14 Reasons WWI Happened (And Four Things That Could Have Stopped It)

Ypres via Wikimedia
Ypres via Wikimedia

For the past few years, Erik Sass has been covering the events that led to World War I exactly 100 years later. Here's a look back at how we got here.

In mid-June 1914, Europeans were preparing for a beautiful summer. In the mansions of the mighty, servants covered the furniture and packed heaps of luggage for a season at country retreats, while ordinary folks looked forward to holidays at the seaside, hiking in the mountains, and long afternoons at beer gardens or bistros. Behind the scenes, however, on June 16, 1914, German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg wrote to the German ambassador to Britain, Prince Lichnowsky, warning “any insignificant conflict of interests between Russia and Austria-Hungary may set the torch of war alight.” Within a matter of weeks his prediction came true. But was the Great War inevitable?

Well, the final answer to that depends on questions like whether free will exists. But here are a bunch of reasons the First World War happened—and a few reasons it didn’t have to.

1. Nationalism

Outline of History

In the medieval period, Christianity united Europeans across language and culture—but then the Reformation fractured the “universal” Catholic Church and the Enlightenment undermined religion’s hold on the collective imagination. Nationalism emerged to fill the spiritual void with an idea of community based (loosely) on shared language and ethnicity. By the 19th century Europeans took it for granted each nation had a distinct “character” and inhabited sacred, inviolable territory. So when Germany annexed Alsace-Lorraine in 1871, it injured French national pride and provoked “revanchism” (desire for revenge). At the same time, nationalism threatened Austria-Hungary, an old-fashioned medieval empire with a dozen nationalities who wanted out.

2. Racism and Social Darwinism

Wikimedia Commons

Nationalism was never particularly rational, but any contradictions could be papered over with racism and Social Darwinism. Racism, another product of the Enlightenment, linked human cultural differences to variations in appearance that supposedly corresponded to fundamental biological traits, like intelligence. In the 19th century, racism got a more scientific gloss from Social Darwinism, which applied the theory of natural selection to human races locked in a “struggle for survival.” Front and center was the rivalry between the Slavs and Germans.

3. Imperialism

Wikimedia Commons

Technological progress during the Renaissance and Enlightenment gave Europeans a big advantage over less advanced societies, enabling conquest and colonization around the world. By the 19th century, European nations were competing to amass global empires—but Britain, France, and Russia had a head start on latecomers like Germany, whose desire for a “place in the sun” was yet another source of conflict.

4. German Growth

While Germany lagged behind in colonies, its incredible growth at home scared France and Britain. From 1870 to 1910, Germany’s population soared 58 percent to 65 million, while France edged up just 11 percent to 40 million, and from 1890 to 1913 German steel production increased nine-fold to 18.9 million tons—more than Britain (7.7 million) and France (4.6 million) combined. Germany also had the best rail network in Europe, enabling more mobility and growth. With all this the Germans understandably felt they deserved a bigger role in world affairs … but they went about it all wrong.

5. Naval Arms Race

Wikimedia Commons

Kaiser Wilhelm II’s pet project was the German Imperial Navy, created in collaboration with Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, a sailor who happened to be Germany’s most skilled politician. But their naval obsession alienated Britain, an island nation that simply couldn’t afford to yield control of the seas. In the first years of the 20th century, Britain responded by building more ships and entering an informal alliance with its traditional rival, France—the entente cordiale (friendly understanding).

6. German Fear of Encirclement

uchicago.edu

Even though it was Germany’s own stupidity that caused Britain and France to pull closer together, the entente cordiale (on top of the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892) inspired German fear of a conspiracy to “encircle” Germany. This triggered more German belligerence, which—like any good self-fulfilling prophecy—just made Britain, France, and Russia pull closer together, forming the “Triple Entente.”

