Some events simply defy any and all attempts to understand, explain, or rationalize. The First World War is one of those.
The causes of World War Two are pretty straight forward: it was something that had to be done to stop the greatest evil the world has ever known. The Revolutionary War had a noble purpose, at least from an American point of view. The Civil War had a succinct and comprehensible rationalization behind it, incorrect on one side, but at least the doomed and gallant young men on both sides could have articulated what they were fighting for. Even America’s involvement in the Vietnam War had a rational—incorrect, as it turned out, but coherent and understandable—justification, one proven wrong by history, but understandable in the light of that time and those fears. But World War One’s causes, especially looked at in light of the ultimate cost, are simply incomprehensible.
First, consider that cost.
It is hard to pin down accurate estimates, in part because there were so many ancillary deaths, in part because some of those deaths (those caused by the 1918 Spanish Flu, for instance) would have occurred anyway (though probably in smaller numbers), and in part because people, ordinary people like you and me as opposed to the titled and elite, were considered so dispensable that accurate numbers weren’t kept even in the infrequent places and circumstances where they might have been.
But with all that in mind, somewhere between ten- and eleven-million soldiers were either killed outright or died on the front of war-related diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, cholera, or infection. Approximately seven- or eight-million (what’s a million more or less?) civilians were either killed outright or by disease or by famine. The Spanish Flu may have killed as many as one-hundred-million people world-wide, but how does one calculate how many of those would have died anyway if there had been no war? Roughly one-and-a-half-million Armenians and several hundred-thousand Greeks were killed in Turkey’s genocidal campaign against those people, but who can say if those atrocities might have occurred if there had been no war? Approximately six-million people just went missing and were presumed dead, but no one knows for certain. Somewhere between twenty- and twenty-three-million more were injured.
Let’s be conservative and take an average of the estimates, say somewhere between thirty-seven-million and forty-million dead. Surely such an enormous number, such an enormous amount of incalculable suffering, and the magnitude of such irrevocable loss and heartbreak should have some easily identifiable justification, at the very least a logical and rational explanation, if not some noble cause. Surely such unspeakable horror should not have been for anything as trivial as men’s cupidity and egos. Yet that seems to be the case.
As briefly as possible, the identifiable causes cited by historians are:
- The Bosnians and the Herzegovinians wanted to be part of Serbia and not under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That led to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a Bosnian Serb, which led to war between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia.
- A web of international military alliances meant:
- a) Russia jumped in to help their ally, Serbia;
- b) Germany jumped in to help their ally, Austria-Hungary;
- c) France, which had an unlikely alliance with Russia, jumped in to help their ally against Germany and Austria-Hungary;
- d) Germany responded by attacking France, but they did it by marching through neutral Belgium, which put up a surprisingly stout defense, which in turn annoyed the Germans, who committed some pretty outrageous (for the time; mild by today’s standards) atrocities;
- e) Great Britain had a long-standing alliance to defend Belgium’s neutrality and they immediately honored that by jumping into the fray;
- f) Great Britain had a more unlikely alliance with Japan, which was eager to flex its military muscles anyway, having earlier whupped Russia in a conflict over which of those two countries deserved to take over Korea and Manchuria (neither of which were consulted as to what their desires—such as being left alone—might be), so Japan rolled up its sleeves;
- g) Russia and Turkey (the Ottoman Empire; same difference) had already been at odds over both the Balkans and strategically important Constantinople, so that was a natural addition to the general bloodshed;
- h) Italy had just recently been at war with the Ottoman Empire, so they waded in;
- i) eventually America and other more unlikely participants (Brazil? Go figure.) all got involved and happily threw those so-expendable young men into early graves.
- Imperialism was another primary cause for all this useless slaughter. All the major and some of the minor European powers saw the potential for easy wealth in Africa and parts of Asia, and happily devoted themselves to ruthlessly exploiting those countries with no particular concern for the local inhabitants. Germany, in particular, felt left out of the imperialistic looting because they had jumped into the imperialism game later than most, so they had their own greedy reasons for fighting everybody.
