If it were not for World War I (1914-1919), we would not have had the Russian Revolution, the rise of Communism, Fascism, Nazism, the Holocaust, Stalinism, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, colonialism, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, World War II or The Cold War. In addition, the Great War claimed millions of lives who died in the World War itself.
After the Napoleonic wars that ended in 1815, Europe experienced a unique period of economic and social growth due to several factors, such as the Industrial Revolution and colonial expansionism.
This new wealth produced rapid developments in science, art, medicine, and political philosophy. For Europe, the future looked bright, but suddenly the continent was set alight by a new conflagration.
Pandora’s box of disasters
The story began in June 1914 in Sarajevo, when heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. The incident should not have been more than a tragic incident; instead, it triggered a series of disasters that changed the world forever.
After the Napoleonic wars that ended in 1815, Europe experienced a unique period of economic and social growth due to several factors, such as the Industrial Revolution and colonial expansionismFaisal Al-Shammeri
Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia after receiving the blessings of Germany. Recognizing that it had no chance to survive the onslaught of Austria-Hungary, Serbia sought support of Russia and the latter obliged. For its part, Russia asked French support in its bid to support Serbia. Ever suspicious of German intentions, France extended a helping hand to Russia.
Keen to pre-empt a French attack, Germany invaded France through the neutral territory of Belgium. This move prompted Britain to support France against Germany. Suddenly, the entire continent of Europe was engulfed in war.
Germany proved to be the critical player and their ploy was to strike France through Belgium in order to capture Paris, even before the French army could react. With France defeated, they would shift their attention to Russia. Germany thought that the Schlieffen Plan (named after Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen who masterminded the invasion of France and Belgium on 4 August 1914) would work.
It all ended when German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who ascended the throne in 1888, was forced to abdicate in 1918. Wilhelm was a profoundly obnoxious, unpredictable and impetuous person. He held the belief that Germany should not only hold sway over the entire continent, but the entire world. If the Schlieffen Plan had worked, Germany would have certainly become a superpower and would have dominated the globe.
Emergence of US power
However, Germany’s strategy didn’t work. The British and the French put up a great resistance in the West. Russia did the same in the east. The losses suffered by all sides were not only huge, they were catastrophic.
For the first time in history, widespread use of mechanical war machines, guns, tanks, worst of all, and poison gas were used in the fields of France and the plains of Russia, which turned into vast graveyards. By 1917, the war reached a stalemate. No one knew how long it would take to break the deadlock, until the United States intervened.
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The American people did not want anything to do with Europe. Ironically, President Wilson had been elected because of his campaign pledge that he would keep America out of “Europe’s War”.
However, his views changed when the German navy sank American merchant ships. The infamous Zimmerman Telegram proved to be the proverbial last straw which exposed Germany’s alliance with Mexico against the America. This led the US military to join the Allies in the war.
Prelude to World War II
The US entry into the fray proved decisive and the war finally ended in 1918. Around 20 million people, including soldiers and civilians, died in the war leading to the downfall of four Kingdoms: Deutschland (Germany), Turkey (Ottoman Empire), Austria-Hungary, and Russia.
Russia became a communist country under Vladimir Lenin, and the Bolshevik Revolution formed the Soviet Union. French and British economy were in meltdown. Germany was forced to surrender under the humiliating Treaty at Versailles, with its economy in recession.
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After the Great War, the United States retreated from European affairs. In the end, World War I caused so much bitterness and hostility among nations that it made the occurrence of World War II inevitable.
World War I transformed the face of modern warfare forever. Its ends proved to be a mere hiatus in the violence and did not usher in peace. The stage was set for World War II, which claimed over 50 million lives. It was incited by the lunacy of Adolf Hitler, who shared the megalomania of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Therefore, if I could change one event in history, it will be the First World War.
Faisal Al-Shammeri is a political analyst based in Washington DC. He tweets @mr_alshammeri.