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Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Day The Lights Went Out – Europe 100 Years after the Outbreak of World War I

On the 28th of June 1914, the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, Prince Franz Ferdinand, and his wife have been assassinated in Sarajevo. Their murderer, Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, was most likely unaware of the consequences of his actions – not only for Bosnia, but to the entire world.

When British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey said that the lights were going out in Europe, he was aware of the outcome of the Great War that was falling on the European nations in summer 1914. While the European nations moved to the battlefields by the end of July 1914, no one was yet aware of the first full scale war of the early 20th century. People were driven between national euphoria, a personal seek for adventure, and the sheer confidence to win this war and to be back home by Christmas. When they finally got back home – more than four years later, they have left an entire continent in rubble, ashes and misery. Europe had been destroyed.

Oh, what a lovely war!

People had just been waiting for a war. The pressure inside the boiling pot in Europe had increased since the second half of the 19th century, since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71. Colonialism, the affection of racial superiority of the white European race (jingoism) and of the upcoming pan-Germanic move in the German Empire, combined with a continuous arms race between the British and German Empire erupted in a collective hysteria throughout the European nations. In Germany, Austria-Hungary, in Britain, France and the Russian Empire, patriotism was a matter of course and even an obligation. Most importantly, each side was convinced of their own superiority and determination to win the war within a few weeks.

This euphoria was quintessentially strong in the German Empire. Having won nearly every war since the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, the Prussian rulers of the still young German Empire and its generals were boasting in self-confidence to crush any enemy army in a blink of an eye – no matter if French or Russian. Young men enlisted to the army, not even finishing school as long as they have the right age already, reserve forces have been called into service. Within a few days, these men not only changed their uniforms, they changed their lives, their minds, everything. Young men claimed to be older, elderly coloured their hair to look younger – all this just to participate in the war. Everyone in the country – intellectuals, workers, students, farmers, civil servants etc. – wanted to go to war, and everyone one wanted to escape from their daily lives for a while. War was an adventure and it promised a prosper life and glory. Especially the younger generations were driven by national euphoria, to sacrifice their lives for the empire, for their families, even for their emperor.

Honour and hatred: those were the dominant words in the summer of 1914. It was a new national virtue to hate the other countries and their strange “oddities”. The Germans mocked the French uniforms which remained unchanged since the times of Napoleon – blue shirts with red trousers. The French mocked the German helmet design and their ridiculous emperor who seemed to believe that the world was a huge theatre stage and he was the main protagonist.

“Jeder Tritt ein Britt” (every kick for a British), “Jeder Schuss ein Russ” (every bullet for a Russian), “Serbien muss sterbien” (Serbia must die) were the slogans of the euphoric loudmouths. Show your rifle ones and you’ll be back home by Christmas. Euphoria and self-confidence were enormous, while critical voices have been silenced – partly violently. French socialist leader Jean Jaures was shot on 31st July 1914, shortly after Germany had declared war on the Russian Empire. Jaures had strongly insisted that workers would never go to war against workers from other countries. Even the German Socialist party (SPD) reluctantly agreed on the war loans, afraid that they might have been accused for non-patriotic behaviour.

By the end of July 1914 – a month after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand – everything went very quickly:

Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Serbia’s ally, the Russian Empire, declared war on Austria-Serbia. The German Empire, which was unconditionally allied with Austria-Hungary, declared war on Russia. France, Russia’s ally, ordered general mobilization. As a reaction, Germany declared war on France and France gratefully responded in the same way.

The gates to hell were pushed wide open.

Western Front – Trench Warfare

The German generals had, in order to avoid the strong fortresses alongside the Franco-German border, drafted the “Schliefen-Plan”, which initiated a quick march through Belgium and Luxembourg in order to attack the French forces from behind and to march straight towards Paris. Completely surprised by this sneak attack, the French military leadership hastily redirected their forces towards the northern borders. After the German army had committed atrocities on the Belgian population and swarmed into France, the UK also declared war on Germany. From now on, it was a true full scale European war.

