The Sleep of Innocence

A century ago, the world was on the eve of the Great War, and no one noticed. Have we learned anything since then?

soldiers go over top of trench in the Battle of Somme

The British and Americans cannot wait for the actual centenary to commemorate the Great War of 1914–1918 and the peace treaty that followed. Public television’s Downton Abbey and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse signaled the beginning of this historical reexamination, and there’s more to come. The BBC has produced a five-part adaptation by Tom Stoppard of Ford Madox Ford’s monumental series of war novels, Parade’s End. The Library of America is publishing in a single edition the two remarkable World War I histories of Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August and The Proud Tower, edited by the historian Margaret MacMillan, whose Paris, 1919 is arguably the best analysis of the peace treaty that ended one world war and set the stage for the next one.

We don’t seem to be able to get enough of a war that proved horrific beyond all imagination, the first truly technological triumph in the name of mass death. Few anticipated what was to come. Just before the guns of August began firing in 1914, the last order given to the British officer corps was to sharpen sabers for the charge. “Home by Christmas!” cheered the crowds at Piccadilly as they watched their boys march off to glorious battle against an enemy called the Hun by enthusiastic newspapers. Many were indeed home by Christmas, especially officers in coffins, those elder sons who led the initial charges, only to be greeted by 30-caliber water-cooled machine guns, courtesy of Krupp.

The life expectancy of a British officer arriving at the front in the first year of the war was less than an hour. Although poison gas contributed to only 4 percent of the casualties, it was enough for many Europeans to call World War I the Chemists’ War. Fritz Haber, the German professor who led the military research team in the creation of lethal gases, won a 1918 Nobel Prize. By Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, there were nine million dead soldiers, and with ghastly symmetry, nine million dead four-legged pack animals. It was only the beginning.

Progress in the invention of killing machines has been one of the hallmarks of the past century: from simple poison gas to the sophisticated nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons of today, from primitive wooden biplanes to the enormous air forces of World War II, then the jet, the invisible stealth planes, now the drone. In air and on sea, the advance in weaponry in the past 100 years has been breathtaking. Without it, the 200 million casualties of war would not have been possible. No doubt we will still be counting beyond 2014.

A century ago, the Great War was just one year away. Did anyone realize in 1913 that the world soon would plunge into an abyss? There was vague talk of war, and there were a few skirmishes in the Balkans, but these caused little concern to the major powers. Social scientists the world over declared war to be impossible, considering how interwoven were the economies—and the ruling houses—of the potential combatants.

At Edward VII’s funeral in May 1910, nine European kings, all related to each other, rode in the funeral procession to Westminster Abbey. Kaiser Wilhelm II, the emperor of Germany, was dressed in the uniform of a British field marshal to mourn his uncle, and was honored above all of the hundreds of royalty by his place at the very front of the funeral cortege, mounted next to the dead king’s only surviving brother. The next day, the Times of London acknowledged that to Wilhelm “belongs the first place among all the foreign mourners.” A year later, most of the kings reappeared for the splendid inauguration of King George V. Many of them had played as children together when visiting their English grandmother, Victoria. The czar of Russia called his first cousin, the German Kaiser, “Willy”; Wilhelm addressed his intimate Kremlin letters to “Nicky.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Democratic Party convention held in Baltimore from June 25 to July 2 was deadlocked, and on the 46th ballot nominated the governor of New Jersey, a former Princeton professor, son of an evangelical Presbyterian minister, as a compromise candidate: Woodrow Wilson. Foreign policy was on few people’s minds. Wilson’s mandate was to reform national politics and to institute progressive reform at home. He felt deeply that God would help him make the right decisions. Wilson would soon need the help.

Contrary to the social scientists’ assurances, blood relations could not prevent bloodshed. Nationalism and ethnic hatred in the Balkans would eventually defy all reason. The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in late June 1914 led within six weeks to a war that involved all of Europe and soon spread around the world.

Looking back, we can only marvel at how invisible the signs of impending cataclysm can be, and at how easily we embrace the comforting notion that our civilization has finally moved beyond its propensity for war.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Tufts Magazine.

Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, has been a professor of German, Judaic studies and biblical literature and is a former provost of the university.

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