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War of the world

When WWI broke out, most political leaders belonged to the elitist Old Regime. After it, nothing was the same again

“The summer of 1914 was a time of exceptional calm,” Winston Churchill wrote years afterward, dramatizing the contrast between the Belle Époque and the time of convulsion that followed upon the outbreak of World War I.

When that war began, Europe was dominated by a handful of vast empires, governed — with the exception of France — by hereditary monarchies, in which the nobility held decisive political and economic power. An oligarchy of nobles and bourgeois, linked by marriages and boards of directors, had a firm grip on politics and culture. France, whose republic had been termed the “republic of dukes,” was no real exception.

Many Europeans were unable to speak their native language, or practice their religion, suffering discrimination by gender, race or class. With a few exceptions, notably France and Britain, in most countries women could not vote or own property. This order began to crumble with the troop mobilizations of 1914.

All the powers expected a short war, with a few incisive campaigns followed by a negotiation that would confirm the military results, presumably in an enjoyable aristocratic get-together like the Congress of Vienna a hundred years earlier, when the representatives argued for months and partied every night, and the Prince de Ligne said: “Le congrès ne marche pas, mais il danse” — the congress is deadlocked, but it dances.

But the war lasted more than four years, and the zeal felt for it in all the belligerent nations, working classes included, soon evaporated — especially in Central and Eastern Europe. The scarcity of everything, and the vile conditions of the war, were the background to the revolutions of 1917 in Russia, which first toppled the tsarist regime, then put the Bolsheviks in power. This was the sharpest change produced by the war, at whose end only the British and French empires were left standing. The others, along with the armies, bureaucracies and landowners that sustained them, were gone. In the century that passed between the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which ended the Napoleonic era, and the outbreak of World War I, Europe saw only two major conflicts: the Crimean War (1854-56), which left some 400,000 dead; and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), which killed 184,000. But more than eight million died in the Great War, to which the victims of the 1918-19 flu pandemic in war-weakened nations should be added, and the deaths in derivative wars — such as the Russian Civil and the Greek-Turkish conflicts — that followed close on the heels of WWI.

Before 1914, civilian dead were usually few compared to those of combatants. In World War I, civilian victims amounted to a third of the total; in WWII, about two-thirds. “Brutalization” meant that civilians became the objects of attack — mainly, though not entirely, by the new means of bombardment from the air.

According to credible research (as opposed to war propaganda), more than 6,000 Belgian and French people were murdered by the German troops in August 1914, when the war had just begun, and civilian deaths were also the rule in the East. Hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians, Latvians, Poles and Jews were deported to the interior of Russia. However, the clearest example of “brutalization,” and a token of what was to come in the Nazi genocide, was the murder of at least 800,000 Armenians, which was deliberately planned and carried out by the Ottoman regime.

When the war broke out, most political leaders belonged to the exclusive, elitist world of the Old Regime, ignorant of industry and social change. After it, nothing was the same again. Communism and Fascism were seen as alternatives to liberal democracy. Mass movements produced leaders from outside the establishment, proposing radical change. In the words of one member of the old elite, Sir Edward Grey, the lamps were going out all over Europe.

Julián Casanova is the author of Europa contra Europa, 1914-1945.

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