Unlike previous wars, World War I, which was also called the “Great War”, was not only marked by its length, but also by their characteristic trenches. With new warfare technologies such as long-range artillery, planes, machine guns and poison gas, killing became a mass slaughter. Instead of retreating, the army commanders ordered to dig. The result was a huge network of trenches through France, from the Channel Coast to the Alps. It almost seemed like they wanted to channel the water from the North Sea straight to the Alps. With trench networks on both sides, and massive artillery fire dragging on for days, the area in between turned into a no-man’s land. Landscapes, forests, hills, and even villages and towns simply disappeared; bombed, blown-up, and eradicated from the maps. Large areas of France were turned into a grey-brown blood drowned waste land.

Nobody invented the trench as such. They simply evolved naturally when both troops tried to avoid each other. For the soldiers, the trenches became a home for four years. Stuck in muddy, cold and stinking graves, with the corps of their fallen comrades, rats and flees, all soldiers – no matter if German, French, British or Russian – shared the fate of being degenerated into mud, dirt and blood – mostly accompanied by hunger, by repeated visit by rats which eventually became a primary food source for the starving soldiers. French soil was drowned with the blood of millions, contaminated by poison gas, burnt by flame throwers and exploded shells. The area around Verdun has been changed forever. Nowadays, the remaining of the shell holes and trenches are silent witnesses of the destructive power of the first total war of mankind.

In Storms of Steel and Gas – Industrialization of Warfare

In previous wars, honour and glory were essential virtues by any nation. Soldiers had a strong code of conduct how to behave and which rules to follow. With a rapid technological progress since the late 19th century, new weapons and arms have been used in World War I for the first time, but the strategies by the army generals have not been updated accordingly. Army generals simply disregarded the technological changes since the last wars and their strategies were still outlined for lightly armed armies and cavalries.

New artilleries and machine guns were supposed to bring an even quicker decision in war, but not taking into account, that the other side was equally equipped and having a sheer unlimited manpower at their disposal. With this possibilities and still blinded by the illusion of a quick victory, more and more men were thrown onto the battlefields, against the approaching enemy, and into the enemy’s bullet hailstorm.

The most horrific new weapon was, however, a non-steel one. The Germans were the first to use chemical weapons on a large scale. With its original purpose to confuse the enemy through smoke and tear gas, lethal mixtures like chlorine gas, mustard gas or phosgene have ensured a slow mass slaughter in agonizing death – making dying at the front more atrocious and terrifying than through bullets and shells themselves. Although the Hague Convention prohibited the use of any chemical weapon, no one could be bothered. In fact, if someone could have been bothered to care about international conventions after all, around one third of all fatalities could have been prevented. But in war, everything is allowed, as long as you think it will lead to success, disregarding the victims.

With mass barrages and mass shelling day and night, for several days in succession, the enemy troops were quickly demoralized, exhausted and driven into insanity. Even the most sophisticated trench networks did not help in the event of mass bombardments, as any shell could hit you anywhere in any trench. Under conditions like these, it simply became a matter of pure fortune if a soldier survived or not. As World War I participant and later author Ernst Jünger had written in his war diaries: “It would have been honourable to die in pure man-to-man-combat, face to face – but not to be squashed by accident like an insect.” The survivors of the trench warfare simply did not survive because of bravery, but because by pure luck.

By the end of the war, armoured vehicles and tanks completed the industrialization of war. Fighter planes and zeppelin air raids on turned the skies into battlefields. The first air raid by a German zeppelin on London in September 1915 also eradicated the border lines between military and civilian targets. While any civil involvement in the war and civil population remained unaffected by war actions for centuries, World War I marked the beginning of the end of this separation. It also showed that from now on, every target – military or civilian – was a legitimate one; a rule that should have been driven to perfection about two decades later.

