bulk of the Allied forces at Gallipoli. Today the combined strength of their armies, active and reserve, is 313,361. Turkey’s army today numbers 290,000.
- Total casualties during four years of war, both military and civilian, numbered 37,000,000, of whom nearly 17,000,000 were killed (10,000,000 military; 7,000,000 civilian). From 1973 to 2013, an estimated 54,559,615 unborn children have lost their lives in the United States through abortion.
The stark figures of killed and wounded do not take into account the millions upon millions of others who survived somehow, and yet remained forever changed. An entire generation of young men left wives, sweethearts, and parents, never to be seen again. How many Hemingways, Churchills, Tolkiens, and Remarques were among them? How many, like Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, translated their war experience into visions of glory for their nations – at the price of yet more suffering and death for untold millions? How many forever lost home, livelihood, nationality, and identity in the displacements of war and its aftermath of political adjustment? How many endured the remainder of their lives bearing the scars of bayonet, bullet, shell fragment, gas, rape, brutality, malnutrition, and debilitating disease? And how much of the world’s wealth disappeared into the bottomless pit of war, famine, death, and the beasts of the earth?
There is no way to calculate this human cost. All we can do is calculate the means by which that cost mounted higher and higher. Armies and navies embarked on the Great War equipped with essentially the same complements of arms they had carried for the previous century, albeit with considerable technological improvement. By war’s end these forces had added to their arsenal aircraft, submarines, tanks, poison gas, aerial bombardment, railroad artillery, motor transport, and massive government bureaucracies to manage the business of war. The combatants impoverished one another, mortgaging their national fortunes for the hope of victory. For Britain and France it was a reasonably safe exchange: in 1914 they were lender nations; by 1918 they were in debt to the United States.
Germany lost its economy for a generation, not only through its own war expenses, but through the exorbitant reparations demanded by the allied powers in the Treaty of Versailles. By the terms of that treaty the German Empire ceased to exist, its overseas colonies given to Great Britain, France, South Africa, Portugal, Japan, and Australia. The provinces of Alsace and Lorraine reverted to France, and Germany’s Rhineland became a demilitarized zone. Even more humiliating, the vaunted German Army was limited to a mere 100,000 men, and the Kaiser’s prized Navy was interned at Scapa Flow in Scotland. Rather than endure that shame, most of the German crews scuttled their ships in June 1919.
Yet Germany came off better than other empires; at least it survived largely intact. That was more than the Russians, Austrians, and Turks could say. When the Allied Powers met at Versailles in 1919 to reconstruct the world, they had a framework at their disposal: President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. At the heart of Wilson’s plan was a call for establishment of states for ethnic nationalities. In other words, the Fourteen Points placed nationalism over imperialism as the means for organizing nation-states. Wilson also set forth his vision for an international body to mediate disputes among nations and prevent further war. That body, the League of Nations, came into existence in 1919 at the conclusion of the Treaty of Versailles, yet ironically without U.S. participation. After making a decisive contribution to the defeat of Germany, Americans were ready to return to their comparative isolation and leave the other Powers to administer the world. The United States never ratified the Treaty of Versailles, never joined the League of Nations, and never took up the protection of ethnic nationalities (the Armenians in particular) which the world asked Washington to embrace. The League of Nations and the postwar world order, being flawed and weakened from the outset, had no hope of dealing with the forces unleashed by the Great War.
Those forces began to manifest even before the war ended. The stress of war proved unendurable for Russia. In February 1917 a revolution overthrew the Tsar and established a provisional government, which was itself overthrown by the Bolshevik Revolution in October of the same year. After concluding a separate peace with Germany, Russia proceeded to tear itself apart in a civil war that lasted until 1922. Thereafter the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics attempted to carry out the utopian vision of Karl Marx, as modified by Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Millions more died in the process, through war, purges, exile to Siberia, starvation, and disease. Somewhere in the process, Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Ukraine gained their independence, although Ukraine became incorporated into the Soviet Union as soon as the Bolsheviks were able to consolidate their power. The Baltic States suffered the same fate in 1939, the year Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany agreed on a new partition of Poland that began World War II. Ukraine and the three Baltic republics would not see independence again until 1991, when the Soviet Union followed the Russian Empire into oblivion.
Unlike Russia’s empire, which died loudly and painfully, the Austro-Hungarian Empire faded away with barely a whimper. The exhausted House of Hapsburg had little hope of standing any longer against the overwhelming forces of nationalism. Bereft of empire, Austria and Hungary shrank to their current borders, leaving in their wake the new states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, an enlarged Romania, and a reborn Poland. Polish independence was itself something of a miracle. Since its disappearance from the community of nations in 1795, no one saw any possibility of reassembling the Polish as long as its pieces remained under the domination of Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. The death of those empires in the Great War introduced a new reality that gave Poland a chance at national resurrection.
