The Forgotten Ingredients of WWI: National Honor, Misperception & Muddled Aims

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“soldier walking on wooden pathway surrounded with barbwire selective focus photography” by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash

The summer of 1914 was dangerously heated. Heated politically, that is. The European nations were crackling with tension and within months would be crackling with gunfire. One of the bloodiest wars in history, at the time it must have also felt rather apocalyptic. After all, when before had a conflict the scale of which was currently playing out in the Western world ever been witnessed? The road to WWI was littered with missteps, with fatal miscommunication, with ambiguities and with confusion — groping around in the dark. It is, in a way, an edifying cautionary tale to us all.

Perhaps Europe ended up with a war that they did not even truly want, in its complete scope. Perhaps they ended up with something far too complicated and entangled before it was too late. Perhaps they failed to see the full dimensions of the catastrophe on their hands.

Perhaps, like a mad scientist, the continent collectively conjured up a deadly concoction that no one knew exactly how to contend with. A catastrophe, the ingredients of which were misperception, ambiguity, miscalculation, prickly ideas of national honor, and a combative will (at the expense of a cooperative will), to name a few. What can be surely said is that Europe was unprepared for the monster they had jointly created.

And we could all stand to reflect on history’s messiest exploits. Exactly one century ago, a pall set over Europe as they contemplated the four years of strife that had changed their continent into something almost unrecognizable to itself, into something that would never be the same again, that would have a tremendously difficult time fully expelling its hurts. Those years would radically alter the trajectory of history.

Questions rise to the surface: Why were national interests pursued with so little thought given to the peril of war? Why had a set of alliances — of all things — so swiftly locked into position European nations that were jointly aimed towards war and mutual destruction? What exactly did everyone want to achieve by means of going to war? Were these aims even reasonably clear? And to what degree of the hostilities were deliberate — that is, in the pursuit of an explicit goal — and to what degree were they merely reactive?

In a lot of ways, I think World War I was a series of unfortunate events that triggered other unfortunate events, all of which eventually collided into a colossal turmoil. Which is to say, I think the full scale of it was unanticipated. I don’t think it was necessarily something everybody wanted. And yet, at the same time, one could argue for the inevitability of the war. When there’s a glamorization of war on the rise, that should always read as a warning. And glamorization of war, it should be said, often arrives as a regrettable side effect of intensified nationalism.

After all, when nations desire only to combatively defend solely themselves, with a disregard for the corresponding consequences, they are entering a sort of prisoner’s dilemma. And so it was in WWI: prepared to do nothing but pursue their own national self-interest, the worst outcome was arrived at. That outcome was mutual mobilization, a leap into an arms race.

Most governments did not really want war, despite a proclivity that might have been brewing in the national consciousness (meaning, the people) for it. And of course the governments didn’t truly want war! Wars are expensive and damaging and cause political unrest and carry the looming threat of future foreign hostilities, amongst a slew of other things — and the leaders knew this. And yet, these natural reluctancies weren’t enough. A few sharp blows to the continent lit the fire and almost powerless to stop what seemed an implanted, mechanized progression of events, large nations marched to war. And no one turned back.

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria is widely heralded as the cause of the war. I remember learning this bit of knowledge in 10th grade and finding it puzzling, almost amusing, mostly because it seemed so lacking an explanation. A single man was shot and this was the result? It sounded absurd to me, not to mention vaguely irrational. And it maybe it was. But there may be reasons for this seemingly reckless succession of events.

For one thing, the cultural climate of the time was different, and was one permeated with the importance of national honor above much else. More than anything, one could make the case that the nations went to war primarily due to obligations of honor (as opposed to plain self-interest, for instance). The language emanating from the national leaders reflected this. Justifications for entering the brewing conflict contained a multitude of references to national honor and the obligatory, but technically binding, nature of alliances. What’s particularly interesting about WWI is that for a handful of the countries involved, there was not even an immediate territorial threat at stake.

Historians have wrung their hands over the various possible causes of the Great War for a full century and their unease is telling. They appear almost haunted by the origination of the war, as if there’s a chance that it was all in vain or all one titanic mistake that could’ve conceivably been avoided altogether. The idea that the war was fought for nothing — a fearful thought that lingers deep in the recesses of the mind — then, is precisely the source of this intellectual torment. And yet perhaps, for example, we’re just modernly unaccustomed to realizing how strongly national honor permeated the Europe of the early twentieth century, and how galvanizing an effect it had on individual psychologies.

One could make the case that if everyone had treaded lightly, and taken careful pains to preserve the dignities of the nations involved, patiently taking time to straighten miscommunications out and to mend slights, that a great deal could have been prevented. That’s what seemed to matter anyways: Dignity, respect, honor.

In any case, there’s another ingredient, somewhat related to the one just discussed: Alliances. A rigid network of alliances is certainly partly culpable for the sweep into war. Feeling compelled to act on their coalition’s behalf, one by one nations were dragged into war. These military pacts were a sort of trap and as per the prisoner’s dilemma, the end result was the worst outcome for everyone.

Besides this climate of alliances, there was also a climate of fear and a certain Darwinian conception of survival baked into the national consciousness. A willingness to fight rather than to pursue potentially cooperative modes of conduct reigned supreme. Each nation knew that to mobilize last would be to put one at a severe disadvantage and naturally, no one wanted to be in that position. As a matter of course, everyone mobilized for war. Instead of prioritizing a possibility of reconciliation and diplomacy, the nations drew inward, leaned in to their, in some cases, fevered anticipation of war and indulged their nervousness. Arms races too are a trap.

One also has to wonder to what extent muddled communication proved fatal. After all, such a large pool of nations being hauled into the conflict was complicated business. Especially given the pernicious climate of wholesale fear, everyone was too wary of direct discussions. Instead, a handful of ultimatums were issued that somewhat heightened the intensity of something that perhaps could’ve avoided such heightening. Additionally, in the early twentieth century, communications were slow and delayed and cumbersome — not like they are today, instantaneous, befitting the urgency of aggravated situations involving foreign relations.

Perhaps no one can lay WWI to rest because there was something so unsatisfying about it all — a culmination, in some ways, so frustratingly insufficient. The war was fated to hopeless, impossible resolution. The goals of the nations involved — if they had any clear ones that is — were mismatched and incompatible. It was as if everyone threw their grievances into the pot.

Contrast the outcome of the second World War with the first. In WWII there at least had been a very real, very straightforward Nazi threat to battle against. It would later be grandly trumpeted as a ‘war against evil’. At least, in the end of that effort, large swaths of the world could have satisfied themselves with quashing the Nazi threat and could consider their consciences soothed, their moralities bolstered. But what of WWI? Looked at comprehensively, its aims look painfully scattered in comparison. Its composition was, in fact, fundamentally different.

Perhaps we could posit that the people of 1914 foolishly lacked prudent, adequate imagination to foresee the threat of full-scale destruction. Perhaps we could also accuse the European people of lacking the righteous courage to counter the popular sentiment they were disposed to, of there being “no choice but to go to war”. I’m sure we could come up with other maddeningly feasible strategies of prevention. But it’s almost a fruitless endeavor because it is often only in hindsight that we possess knowledge of the full picture, not to mention a detached sort of rationalism necessary to dissect such matters.

Unfortunately, Europe circa 1914 found themselves caught in powerful political and psychological snares that were hard to disentangle from at the time, the strength of which cannot be underestimated. A century removed from the resolution of this bloody conflict, we still find ourselves preoccupied with all that it has to teach us. It’s a humbling thing.

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Writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between.

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