It is normally quite easy to understand why war breaks out and who is pitted against who. Not so for the Great War. And this is true to the point that it has been defined as one of the most enigmatic events in contemporary history.
It’s hard to understand the Great War without understanding the ‘Long Century’, that XIX century that started in 1815 when the Napoleonic Wars ended and lasted until the break out of WWI. The one-hundred-year long peace that started then was largely the making of a German, Otto von Bismarck, the creator of the ‘Concert of Europe’ that harmonised the life of all European nations. Even if the Napoleonic Wars had involved almost the entire continent, when they were over, all the European nations felt that they belong to the same civilisation, especially in contrast with the colonised world ‘outside’. The Concert of Europe succeeded in creating a balance that rested on that common civilisation based on Enlightenment, industrial and scientific advancement, good manners – in brief, what we could define as ‘Victorian’. Although disturbed by many small conflicts (like the Crimean Wars) throughout the century, that balance was never tipped."The Great War has been defined as one of the more enigmatic events in contemporary history. That's how complex a matter it is #WWI #history Click To Tweet
The industrial revolution was the one unbalancing factor. Nations evolved at different speeds, and a few that used to be pre-eminent started to lose ground to younger powers. This created a first imbalance, which was nonetheless kept under control by the ‘Concert of Europe’.
Still, many societies slowly became aware of that imbalance. Catastrophic theories based on the wild increase of the world population, the intensive use of resources, the mixing of the races, the lost of contact with tradition and the effects of urbanisation and industrialisation became very commonplace. It’s quite interesting to note how these theories never foresaw the destructive impact of a total war, as instead literature did a few times.
In fact, a war was seen favourably, as the event that could readjust the European balance to what reality had evolved into over one century. The killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo was only the trigger of what all nations were expecting to happen sooner or later. They all accepted it as the way to reorganise a balance that had become vastly artificial. Young people, tired of an old way of life and eager to change a world that was not their own anymore, enthusiastically joined the war effort. Besides, all nations thought this was going to be just one more ‘small conflict’ as the ones they had known throughout the ‘Long Century’. They all thought it was going to be over in a few months.
Nobody expected what actually happened.
The industrial revolution and science and mechanic advancement had afforded all nations with weapons no one really knew the potentiality of. They were far more effective and far more destructive than any of the veteran generals who lead the respective armies ever imagined. They started a war as they had always done, but the new weapons turned it into something new and horrible that nobody expected or knew how to handle.
Surprised by the effectiveness of the new total war, unprepared to judge what was going on, but able to keep going, all armies kept their ground. Consequently, the war went on and on. Not only on the frontline. For the first time, war invaded every layer of society. Everyone was called to help in the war effort. The war infiltrated in all aspect of life, whether it was on the frontline or not.
This was a new kind of war. This was a total war that had the potentiality to destroy everything.
At the end of the war, the destruction, not just of goods, but especially in terms of loss of lives, was devastating. Of the 60 million European soldiers mobilised in the period 1914-1918, 8 million had died by the end of the war, 7 million were permanently disabled, 15 million were seriously injured. An estimated 5 million civilians had died for causes connected to the war.
It was a horrible, mindless carnage that changed the souls of all European nations forever, a dramatic breaking point as few had been in the history of the world and certainly of the continent. Although the old Victorian ideas and social mores still persisted, they were utterly ineffective in guiding this new world.
Europe, as it emerged from the Great War, was a new place that few Europeans knew how to navigate.
History – 11 November 1918: World War I Ends
History of War – First Warld War 1914-1918
Jimmy Atkinsosn – The Treaty of Versailles and Its Consequences
BBC History – 12 amazing WWI facts that you probably don’t know
WWI Facts – Life in the Trenches
YouTube – Epic History: World War I – 1914
Mario Isnenghi and Giorgio Rochat, La Grande Guerra, 1914-1918, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2014
Enzo Travero, A ferro e fuoco. La guerra civile europea (1914-1945), Il Mulino, Bologna, 2008