Similar aspirations at resurrection inspired the peoples of the Ottoman Empire. Arabs, Jews, Armenian, and Kurds all aspired to statehood, and all saw their aspirations dashed. In the course devising schemes to defeat the Ottomans, and anticipating a dismemberment of that empire after the war, the Allies negotiated a series of agreements that achieved astounding tactical results, but left in their wake a legacy of bad seed that is even now bearing fruit. In 1916, Britain’s commanders and diplomats on the ground in Egypt sought help from the Sherif and Emir of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, promising to make him king of the Hejaz (western Arabia) and make his sons kings of territory liberated from the Turks if they would rise in revolt. They did, and under the leadership of the remarkable Lawrence of Arabia the tribes conquered Aqaba and Damascus. The Arab Revolt paralleled the Palestine Campaign of British Field Marshall Sir Edmund Allenby, which succeeded in capturing Jerusalem on December 9, 1917 (by coincidence – or not – Chanukkah began that evening). In the process, Australian mounted troops under Allenby’s command executed the last successful cavalry charge in modern military history when they captured Beersheba on October 31.
As these events transpired in the Middle East, British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart François Georges-Picot concluded an agreement in 1916 that divided the Middle East between their two nations, with France gaining Syria and Lebanon and Britain gaining what became Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine. As if that were not confusing enough, on November 2, 1917, Foreign Secretary James Balfour issued a letter to Baron Walter Rothschild, a leader of Britain’s Jewish community and patron of the Zionist Movement, which stated:
His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
The Balfour Declaration proved a major step forward in the rebirth of Israel, but the conflicting agreements of World War I ensured that Jewish statehood, as well as Arab independence, would have to wait another generation. So, too, would independence for the Armenians and Kurds. The Ottoman Empire was indeed dissolved, succeeded by the new, secular, Republic of Turkey led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Caliphate endured for a short time, but in 1924 Atatürk abolished it and sent the last Caliph into retirement. Thus, for the first time since 632 AD, Islam had no recognized head. As for the former Ottoman provinces, the Sykes-Picot Agreement determined the borders of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Transjordan (now Jordan), and Palestine (now Israel) according to the convenience of its authors’ governments, not according to the realities on the ground. Jordan and Iraq came into existence as political creations with little basis in history, and Lebanon was separated from Syria in deference to centuries of French relations with Lebanon’s Maronite Christians. As for Palestine, Jewish immigration (Aliyah) accelerated under the postwar British Mandate, bringing with it a rise in the Arab population seeking the jobs and economic improvement Jewish development promised. The arrangements worked for a time, but by the eve of World War II the pot of ethnic, religious, and nationalist turmoil was boiling again.
Britain and France survived the Great War, and for a time their empires continued to function, but they, too, had suffered a death blow. The second round of global conflict from 1939 to 1945 brought an end to their world domination. In 1947 Britain surrendered control of the Jewel of the Empire to the new republics of Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Within fifteen years British and French colonies in Africa and Asia would follow suit. With the death of these western mercantile empires, a bipolar world took shape, divided between the two ideological superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union. The seeds of their rise to power, and of their decline and fall, were sown in the blood-soaked battlefields of the Great War.
Part III will investigate current headlines in an analysis of parallels between 1914 and 2014, laying the groundwork for discussion of biblical implications in Part IV.
An astounding post-script occurred on June 29, 2014, the day after publication of Part I of this series. On that day, jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) declared a new caliphate in the state they are carving out of the existing Sykes-Picot borders. This comes 90 years after abolition of the last caliphate and coincides not only with the beginning of World War I, but the beginning of Ramadan. It remains to be seen whether this new caliphate will survive, and whether Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi can attain legitimacy as caliph and “leader for Muslims everywhere”. Nevertheless, the deliberate timing of this event is highly significant and relevant to the fate of the current world order, which is in fact the subject of this series.
© Albert J. McCarn and The Barking Fox Blog, 2014. Permission to use and/or duplicate original material on The Barking Fox Blog is granted, provided that full and clear credit is given to Albert J. McCarn and The Barking Fox Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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About Albert J. McCarnI am a lifelong disciple of Jesus (Yeshua) of Nazareth, an avid student of the Bible, a devoted husband and father, a 29-year veteran of the United States Army, and a historian who connects people with their own stories.
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