The Great War

The Great War was not great in the sense that it was good. It might better be called the Great Big War. It was a world war, involving not just European governments but people from Africa, Asia, and the Americas as well. Battles were fought in places colonized by the Europeans, and millions of Africans and Asians were brought from the colonies to support troops in Europe. But the Roman numeral was not assigned to the first World War until it had been over for a time—not until the second World War was clearly about to begin.

Everyone knows that the spark that ignited the Great War was the assassination of an Austrian archduke visiting Sarajevo. The fuel for the explosion, though, had been gathering over time. That fuel included the balance of power in Europe, the ideology of Nationalism, and the increase of technology that contributed to the war effort.

A century before the Great War, the wars of Napoleon were concluded and settled by the Congress of Vienna. Diplomats at that Congress recognized that power must be balanced among nations, with no single nation allowed to overwhelm the others. Five great powers were recognized: Great Britain, France, Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Over the next hundred years, these five powers coexisted in creative tension. They dealt with the rest of the world from a position of power—sometimes claiming land for their own colonies, and sometimes working with existing governments in the western hemisphere and in eastern Asia. Prussia consolidated pieces of the defunct Holy Roman Empire because of Nationalism—because they had a common German language, culture, and history. Bavaria wavered between joining Prussia and Austria, finally selecting the former; Bohemia, part of the Austrian Empire, hoped for independence but was denied its dream until after the Great War.

Austria and Russia had both been gaining land and population at the expense of the declining Ottoman Empire. Nationalism inspired eastern Europeans to prefer independence over a transfer from one empire to another, and Russia urged people in Austrian-held lands to keep the flame of nationalism burning, to take pride in their Slavic heritage. Nationalism united the several small portions of Italy under one government, leaving the Pope only a few acres within the city of Rome (Vatican City, still an independent country today). The consolidation of Germany was completed through three swift border wars with Austria, Denmark, and France, all of which Germany won. The German government, led by Otto von Bismarck, declared itself satisfied and rededicated itself to maintaining a balance of power. Representatives of European governments even met in Berlin to divide Africa among themselves, preventing conflict between the European nations, but failing to ask the opinions of any Africans.

European governments used the latest military technology to maintain control in their colonies. Machine guns were particularly effective at ending native uprisings. To maintain the British Empire (upon which the sun never set), Great Britain strengthened its navy, building larger and more powerful battleships. Germany competed with Britain, building its own battleships and also a fleet of submarines. Other inventions that would complicate the Great War included barbed wire, poison gases, armored vehicles, and aircraft. Aircraft would be used more for observation of enemy positions than for offensive capabilities, but the dogfights between pilots of different nations became part of the legend of the Great War.

Germany and Austria signed a pact agreeing that, if any nation attacked one of them, both would respond. France and Russia then adopted a similar agreement, fearing the united power of the two German-speaking nations. Italy, fearful of French power, joined the agreement with Germany and Austria, making a Tripartite Pact. Great Britain long remained aloof from these agreements, having no need to rely on other countries for its defense. Eventually, though, Britain entered an agreement with France and Russia.

Then came the assassination. Germany was eager to go to war. The German government had a plan, the Schlieffen Plan, under which they would sweep through the Netherlands and Belgium, entering France by the back door and quickly knocking it out of the war. The Austrian government was not so eager to start a war, but under German pressure they made demands upon the Serbians that could not be met. To support the Serbians, the Russians mobilized their army at the Austrian border. This allowed Germany to mobilize its forces, which then prompted France to do the same. Throughout July, European forces wavered on the brink of war—a war that both sides believed they would quickly win. Finally, at the beginning of August, the Germans took the first step to commit themselves to war. The Schlieffen Plan brought German troops into France, but the Germans did not advance as far as they hoped before French resistance brought them to a halt. Machine guns and barbed war inhibited the charges across a battlefield that were customary in war. Any such charge was disastrous, even suicidal—which did not prevent such charges from being attempted by both sides. Instead of a war rapidly fought and over by Christmas, as both sides expected, the conflict turned into trench warfare that stretched beyond Christmas 1914… and Christmas 1915… and Christmas 1916… and Christmas 1917….

