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When Empires Weaken Wars Beckon

The Empire’s power was slipping. Its economy, once the largest in the world, was faltering. Though it still led the world in finance, it no longer dominated in manufacturing. It was being eclipsed by an upstart eastern rival that was taking more and more of its markets, leaving its economy weakened, its people restless.

Most threatening was the challenge in the Middle East. If the upstart rival gained a foothold there, it would be the end of the Empire, for its primacy in the world had come to depend on oil. That’s when a petty squabble for control of a minor nation in the region set off the greatest war the world had ever known.

World War I was, indeed, the Great War. It caused 26 million casualties, ten times the losses of any other war in history. Eleven new nations were created in its aftermath. Communism emerged as a state-based system. Europe was dethroned, and the U.S. was elevated to pre-eminent position in world affairs. World War I rearranged the architecture of global power more dramatically than any other event of the past thousand years.

It ended ninety-five years ago this week, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, when all was quiet on the western front. If there were lessons we might have learned from the War but perhaps forgotten, we would be wise to re-learn them now.

England had been the dominant world power since the 1700s. It was England that birthed the Industrial Revolution where machines burning fossil fuels replaced animal power in manufacturing. The astounding increase in productivity led to an equal increase in state power. England became the largest empire in the history of the world, one on which the sun never set.

But where England dominated the first Industrial Revolution, the one based on steam, coal, and iron, it was Germany that dominated the second, the one based on internal combustion, oil, and steel. The result was that whereas England's share of global wealth was 20 TIMES that of Germany in 1850, by 1913 Germany's share surpassed that of England by 50%.

This was an astonishing, unprecedented reversal in relative economic power in such a short period of time. Left unchecked, it would eventually lead to a reversal in military and state power as well.

England’s response was to bury its long-standing rivalry with its two historic enemies, France and Russia. It signed an “Entente Cordiale” with France in 1904, and the Anglo-Russian Accord in 1907. The idea was to “contain” Germany by surrounding it with two powerful adversaries, France to the west and Russia to the east.

For its part, Germany created alliances with Austria-Hungary and Italy—the “Triple Alliance.” It also began courting the Ottoman Empire which controlled what is modern-day Iraq. It was this alliance that proved most threatening to the British.

In 1908 England had begun converting its navy from coal to oil. Oil was cheaper, easier to handle, and had four-times the energy of coal. England's entire empire was managed by its vast global navy. So, when Germany announced in 1911 that it was going to build a railroad connecting Germany with Iraq, the Berlin-to-Baghdad Railway, England recognized an existential threat.

In June 1914, a Serbian high school student killed an official of Austria-Hungary. Germany used the pretext to provoke war with Serbia, the only country standing in the way of its railroad to the Persian Gulf. This is when the dominoes of entangling alliances began to fall.

Russia, Serbia’ Slavic patron, mobilized its army. Germany saw this threatening its ally, Austria-Hungary, and declared war on Russia. Certain that France would come to the aid of Russia, Germany also declared war on France. France reciprocated. England responded to the attack on her ally, France, by declaring war on Germany.

Within seven days, a relatively minor skirmish in the remote region called the Balkans, had dragged all of the major powers of Europe into war. It would prove the bloodiest conflict in the history of the world up to that time.

The older empire is weakening today as well, challenged by a brash, new upstart. Alliances are shifting, and control of Middle Eastern oil is still the lynch pin on which global power hangs. We would be wise to ease back from the brink, before a minor skirmish that nobody anticipates triggers World War III.

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Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman is a recently retired teacher in California and the author of The Best One-Hour History series, which includes World War I, The Vietnam War, The Cold War, and other titles. He is the founder of the nonprofit One Dollar For Life, which helps American students build classrooms in the developing world from donations of one dollar. 

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