The Home Front – Starving for our boys

Not just the civil population has been started to get involved in the war, but above all the domestic industries. War industry became the only industry in a country and the entire production was swapped into the production of canons, shells, machine guns etc. With the war dragging on for years, raw materials and resources eventually become so scarce, that extra materials from the populations was needed. That meant that the population had to provide anything made out of metal from their homes. Pots and pans were melted to make shells; even church bells were turned into canons – including the same bells that announced the outbreak of the war all over Europe in summer 1914.

The most severe effects were, however, visible on the food supplies.  To support the endless man power at the front, around two thirds of all available food supplies were redirected to the fronts – only one third of total food stocks were left for the civil population. For Germany it was even more severe since the country was predominantly dependent of foreign food supplies. With the war bringing international trade to a complete standstill and the sea routes blocked by allied fleets, food crisis in Germany become so devastating, that by 1918 there was not even enough food for the own troops. The propaganda made it, nevertheless, imperative for the people to starve and to suffer for their boys at the front, for the final and decisive victory.

Europe in ruins, peace not secured – The road to the next war

By fall 1918, Europe was exhausted: the home front, the soldiers upfront, the general staff, even the old monarchic system. The end of the war on the 11th of November 1918 marked the end of imperial Austria-Hungary, with a number of new independent nations emerging in Central Europe. For the German Empire, the end of the war did not bring peace at all. Instead, the allies ensured in the Versailles Treaty that Germany was punished accordingly, as they unanimously declared Germany for the only initiator of war in Europe. In particular, France had a genuine interest to humiliate Germany in revenge for the total devastation of wide regions on their own territory.

The German military command escaped from their responsibility and left it for the newly republican government to sign the ceasefire agreements and in the end the peace treaties of Versailles, enabling inner resistance against the new democratic Republic of Weimar that was proclaimed on 9th November 1918. In secret, army generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff refrained from all responsibility and made sure that national resistance in Germany was on a high level. While the new democratic government struggled to ensure stability in the country, generals and other ultra-conservative forces started to weave the plots for more conflict.

The provisions of the Versailles Treaty (signed on 28th June 1919 – exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand) included not only harsh economic reparation obligations in financial and good assets, but also a loss of territories (especially in the East, Alsace-Lorraine, all its colonies in Africa and in the Pacific), the entire disarmament and demilitarization of the Rhineland, the loss of land connection to Eastern Prussia, the loss of the entire trading fleet, and further reparations obligation lasting for several decades. In immediate consequences, Germany was struck by bankruptcy, hyper-inflation and inner civil-war like turmoil from left socialist revolutionaries and right-wing paramilitary troops and free corps.

Sensible approaches for an international cooperation as laid down by US President Woodrow Wilson in his 14 points, including the League of Nations, were ignored and outweighed by national revenge. With the USA withdrawing from Europe and any further cooperation on the international level, Europe was left to itself again, with all unresolved conflicts.

Versailles marked the end of the war and everyone all over Europe was waiting for peace. What Europe got, however, was the prelude for the next catastrophe. Versailles and all the other treaties signed in 1918 and 1919 did neither bring peace, nor stability, nor freedom for most. When Sir Edward Grey said that the lights were going out in Europe in 1914 and that they would not see them lit again in their times again, his predictions should be reality for more than 30 years. With the “Great War” starting in summer 1914, Europe had entered the darkest period in its history.

The end of the Great War did not solve the power question in Europe, but made a lot of room for later conflict, and even more devastating consequences for the entire continent. Several new questions came up instead.

The French were asking themselves: Did we punish Germany harsh enough?

The British were asking: Why is our empire nearly bankrupt though we won the war?

The new independent nations like Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia asked: Why can’t we live in peaceful coexistence though we finally got freedom now?

The Germans asked: How can we rectify the humiliation of Versailles and everything linked to it?

The answer to this came 20 years later.

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