Entangling Alliances

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Most of the alliances that activated World War I were known to all the parties ahead of time: Britain’s crafting of Belgium neutrality and determination to protect it; France and Russia’s agreement to come to each other’s aid should Germany attack either; and Germany’s alliance with Austria against the Ottoman Empire and Russia. Thus when Austrian Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated by a Yugoslav nationalist in 1914, these alliances grew teeth with gunpowder at their ends.

Listening to Barbara Tuchman’s magesterial Guns of August (1962), it’s oh so clear that Germany was determined to be the aggressor. The murder of an heir apparent need not have provoked hostilities. Kaiser Wilhelm’s irasible itch for glory, plus the German war machine, crafted by General von Molke, and the German horror of indecision, which might ruin a beautifully designed mobilization plan by delay–these as much as anything else put German aggression into motion. The German high command had taught themselves to ignore the advice of their greatest 19th-century statesman, Bismark, against fighting a war on two fronts.

Also crucial to the resentments that fueled the war was German-French hostility over Alsace-Lorraine, the areas in eastern France taken by Germany during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. In 1914, plenty of people on both sides remembered, the Parisians especially who’d had to eat their cats in order to survive the German encirclement.

Belgian neutrality was a crucial point in Britain’s coming into the war: The Germans had decided to march through Belgium to attack France. The Belgians refused to stand aside and let them do it. Britain could not allow Germans to engage war on the French coast just opposite England. “We will see the guns!” exclaimed one member of the British cabinet.

It would be a short war, thought all parties concerned. “We’ll be home when the leaves turn!” Far from it! Once the French and Germans and British were dug into their trenches, an enormously costly stalemate developed: artillery was so powerful that it made attacks across “no man’s land” deadly. Steel helmets, gas masks, and eventually tanks were developed to protect and allow for assaults, but as the years dragged on, French troops especially fell apart, attempted mutiny. Interestingly, Australians on occasion pushed through to startling victories. that stopped the Germans in their tracks. Millions on both sides died. Then came the flu epidemic: millions of men fell ill in the trenches.

When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, they shored up the exhausted efforts of the Allies, and provided needed supplies. Ten thousand American troops arrived each day to aid the French/British side. Germany had been blockaded by the British fleet. Italy, initially part of the German-Austrian alliance, withdrew and fought the Austrians. The Ottoman empire crumbled, murdering a million Armenians. The Russian Revolution deposed the Russian royalty, and that country removed itself from of the war. The German people were hungry and muttering revolt.

Armistice was signed “on the 11th day, of the 11th month, at the 11th hour,” 1919. Not until 1923 were all the combatants in the east and Africa brought to rest. Then began the degradation of the Germans in the Weimar Republic, which many consider the depths out of which Hitler ultimately arose to power the second war, twenty-some years later.

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