- Nationalism: Apart from stealing, raping and pillaging various African and Asian countries, Germany and Russia, in particular, wanted to expand their borders and sphere of influence closer to home, so that was a handy excuse for war.
- Germany, in part for the reasons cited in #3 and #4 (above), and in part because Kaiser Wilhelm II was a mentally negligible, megalomaniacal moron with severe inferiority issues and delusions of grandeur, had been rapidly and massively building up its military, which in turn made other European countries, especially Great Britain, feel a trifle nervous, so the arms race was another logical cause of the war. After all, if you’ve got all those shiny guns and cannons and destroyers and never use them, you might have some ‘splaining to do, Lucy, to your over-taxed citizens.
You can see why most of the books I’ve read about World War One (The Guns of August; The War that Ended Peace) run to five-hundred and almost seven-hundred-pages respectively, and that doesn’t include other, almost as lengthy but more narrowly focused historical accounts. I’ve tried to condense all of it and put it into baby talk. In reality, it was a good deal more complicated, but at least you have the broad strokes, and with those broad strokes in mind, tell me now, please, which of those casus belli was worth all those lives?
Which is, in a graphic, chilling, moving, and much more intimate way, the thrust of All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque’s extraordinary masterpiece.
Erich Maria Remarque was a perfectly typical conscript, a student at the University of Münster, drafted into the war when he turned eighteen, shipped to the Western Front at a time when it was becoming clear to perfectly typical conscripts that, from Germany’s point of view, the war was already lost. Remarque’s protagonist, Paul (Remarque’s real middle name; he changed it to Maria in honor of his mother) is a perfectly typical conscript, drafted into the war at eighteen and shipped to the Western Front at a time when it was becoming clear to perfectly typical conscripts that, from Germany’s point of view, the war was already lost.
The novel is so autobiographical in so many aspects, and so graphic in its depictions of (to paraphrase a famous line adapted from the writing of Hannah Arendt) the banality of horror and terror, that it came as a shock at the very end to be reminded I had been reading a novel. Remarque captured the insanity of war and the numbness that protects soldiers (at least, those who don’t go mad, which has been known to happen) even as they are witnessing or doing things that in civilian life would be inconceivable:
“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it all more refined and enduring. And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterward? And what shall become of us?”
And against the unrelenting terror and fear and horror, to which they become benumbed; and the routine of killing—with rifles, grenades, spades, knives, and bayonets—other young men just like themselves, to which they also become benumbed; the rats and poison gas to which they also become benumbed; the shells, the bombs, the blood and shattered bones and intestines to all of which they become benumbed; against all that is contrasted the rare and simple joy of a good meal from stolen food even as bombs rain down around them; the pleasure of wearing a pair of good boots, even though they came from the death of a comrade; the satisfaction of picking lice off their bodies; the jokes and black humor; the concern for comrades who begin to lose their protective numbness; the delight of seeing on a wall a poster of a beautiful actress; the pleasure of quiet conversations in the trenches where they argue about the causes of the war, who started it, what they are fighting for, conversations that make it clear they haven’t a clue.
And they talk about the weary knowledge that their substandard uniforms and boots and food are making someone rich at home:
“But we are emaciated and starved. Our food is bad and mixed up with so much substitute stuff that it makes us ill. The factory owners in Germany have grown wealthy; dysentery dissolves our bowels. The latrine poles are always densely crowded…[we] grin at one another and say: ‘It is not much sense pulling up one’s trousers again.’”
Nothing has changed, nothing will ever change, in any and every army that ever was or will be. It is easy to understand why another mentally negligible, megalomaniacal moron with severe inferiority issues and delusions of grandeur, Adolph Hitler, had All Quiet on the Western Front banned and burned.
The only other accounts I have read that come close to this for catching the banality of horror in combat are some of Tim O’Brien’s brilliant semi-autobiographical novels about the Vietnam War, The Things they Carried, Going After Cacciato, and—somewhat more obliquely—In the Lake of the Woods.
Read All Quiet on the Western Front and remember Rudyard Kipling’s bitter poem, written after his eighteen-year-old son was killed in action at the Battle of Loos:
If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.