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Why World War I Still Matters

It is a foolhardy enterprise for the U.S. to plunge the world toward war by trying to retain control of last century’s central resource: oil. But that is exactly what the U.S. is doing.

Crowds including children dancing and carrying flags of Allied nations during a spontaneous celebration of Armistice Day and the end of World War I. Paris, France. November 11, 1918. (Archive: LIFE magazine)

Crowds including children dancing and carrying flags of Allied nations during a spontaneous celebration of Armistice Day and the end of World War I. Paris, France. November 11, 1918. (Archive: LIFE magazine)

This week is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.  The “War to End all Wars” rearranged the architecture of global power more radically, more rapidly, and more permanently than any other event of the last thousand years.  It still has profound lessons to teach us.

The War is the case study in what happens when a strong nation becomes weak and a weak nation becomes strong. Does that not sound like something we should be thinking about today? In World War I, the strong nation becoming weak was England.

England had spawned the First Industrial Revolution, in the late 1700s.  That Revolution was based on coal, iron, textiles, and steam. England used its industrial dominance to build the largest empire in the history of the world.  The sun literally never set on it.

But it was Germany, in the late 1800s, that led the Second Industrial Revolution.  This Revolution was based on oil, steel, chemicals, and electricity. Those technologies proved vastly more powerful than the ones England had spawned.  Their mastery powered Germany’s ascent as a global economic force. But they threatened England. Consider.

In 1850, England held 20 times the share of global wealth that Germany held.  By 1910, however, Germany had blown by England in industry, trade, and commerce.  It held a 50% greater share of global wealth than did England.

There had never been such a rapid reversal of relative economic power among world leaders in modern history.  Left unchecked, it would translate into a reversal of military and geo-political power, as well. England was rapidly being eclipsed.   

To try to prevent this, England buried its rivalries with its two greatest historic enemies, France and Russia.  In 1904, it signed the Entente Cordiale with France, which abutted Germany to the west.  In 1907, it carried out the Anglo-Russian Accord with Russia, which bordered Germany to the east.

These rapid strategic reversals were intended to “contain” Germany.  They signaled just how seriously England took the threat of ascendant German power.

What made the War inevitable was Germany’s alliance with the Ottoman Empire which controlled most of the then-Middle East.  This threatened England to its core because in 1910 it had begun a program to convert all of its navy ships from burning coal to burning oil.

If Germany secured right of passage through the Ottoman Empire, it could seize control of one of the world’s largest supplies of oil, hobbling England’s vaunted global navy.  It had to be stopped.

That was the situation in July 1914 when a tubercular high school student in Sarajevo assassinated the heir-apparent to the Austrian-Hungarian throne.  Germany pushed Austria-Hungary to attack Serbia, the assassin’s home and the last obstacle still standing between Germany and the Middle East.

The dominoes fell with stunning rapidity.  Within a month, the entire continent was at war.  The War would ultimately claim 20 million lives with another 21 million casualties.  It was the first-ever sustained, large-scale industrialization of human slaughter.

Mark Twain once observed that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”  If there is a rhyme working today it is that the U.S. is the new England and China is the new Germany.  The U.S. won’t give up its position. China won’t give up its momentum. Conflict appears inevitable.

But World War III is not fated.  The clue to preventing it lies in the recognition that a new Industrial Revolution is underway and that it will be far better for everybody to compete on technology and industrial prowess than on weapons and war.  

This new Industrial Revolution is centered on renewable energy—which China now leads—biotechnology, and artificial intelligence.  Who masters these technologies will lead the world, just as England and Germany led with earlier technologies in prior centuries. Who falters with these will just as assuredly be left behind.  

It is a foolhardy enterprise for the U.S. to plunge the world toward war by trying to retain control of last century’s central resource:  oil. But that is exactly what the U.S. is doing.

Its failed forays into Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria have cost the U.S. as much as $6 trillion.  It is a staggering sum that could have revolutionized scientific research, revitalized U.S. industry, and rebuilt the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.  Those are the foundations of prosperity in the next century, indeed, in any century. But the U.S. continues to invest in weapons and war.

Our choices are stark.  Like England, the U.S. is not going to fight its way out of a losing economic posture.  World War I was the moment in history when the center of global power shifted, from Europe, where it had resided for centuries, to the U.S., where it still resides today.  At least for now. Where it resides in the next century will be up to us.

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Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman is the author of The Best One Hour History series, which includes World War I, The French Revolution, The Vietnam War, and other titles.  He is the founder of One Dollar For Life, a nonprofit that builds infrastructure projects in the developing world from donations as small as one dollar.

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