7. Arms Race on Land

German paranoia about encirclement triggered an even bigger arms race on land, pitting Germany and Austria-Hungary against France, Russia, and Britain (later, Italy got sucked in too). From 1910 to 1913, total military expenditures by Europe’s Great Powers increased from $1.67 billion to $2.15 billion per year in contemporary U.S. dollars. And more increases were on the way, prompting both sides to wonder: would it be better to just fight now before their enemies grew even stronger?

8. Russian Growth

Wikimedia Commons

Just as Germany’s economic expansion scared Britain and France, a few years later Russia’s rapid growth terrified Germany and Austria-Hungary. From 1900 to 1913, industrialization sent Russia’s gross national product rocketing 55 percent to $388 billion in today’s U.S. dollars. Over the same period its population soared 26 percent to 168 million—more than Germany and Austria-Hungary combined. In July 1914, the German philosopher Kurt Riezler, a close friend of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, wrote gloomily, “The future belongs to Russia…”

9. Turkish Decline

As Germany and Russia grew more powerful, the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs, creating instability across the Balkans and Middle East. In the First Balkan War, 1912-1913, the Balkan League (Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro) carved up most of the empire’s remaining European territories. Serbia’s conquest of Albania put it on a collision course with Austria-Hungary, which didn’t want Serbia to gain access to the sea. Meanwhile, Russia was plotting to conquer Armenia, Britain and France were eyeing Syria and Iraq … and Germany feared it would be left out yet again.

10. Secret Treaties

Wikimedia Commons

Europe’s complex alliance system was even more confusing because many of the agreements were secret, which prevented key players from making informed decisions. For example, if Britain had announced its promises to France it might have deterred Germany from going to war, and Italy had a secret non-aggression pact with France which even Italy’s top generals didn’t know about. The treaties didn’t even have to exist to cause trouble: German fear of a possible secret Anglo-Russian Naval Convention fueled paranoia about encirclement, even though no agreement was reached.

11. International Law? No Such Thing

vredespaleis.nl

Despite the development of a truly global economy in the 19th century, there was no real system of international law that might be used to restrain one state from using violence against another state. There were institutions, like the Peace Palace (above), which were intended to serve as forums for arbitration of international disputes, but these had no power to enforce their decisions, so they were basically a joke. Not much has changed. 

12. Trouble at Home

morgenpost.de

WWI wasn’t just the result of international conflict; domestic tensions played an important role too. In Germany, the conservative elite was frightened by the steady political gains of socialists opposed to militarism (above), and tried to use foreign policy to drum up patriotism and distract ordinary Germans from problems on the home front. In Russia, the Tsarist government embraced Pan-Slavism to shore up its own legitimacy and draw attention away from its own failure to institute democratic reforms.

13. No Going Back

In the 19th century, it became common practice for Europe’s Great Powers to draw up detailed war plans in order to avoid getting caught unprepared—and hopefully get the jump on their enemies. These plans focused on logistics, especially the use of railroads to deploy armies rapidly. This, in turn, required elaborate schedules coordinating the movements of thousands of trains; Germany’s Schlieffen Plan (above) is the classic example. As result, war plans became so complicated it was impossible to modify them or improvise new ones “on the fly.” It also meant there was no going back: Once mobilization began, your enemies were bound to respond in kind, so there was no way to stop the cycle of escalation without leaving yourself vulnerable.

14. Don’t Fear the Reaper

Wikimedia Commons

This one’s a little out there, but worth thinking about. After WWI, Sigmund Freud theorized the existence of a “death drive” pushing humans to annihilate themselves and others. It exists alongside other drives that may hold it in check, like the desire for pleasure, but the death drive is always there in the subconscious, guiding our actions at least some of the time. Destruction is also linked to creation; it’s worth noting how many young people welcomed the war as the “dawn of a new era,” sweeping away Europe’s “old,” “stale,” “stagnant” civilization and laying the foundations for a new, better world (spoiler alert: it didn’t).

