The war was just two weeks old. The Germans were convinced their Blitzkrieg tactic would work – they’d dispatch the French within six weeks, then turn to the Eastern Front and defeat Russia. They would acquire Lebensraum, literally “room to live.” It was General Erich Ludendorff’s belief that without colonial possessions, Germany could only acquire it’s “place in the sun” by conquering and settling the vast plains of Eastern Europe and Ukraine.
The French were enthusiastic about the war when it started, but by mid-August they realized that the German machine was organized and efficient. Their plan relied on the ‘French spirit’ overcoming the cold mechanistic Teutonic mentality. That didn’t work. French Commander Joseph Joffre had to re-organize the French plan – which was essentially to go on offense – to organize a defense. It would be nearly mid-September when it became clear the Germans had failed, and the Blitzkrieg turned to trench warfare, with the lines hardly moving in nearly four years.
In the US the European war was not seen as our problem. The largest ethnic group in America was (and still is – though by a much smaller margin) German. The idea that the US should take sides wasn’t popular. American President Woodrow Wilson, in fact, viewed it as a sign of American superiority that our Democratic system would remain at peace while power politics led the autocratic powers to a pointless war in Europe.
On this day, Americans were more pre-occupied with their own hemisphere – namely the opening of the Panama Canal, which would allow ship travel between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans without having to make the daunting journey around the tip of South America. The expanse of trade and ease of shipping promised a new economic era – not to mention that naval ships could now be moved far more quickly between the two oceans. But the US was content to let the Europeans fight their war.
World War I would shatter the Europe of old, harken the collapse of the British and French colonial Empires, replace the Russian Czar with Communism, redraw the maps and bring in a world to be built with the use of reason rather than custom. Royalty and nobility were replaced with ideology and raw power. Connection to the land, one’s role in the community, and church was replaced by consumerism, industrial assembly line work and materialism as a way of life.
This was true in the US as well as Europe. In the US in 1900 over 40% of the population was in farming, by 1990 that level dropped to 1.9%. The US census stopped counting farmers after that, the number ceased to be relevant.
But while it may be true that rational thought finally eclipsed irrational and often tyrannical tradition, the 20th Century did not usher in an era of liberation and prosperity. In the first half, humans using reason created ideologies – secular religions based on core assumptions and beliefs – and found it possible to rationalize all sorts of heinous acts, including war, often with the good intent of creating a truly democratic and just society. Mass consumption and economic change led to the Great Depression, environmental crises, and humans to be used as tools, whether in sweat shops, sex trade or as consumers to be used for their disposable income.
100 years ago the modern world finally pushed aside tradition and custom, and an era of radical change, new technology, and more deadly wars began. World War I would be the last war in which military deaths out numbered civilian ones.
A century ago today, people viewed the future with hope. Yet for over thirty years it would be defined by war and depression, and the US would not be immune. Now as we look forward to the next 100 years, a few lessons seem clear.
1) Ideological thinking is dangerous and obsolete. It led to the Second World War, defined the wasted resources and existential danger of the Cold War, and divides people along unnatural and often absurd lines. People who might otherwise be able to practically deal with problems see the world abstractly – including other people, nature, and community.
2) War, environmental degradation, a soulless consumerism and massive global corruption the planet at this point in time. Materially the West is very well off, but we’re a society riddled with alienation, depression, anxiety, obesity, lack of connection to nature (especially children) and a loss of meaning and community. In the third world corruption, abuse, war, sex trade, and poverty dominate, with communities/tradition ripped apart by global capitalism.
While the “West” has been in constant transition ever since knowledge trickled into Europe from the Islamic world and in the 13th Century the Church shifted from Augustinian other-worldliness to Thomist logic, one can see World War I as the destruction of the old order, and the creation of a new, modern, rational, ideological and very materialist era. It’s clear at this point that our way of conceptualizing and ordering reality isn’t working. This new era is under threat from economic collapse, environmental degradation and climate change, terrorism, energy shortages, and a host of problems. Humans are caught struggling to find meaning, and often doing so by following an ideology or doing anything to, as Erich Fromm put it, escape from freedom.
That has to change if we are to successfully navigate a future in a world that is changing at an even faster pace than it was a century ago. There are signs of hope – the EU has started a transition to a post-sovereign interdependent political structure. Social media is opening up new avenues of change, though that can be used for good, evil, or trivial. But we can’t go on like we did in the past.
100 years ago the European leaders were caught up in the “cult of the offensive,” believing the next war would be quick, decisive, and won by the country bold enough to start the conflict. They thought they could harness 20th Century technology to expand 19th Century political structures. Instead, the war destroyed the world they knew, and things would never be the same. Unless we expand our thinking, we could be headed for a similar fate.