The Struggle That Decided the Course of History

In July of 1914, in a memorandum written by Helmuth von Moltke, the German Chief of Staff to Germany’s Chancellor at the time, Bethmann Hollweg, von Moltke warned of the coming conflict of World War I that “the leading nations of Europe would tear one another limb from limb … in a struggle that would destroy the culture of almost all of Europe for decades to come.”1

Von Moltke had also famously called the Great War “the struggle that will decide the course of history for the next hundred years.” Both of these predictions proved von Moltke prescient. This war changed nations, brought down empires, redrew boundaries, and served as a prelude to future conflicts, including a second World War which would be the bloodiest in human history. Europe was certainly altered, as was the world, and those changes are still reflected in current events today. The Great War brought with it the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which had existed for more than 600 years. The consequences of that fall are reflected in the turbulent history of the Middle East in the 20th and 21st centuries. The fall of the Russian Empire and the subsequent rise of communism in the East changed the political and economic landscape of the world over the last 100 years. The First World War is so important because it transformed the world more than any other conflict before or since.

Given that we are in the midst of the 100-year mark that von Moltke referenced, it is my intent in the coming months to begin a series examining these events in both the historical context in which they occurred as well as their broader implications for the world today. The years of 1917 and 1918 were the final years of the war, and much of the societal upheaval that occurred in the world took place during this period. It was during this time that the United States entered the war, that the last Russian Emperor, Tsar Nicholas II, abdicated his throne, and that the Bolshevik Revolution occurred. These years saw the continuance of the Armenian Genocide, and the publication of the Balfour Declaration and the Zimmerman Telegram. It saw the return of unrestricted submarine warfare, the Nivelle Offensive and the mud of Passchendaele. Lenin arrived in Petrograd, and Kaiser Wilhelm II went into exile, where he would eventually abdicate his throne. The Romanovs were executed, Manfred von Richtofen, better known as the Red Baron, was killed in action, and Serbian assassin Gavrilo Princip, whose fatal bullet started the entire affair, died of tuberculosis in prison.

All of these things and more are events and names on which I intend to focus, examining their larger role in the history of the conflict and the part they played in reshaping the world into what it is today. Incorporated into this will be discussion of the technologies that made the war possible, and the ways in which the difficult conditions under which the war was fought drove nations to adapt that technology to fit this modern form of warfare. At the same time, I also intend to ruminate on decisions made during the war, and how they affected the outcome, decisions like Germany’s early adherence to the ill-fated “Schlieffen Plan,” as well as their decision to continue practices like unrestricted submarine warfare and their encouragement of Mexico to attack the United States in the eventuality of American involvement in the war. I will conduct a nation-by-nation examination of how the war affected each individual nation and the relational problems it created in the future with the surrounding regions. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, I would like to reflect on the lessons we can learn from World War I, and how it can help shape the way we look at current events. My goal is to help readers come to a greater understanding of the war, to evaluate the ways in which it has shaped our world, and perhaps gain a more intimate awareness of the world as it was in 1917 and 1918.

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1 Von Moltke, as qtd. In G.J. Meyer, A World Undone (New York: Bantam Dell, 2006).