Four Things That Could Have Stopped WWI (Maybe)

1. Nobody Wanted It

The greatest irony of WWI was that none of the key decision-makers wanted it to happen (and death wish or no, neither did most ordinary people). Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II prided himself on his reputation as peacekeeper and frantically tried to avert WWI at the last minute. Previously Austria-Hungary’s Emperor Franz Josef went to extraordinary lengths to keep the peace, and Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II was known for his peaceful nature. Although this obviously wasn’t enough to stop the war on its own, it shows the will for peace was there, if only circumstances would allow.

2. Better Instructions

One of the most foolish moves Germany made in July 1914 was giving Austria-Hungary a “blank check,” promising unconditional support for whatever measures Vienna proposed to take against Serbia. The Germans could have benefited themselves (and everyone else) by being a little more, well, German—for example by dictating exactly when, where, and how Austria-Hungary could chastise Serbia; how far to go in trying to call Russia’s bluff; and what their fallback plan should be in case they encountered real resistance from Russia, France, and Britain. Instead Germany just kind of said “go for it!” Very un-German.

3. A Word to the Wise

In July 1914, Germany and Austria-Hungary faced off with Russia and France over Serbia, while Europe’s other Great Powers—Britain and Italy—mostly remained on the sidelines. If Britain’s Foreign Secretary Edward Grey and Italy’s Foreign Minister San Giuliano intervened earlier and more forcefully by warning that they would fight, it might have persuaded Germany and Austria-Hungary to back down (San Giuliano had already warned Austria-Hungary not to attack Serbia in 1913, and Grey could have informed the Germans of Britain’s commitment to protect France).

4. What If…?

Gavrilo Princip could have missed. But he didn’t.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Civil War Cannonballs Found on South Carolina Beach in Aftermath of Hurricane Dorian

ABDESIGN/iStock via Getty Images
ABDESIGN/iStock via Getty Images

Hurricane Dorian skimmed the United States' East Coast last week, creating a trail of damage residents are still dealing with. But it wasn't just trash and debris the storm surges left behind: As WCSC reports, two cannonballs dating back to the Civil War were discovered on Folly Beach in South Carolina in the aftermath of the storm.

Aaron Lattin and his girlfriend Alba were walking on the beach on September 6 when they saw what looked like rocks nestled in the sand. As they examined them more closely, they realized they had found something much more special. The weathered objects were actually cannonballs that have likely been buried in the area for more than 150 years.

Incredibly, this isn't the first time Civil War cannonballs have been discovered on Folly Beach following a hurricane: In 2016, Hurricane Matthew unearthed 16 of them. Folly Island was used as a Union base a century and a half ago, and items leftover from the artillery battery built there are still scattered around the shoreline. The couple behind this latest discovery believes there are more waiting to be found.

Old cannonballs may look like cool artifacts to treasure hunters, but they should still be treated with caution. Police and bombs disposal technicians were called to the scene at Folly Beach to confirm the cannonballs were no longer functional.

[h/t WCSC]

Henry Johnson, the One-Man Army Who Fought Off Dozens of German Soldiers During World War I

It was after midnight on May 15, 1918 when William Henry Johnson began to hear the rustling. Johnson was a long way from his home in Albany, New York, guarding a bridge in the Argonne Forest in Champagne, France. Sleeping next to him was Needham Roberts, a fellow soldier. Both men had enlisted in the New York National Guard just a few months earlier and were now part of the French Army, donated by U.S. forces to their understaffed allies in the thick of World War I.

As Johnson continued hearing the strange noises late into the night, he urged his partner to get up. A tired Roberts waved him off, believing Johnson was just nervous. Johnson decided to prepare himself just in case, piling up his assortment of grenades and rifle cartridges within arm's reach. If someone was coming, he would be ready.

The rustling continued. At one point, Johnson heard a clipping noise—what he suspected was the sound of the perimeter fence being cut. He again told Roberts to wake up. "Man," he said, "You better wake up pretty soon or you [might] never wake up."

The two began lobbing grenades into the darkness, hoping to discourage whoever might be lurking around the perimeter. Suddenly, in the middle of the French forest, Johnson saw dozens of German soldiers come charging, bayonets pointed toward him. They began to fire.

