Prof. Margaret MacMillan

Why should we remember the First World War?

We often prefer not to think about war, to see it as an aberration and interruption of the normal, and peaceful, state of affairs. War, however, is deeply woven into human history. A century ago, the Great War broke out in Europe and in the course of the next four years drew in over twenty world nations, including, of course, our own. The impact and consequences of that gigantic struggle were huge, and we cannot understand the 20th century without taking that into account.

As Canadians commemorate what is now called the First World War, we should reflect that many others, from India to Serbia, are remembering it too. The war, which few had expected would last for over four years, destroyed lives: nine million soldiers died and many more were wounded, women lost husbands or those they might have married, and children grew up fatherless.

The rich and prosperous continent of Europe, which had dominated the world before 1914, wasted the lives of its peoples and poured out its resources in the war. It has never recovered its former strength and position. Moreover, without the strains imposed by the war, old regimes might not have totally collapsed. Russia was already changing fast, but the war finished off Tsarism and made possible the Communists’ seizure of power, with long term consequences both for Russians themselves, and the world. Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire fell to pieces and in their place new and often shaky states appeared. Too often these new countries were based on a single ethnicity which marginalized minorities, whether Shia in Iraq or Germans in Czechoslovakia. Worse still, the war brutalized European society and helped pave the way for the rise of extremist movements of both the right and the left. It did not bring a lasting peace, but rather created the conditions which eventually led to the Second World War in 1939.

For other countries though, the war prompted more welcome changes. The United States, which entered on the Allied side in 1917, moved closer to becoming a superpower. In the great European empires, independence movements grew stronger. Canada, like Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa, already had a measure of self-government. The war, though, and the realization that Canada played a major role in contributing soldiers, goods, raw materials and money, speeded this country’s growing maturity. At the start of the First World War our prime minister, Sir Robert Borden, deferred to British leadership. By its third year he was banging on the table and demanding a change in the war’s management. At the subsequent peace conference in Paris, Canada insisted on being present as a full member, signing the treaties and joining the League of Nations in its own right.

In the 21st century, we have yet another reason for looking back at the First World War. Our world, in several key ways, resembles that of 1914. We are seeing shifts in the international order, with some powers rising and others declining.

The United States may be in the same position the British Empire was then—as a hegemony which has dominated the world and much of its trade, now challenged by new and often brash powers. In 1914, it was Germany, Russia and the United States emerging as heirs to British supremacy. Today, it is China, India or Brazil asserting its strength against the mighty United States.

We, too, have seen a series of crises which have weakened the international order, and are conscious of the world’s trouble spots, where local tensions or rivalries have the potential to drag in larger powers. A hundred years ago the Balkans were dangerous; today it is Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea. Why, in 1914, did tensions go over the edge into all-out war? It was a mystery at the time, and has been ever since. And that is worrying. If we don’t understand how the First World War happened, we might also find ourselves accidentally in a war.

In 1914, many people assumed that the spread of trade and investment had linked nations so closely together that they would not rationally chose war: the costs for everyone would be too high. We, too, live in an age of globalization which is binding the world together economically, and through rapid communications and mass movements of peoples. We assume that this closeness can only have harmonious benefits. Yet that other great period of globalization in modern times should give us second thoughts. Before the First World War, the reaction to globalization heightened nationalism, and spurred imperial rivalries. So we should be careful of complacency.

Great disasters can also bring recognition that changes must come, and that was certainly true in 1919. The American president, Woodrow Wilson, articulated for many war-weary Europeans their hopes of a better, fairer and more peaceful world. In his scheme for a League of Nations to provide collective security, a new diplomacy, and self-determination of peoples, he drew on ideas which had been well-discussed in Europe for decades. We tend to judge the League too harshly, because it did not prevent another global war. But we should remember what it did achieve, whether in settling disputes between nations, promoting disarmament, or furthering human well-being through entities such as the International Labour Organization. Ultimately, the League introduced the idea that it was possible to develop and manage an international order, and that the world was not condemned to anarchy in which nations jostled for advantage. That idea, and that hope, never went away. Even during the Second World War, Allied statesmen were planning a successor to the League, and for new international economic institutions. This time, under the wise leadership of President Franklin Roosevelt, the United States became a leader in building the new order, and itself joined the new institutions, such the United Nations and the World Bank.

Today, we are still trying to build a strong international order, to keep as many states as possible within international society. That endeavour must not end.

Margaret MacMillan, OC is a professor of history at the University of Toronto and is currently at the University of Oxford, where she is a professor of international history, and warden of St Antony’s College. She is a former provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto and was previously
at Ryerson University. A leading expert on history and international relations, MacMillan is a frequent commentator in the media. She is the author or editor of ten books, most recently, The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War.