Because Germany began the war, Italy did not feel compelled to join the fighting on the German side. The Tripartite Pact referred only to an attack upon one of the members; it did not require participation if one of the partners began the war. Italy held out for the best offer, and the side of the French and British and Russians made the better offer. They promised Italy new territory in eastern Europe, to be taken from the Austrian Empire, when the war was won. (That promise was not kept after the war.) Meanwhile, Germany and Austria made better progress in the east against Russia than they made against France and Britain. They found, however, that winning battles against the Russian army is not the same as defeating Russia—a lesson already learned by Charles XII of Sweden and by Napoleon. The best move made against the Russians occurred when the Germans located am exiled Russian revolutionary who called himself Vladimir Lenin in Switzerland. They put him on a train that carried him back into Russia. Organizing the soviets (groups of workers comparable to labor unions in the west), Lenin triggered a revolution that overthrew the Czar’s government. His new government pulled Russia out of the war, although Lenin’s government had to surrender control of much territory that the Czars’ armies had captured for Russia over many years.

When the Great War began in 1914, most citizens of the United States were determined to remain uninvolved. A generation earlier, the United States had tasted all-out warfare, and Americans had no interest in committing to a foreign war. True, the United States had (like Bismarck’s Germany) fought a brief and relatively painless war to gain territory: they had battled Spain in 1898, freeing the island of Cuba and gaining Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, and other Pacific islands. But the United States was more concerned about a civil war in Mexico. They sent troops to guard the southern border and had no inclination to go farther from home than Mexico. President Wilson even won reelection in 1916 with the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Shortly after his inauguration, however, Wilson changed policies, and the United States entered the Great War.

The British navy had tried blockading Germany to keep supplies (even food and clothing) from reaching Germany. The Germans responded with submarine attacks upon the blockade. Some American ships were lost during these campaigns. But freedom on the oceans was only one issue for Wilson and the Americans. Matters had calmed in Mexico, and the Czar had lost power in Russia. The war could now be portrayed as democracy (of the British and the French) against monarchy (of the German and Austrian). America’s soldiers could “make the world safe for democracy” while tilting the scales to conclude “the war to end all wars.” This hope of reshaping history and civilization brought the United States into the conflict. The difference was not felt immediately, but by the middle of 1918 the Germans and Austrians knew they could not win. Fighting continued while negotiating began. By November, the Germans had overthrown their government, and the new leaders called for an armistice. This armistice—which went into effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (11 a.m. November 11) of 1918 was only an agreement to stop shooting, and to sit down and talk. The actual agreements and their enforcement could not take place until 1919. No enemy troops had yet crossed into Germany or Austria when the armistice was declared. The actual agreements established in 1919 would differ greatly from what Germany, Austria, or even the United States expected. J.

The Victorian Age, part one

She was still a teenager in 1837 when Alexandrina Victoria’s uncle died and she became Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. By this time the royal authority was more ceremonial than governmental, yet this queen became the symbol of an era, an era during which it was said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” This saying was literally true, as the nation had claimed lands in the western hemisphere (Canada, Jamaica and other islands in the Caribbean, British Honduras, and British Guiana), in Africa, in south Asia (India and Burma), in east Asia (especially the port of Hong Kong), and in the south Pacific (including Australia and New Zealand). At no time during the twenty-four-hour day was the sun failing to shine on British soil. Its preeminence in worldly politics made the saying figuratively true as well. British power was balanced in Europe by France, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Ancient China and the new United States of America also had their place in the grand scheme of things. But for most of the nineteenth century, Britain was the most powerful and important nation on earth, and Queen Victoria was the most power and important person in Britain.

The Industrial Revolution and the European age of exploration had helped to make Britain great. Enlightenment ideas regarding human rights and equality, limited government, and a capitalist economy all contributed to the greatness of Britain as well. Britain shared her greatness with the world, and accomplishments from the rest of the world added to the triumph of civilization in the United Kingdom. Human triumphs increased each year, and it seemed unlikely that human progress would falter or fall anytime soon.

The heyday of modern thought had arrived. Science had triumphed over superstition. Astronomy, chemistry, and biology all contributed to make students wiser than their predecessors, and it seemed that all science needed to do was continue refining its techniques to place the final details on its picture of the world as it truly works. These scientific discoveries were harnessed into technology. Travel was faster and safer than ever before. Electrical power had been tamed and forced to serve humanity. Communication flew from city to city at the speed of light. Photography captured accurate records of images, and ways were also being found to record sound. Travel through the air was within reach, and travel to the moon—and beyond, to the stars—was no longer unthinkable. Education was reaching more and more people. Cheap paper made newspapers and magazines available, and also allowed the mass distribution of new novels and of classical texts. Everything was becoming the work of machines: factory work, agriculture, and even warfare. Humanity was coming ever closer to achieving its full potential… or so it seemed at the time.

This optimism was felt in international politics. The Congress of Vienna resolved Europe’s problems after the Napoleonic wars, ensuring that the powerful governments would no longer battle one another in endless wars. A new liberal notion, called nationalism, was added to the other Enlightenment ideas of human rights and limited governments. Nationalism said that a nation—a group of people with common language, religion, culture, history, values, traditions—could live together in one place under a government of their own people, rather than having to live as part of someone else’s country. Nationalism was breaking apart empires like the Ottoman Empire, while at the same time it united countries such as Germany and Italy, both long fragmented into smaller pieces of property, each with its own government. German unification included brief border wars with Austria, Denmark, and France. Afterward, Otto von Bismarck of Germany pledged faithfulness to the same balance of powers affirmed in Vienna half a century ago. The United States endured a painful and destructive Civil War in the middle of the nineteenth century, but most powerful nations were able to push war to the fringes—to the nationalist revolution in Greece, the border conflict between Russia and the Ottomans in the Crimean region, the British effort to end the resistance of Dutch settlers in South Africa (the Boer War), and similar struggles in India, China, and other places far from the homeland of Enlightenment.

The same optimism prevailed in the United States. Believing that a Manifest Destiny gave them preeminence over North America, Americans defeated the Indian tribes and the Mexican government, soon stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans across the continent. The Civil War ended with the abolition of slavery, and industrialization helped to conquer the economic costs of the war. Education brought science, literature, morality, and patriotism to the growing population. Before the end of the century, America had become a world power, defeating the Spanish Empire, offering freedom to the island of Cuba while adding Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippine Islands to America’s domain.

Optimism was felt in religious spheres as well. Some Christian scholars, building upon the Enlightenment, purged the Bible of superstition and distilled from it ethical guidance for human life. Others held firmly to the historic teachings of the Bible, laboring to bring Christ to people everywhere. Christians countered the oppressive effects of capitalism and industrialism, delivering food and medicine and Gospel comfort to the poor, encouraging business owners and governments to defend the rights of the working class, and rescuing sinners from the evils of alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. The same fervor sent Christian explorers into the depths of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the south Pacific lands. The brought the Gospel of Jesus Christ; they also brought medicine, scientific knowledge, and the benefits of civilization while working to counter slavery and other oppression and to gain knowledge of the geography, resources, and populations of previously-unknown portions of the world.

This was the Victorian Age: a time of optimism, accomplishment, and unceasing progress. Science and education would improve life for people everywhere. Heaven on earth was achievable. Queen Victoria’s death early in the twentieth century seemed little more than another ceremonial passing of the torch to the next generation. People did not realize how quickly their optimism could be overturned. J.

Racism without race (part two)

The same textbook that insists that all humans belong to the same race and then uses the term “racism” also presents a complete definition of “nationalism.” Nationalism is a political philosophy of fairly recent origin. It contains the belief that people of the same nation should have their own government. “Nation” is further defined as common language, common religion, common customs, common history and heritage, and (usually) a large enough population in a common area to make self-government practical. During the nineteenth century, nationalism caused several governments on the Italian peninsula to combine, creating the modern nation Italy; nationalism caused dozens of German-speaking people under different governments to combine, creating the modern nation Germany. In the same century, nationalism tore apart the Ottoman Empire and the Austrian Empire, creating such nations as Egypt, Greece, Hungary, and Serbia. During the twentieth century, nationalism led to the independence of most European colonies that had been established in Africa and Asia. The most controversial struggle of nationalism in recent times is that of Zionism, granting a separate government to Jewish people. While the Jews share a common religion, history, heritage, and customs, they were scattered throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. Still, by the middle of the twentieth century, a modern nation called Israel had been established in western Asia to which Jews migrated from all over the world.

“Culturalism” is a label I use, though it is not found in the textbook. I created the term to describe people who continue to identify with a common culture, or nation, even though they do not place themselves under a single government in a single geographical area. Many Jews do not live in Israel. Many countries with a single government still do not consist of a single nation. The United States is an example of a pluralistic country with citizens who identify themselves by various cultures: Irish, German, Italian, Polish, Jewish, African, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and more. Even with their diverse cultures, all these people live as loyal citizens of the United States of America. Many of them vote, and some run for public office. Others serve in careers that benefit, not only themselves and their families and people of their own culture, but all of their neighbors regardless of culture. Frequently, people of a common culture will identify a holiday that unites their culture within a pluralistic society: Chinese New Year, Saint Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Juneteenth, Oktoberfest. More often then not, Americans of other cultures will participate in these celebrations—sometimes as an opportunity to learn more about their neighbors and about different cultures, and other times merely as an excuse to drink beer.

Nationalism and culturalism can be good things. In the past, they have created new nations, whether through combination or separation of groups. They help individuals to form an identity within a community of similar individuals. They provide opportunities for people to learn about each other, to celebrate the distinct aspects of their language or religion or history or heritage, and to entertain one another by the diversity of human experience and expressions. They preserve cultural heritages and help them to survive globalism, the linking of cultures which erases borders but which risks turning the entire world into a homogenized McDonald’s/Walmart/Disney franchise.

But nationalism and culturalism become bad things when they are used to develop and reinforce bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination. Bigotry is the assumption that, because two cultures differ, one must be superior and the other inferior. Prejudice is the assumption that, because an individual belongs to a certain culture, that individual most possess all the traits of that culture (including those traits falsely applied to the culture under bigotry). Discrimination is action based upon bigotry and prejudice, denying opportunities to people of certain cultures such as jobs, freedom to live in certain areas, and even protection under the law of the prevailing government. J.

Racism without race (part one of four)

Biologically, all human beings belong to the same race. Although theorists over the years have tried to identify anywhere from three to twelve races, DNA evidence confirms what mixed families have shown all along—we are all one race. The holy writings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all agree that every human being is descended from Adam and Eve. Nonreligious scientists also agree that every Homo sapiens sapiens living today has a common ancestor whom those scientists have nicknamed “Eve.” Various other theories about ancestry have been proposed, ranging from the thought that a small percentage of people alive today have Neanderthal ancestors (based on interpretation of DNA samples) to the thought that a percentage of people alive today have extraterrestrial ancestors (based on various blood types). Even outlier notions of the origin of contemporary humanity, though, concur that all humans today belong to the same family tree and do not come from different races.

The textbook I use to teach World Civilizations to college students mentions the unity of the human race more than once. Only on one occasion (surprisingly) has a student asked in the classroom why the same textbook refers to conflict between different groups of humans as “racism.” If we are all the same race, how can racism exist? The answer to this rather profound question is found in the history of labels and also in the still-common misperception that several human races coexist.

Humans can be sorted into different groups according to numerous differences: skin color, hair color, hair texture, facial features, average height, body build, and more. These physical distinctions are hereditary, so a mother and father with dark skin will generally produce children with dark skin, and so on. At the same time, though, differences between the DNA of two siblings (children of the same mother and father) might outnumber differences between the DNA of one of those children and another child whose physical distinctions, as listed above, are entirely different. Again, the existence of mixed families confirms the biological fact that all humans belong to the same race; inherited variations are not marks of different races, but only of different genetic backgrounds within the same race.

But, if we are all of the same race, how can racism exist? Racism is a combination of bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination, three terms I will soon (tomorrow) define. As a catch-all term, the word “racism” is unfortunate in its persistence, being inaccurate about what it describes. Although bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination can all be identified in ancient history (and can be found in all parts of the world, even in ancient times), the modern concept of racism is closely linked to nationalism and culturalism, both of which I must define first (tomorrow). J.