What transpired over the next hour would become an act of heroism that prompted former President Theodore Roosevelt to declare Johnson one of the bravest Americans to take up arms in the war. Johnson would even lead a procession back in New York City, with crowds lined up along the street to greet him.

Johnson may or may not have felt like a hero, though he certainly was. But he must have also felt something else—a sense of confusion. A man of color, he had been dispatched to a segregated regiment, where he received paltry combat training and was assigned menial tasks like unloading trucks. Even his homecoming parade was split up according to race. Henry Johnson, decorated virtually head to toe in French military honors, returned to a country that considered him both hero and a second-class citizen.

 

Though officers would later verify much of Johnson’s account of that night in the woods, his early life is harder to pin down. It has been reported that Johnson himself wasn’t quite sure when he was born. No one appeared to have kept a close eye on his birth certificate, which came out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The official U.S. Army website honoring Johnson’s service lists an approximate birth date of July 15, 1892. Other research indicates he could have been born as early as 1887 or as late as 1897.

After moving to New York as a teenager, Johnson took on an assortment of odd jobs; he was a chauffeur and a soda mixer, among other occupations. Depending on the account, he was living in Albany working either in a coal yard or as a railway porter when he opened a newspaper in the spring of 1917 and read that the 15th New York Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard was accepting enlistees. The regiment was comprised entirely of black soldiers.

Sergeant William Henry Johnson poses for a photo in uniform
Sergeant William Henry Johnson poses for a photo in uniform.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Johnson showed up on June 5, 1917, weighing a slight 130 pounds and standing 5 feet, 4 inches tall. Assigned to Company C of the 15th—which later became known as the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment—he was quickly dispatched to Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina, where he trained along with the rest of the segregated unit. Though minorities had served in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War, they often lacked support from officials and got inferior training compared to their white counterparts. At Camp Wadsworth, Johnson was said to have been used primarily as labor, unloading supplies and digging latrines. If there was one bright spot during this time, it was that he married his wife, Georgina Edna Jackson, that September.

Johnson and the 369th were sent to France on January 1, 1918. There they continued laboring, which frustrated their commander, Colonel William Hayward. Hayward lobbied his superiors to give his men a chance in combat. Since France was experiencing a shortage of men, the 369th—which later became known as the Harlem Hellfighters because many of their members had come from Harlem in New York City—joined the 161st Division of the French Army, even wearing the jackets and helmets of the foreign military.

To the French, Johnson and his fellow soldiers were a welcome solution to their lack of manpower. Sent to the front lines in March 1918, Johnson and the others learned enough French to understand commands from superiors. They were armed with rifles and held on to the bolo knives used by the U.S. Army. The imposing 14-inch blades weighed more than a pound and had much of their weight running along the back, giving them a cleaving action similar to a machete. Johnson would soon be glad he had such a weapon on his waist.

Along with Needham Roberts—a man from Trenton, New Jersey—Johnson was assigned sentry duty on the western edge of the Argonne Forest. Patrolling near a bridge, Johnson and Roberts were given the late shift, on patrol until midnight on the evening of May 14. It would be a night neither he nor Roberts would ever forget.

As their shift wound down, Johnson saw two relief soldiers approaching. The soldiers were young and inexperienced, and Johnson felt uncomfortable leaving them alone. He stayed put and surveyed the area while Roberts went to rest in a trench. Shortly thereafter, he began to hear the rustling noises, which eventually became German soldiers rushing through the darkness. Johnson realized they were surrounded, and urged Roberts to run for help. But Roberts didn't get far before he decided to come back and help, and was soon hit by the shrapnel of a grenade in his arm and hip.

Still conscious, Roberts handed Johnson grenades to toss. When those ran out, Johnson began firing his rifle while being hit by bullets in his side, hand, and head. Quickly, Johnson shoved an American cartridge into his French rifle, but the ammunition and the weapon were incompatible. The rifle jammed. As the Germans swarmed him, Johnson began using the rifle like a club, smashing it over their heads and into their faces.

After the butt of the rifle finally fell apart, Johnson went down with a blow to the head. But he climbed back up, drew his bolo knife, and charged forward. The blade went deep into the first German he encountered, killing the man. More gruesome work with the weapon followed, with Johnson hacking and stabbing bodies even as bullets continued to strike him.

An illustration depicts William Henry Johnson fighting off German soldiers
An illustration by artist Charles Alston depicts William Henry Johnson fighting off German soldiers. The artwork was used by the Office for Emergency Management (OEM) to inspire American soldiers during World War II.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At one point, Johnson noticed the Germans had grabbed Roberts and were attempting to haul him away. He intervened, stabbing more soldiers, including one in the ribs.

The melee went on for roughly an hour, he said. When reinforcements finally arrived, the remaining Germans fled. Johnson was given medical attention. So was Roberts. Both lived.

The next day, military officials visited the scene of the battle. German helmets rested on the ground, along with puddles of blood. Four bodies were left behind. The officials estimated Johnson had wounded up to 24 others. Some men who walked the site said the death toll was six, with Johnson injuring 32 men. After all the fighting, Johnson had prevented the Germans from breaking the French line.

The nicknames came fast. The bridge was declared “the Battle of Henry Johnson.” Johnson himself was given the unofficial label “the Black Death” and the official rank of sergeant. He was headed back home.

 

Before they departed, the French honored Johnson and Roberts with the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest awards for valor. They were the first two Americans to receive it. Johnson’s was amended with the addition of the Gold Palm, intended to signify extraordinary valor.

It was an honor, though one that came with a heavy price. Johnson later estimated he had been shot five times, the bullets striking both feet, his thigh, his arm, and even his head. A scar stretched over his lip. A bayonet had been plunged into his torso—twice. He had to have a metal plate inserted into his left foot. In all, Johnson endured 21 injuries as a result of his defiant stand against the Germans.

Back home, he convalesced as the country sang his praises. Often, such reports of his bravery took pains to note he was a man of color. "When proudly speaking of fighting races we must not overlook the American Negro," read an editorial in the New York Evening Telegram. Other times, Johnson found himself in the peculiar position of being celebrated while simultaneously being reminded of his purportedly inferior status. The parade that honored the Harlem Hellfighters in February 1919 ran for seven miles, with Johnson leading the procession in an open-topped cab. But the Hellfighters could not march with their white counterparts.

Needham Roberts (L) and William Henry Johnson (R) pose for a photo with their Croix de Guerre medals in 1918
Needham Roberts (L) and William Henry Johnson (R) pose for a photo with their Croix de Guerre medals in 1918.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Unfortunately, Johnson’s postwar life remains as murky as his earliest years. He reportedly received disability payments from the government as well as medical care, but it’s unknown to what extent that supported him or how badly his injuries kept him from employment opportunities. (He did ask for, and received, as much as $100 per minute during speaking engagements in cities such as St. Louis—well over $1000 in today's money.) An attempt was made by the Albany Afro-American Association to raise money to build him a home as a way of expressing gratitude for his service, but it’s unclear whether the effort was successful. On July 1, 1929, Johnson died of myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart muscle) while living in Washington, D.C. He was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart in 1996.

For years, it was unclear what became of Johnson's remains. In 2002, when the historians at the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs researched his service at the behest of his descendants (though it was later discovered they were mistaken and not actually related to Johnson), the historians determined Johnson was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. With confirmation of the gravesite, Johnson also became eligible for and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002.

In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor, which was accepted on Johnson’s behalf by Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard. And every June 5, Albany celebrates Henry Johnson Day in acknowledgement of the day he enlisted. The city also gives out a Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service for those making contributions in the area.

Those honors joined the Croix de Guerre, which Johnson was said to have worn with humility. He sometimes needed to be prodded into discussing his act of bravery, as if it were of no major consequence. “There wasn’t anything so fine about it,” he said. “[I] just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER