The Peace to End All Peace

What is generally referred to today as World War II was called the Great War in its aftermath. And for good reason. Ten million soldiers died in the war and twenty million were severely wounded. As a proportion of the 1914 population, this would be equivalent to 123 million dead and wounded of the world’s current population. The scale of the bloodbath so exceeded anything prior to it that it was deemed, “The War to End All Wars.” News stories, photographs and film from the trenches validated the characterization.

The map of Europe and the Middle East looked very different than it does today. Great empires ruled huge areas, and colonialism defined other disparate parts of the globe. The Ottoman Empire, dating back to 1299, included Turkey and many of the countries of today’s Middle East. The Russian Empire had spread to the Baltic Sea and to the German and Austria-Hungary empires.

While Germany was on a quest for expansion following its 1871 unification, the spark that set off the fight was the assassination June 28, 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a Serbian nationalist. Serbia had recently broken away from the Ottoman Empire and feared that Austria-Hungary would thwart Serbian attempts to remain independent. Austria planned to invade Serbia as punishment for involvement in the assassination. Serbia turned for support to Russia, and Austria sought support from Germany. The Ottoman Empire secretly allied with Germany. Austria-Hungary and Germany declared war on Serbia, then Germany declared war on Russia, and then on France. Germany’s invasion of Belgium brought Belgium’s guarantor, Britain to declare war on Germany. Then Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia, followed by Britain and France declaring war on Austria. Japan, a recent ally of Britain, went to war against Germany and Austria-Hungary. All this occurred before the end of August 1914.

Two alliances thus formed in the battle. The Central Powers included Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. The Allied Powers included Britain, France, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Greece, and Japan. In November 1914 Russia, Britain, and France declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Australia, New Zealand, and Canada all entered the war as part of the United Kingdom, but with their own armies.

As noted above, the goal of some combatants in the war was expansion. Serbia wanted to unite with Bosnia. In May of 1915 Italy joined the Allies after being promised Austrian territory. Japan hoped to gain German-held territory in the Pacific. Germany wanted access through the Ottoman Empire to its African colonies. In an effort to enlist Mexico in its battle against the United States, Germany sent a telegram seeking alliance with Mexico in January 1917. If Mexico would invade the United States, Germany would help return to Mexico its former territory in the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Three months later the United States declared war on Germany after repeated German attacks on United States shipping. When the Bolsheviks seized power in December 1917, Russia signed an armistice with Germany.

The collapse of the German, Ottoman, Austria-Hungary, and Russian empires led to partitioning of the empires’ territories and the establishment of arbitrary boundaries for new states. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan were carved out of the Ottoman Empire. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Belarus became independent republics.

The war that was to end all war ended in a peace that did not last. British Field Marshal Archibald Wavell said of the Paris peace conference in 1919, “After the ‘war to end war’ they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘Peace to end Peace.’” The mixing of ethnicities in newly declared states led to instability, especially in the Middle East, that continues into the 21st century.

A Peace to End All Peace is the title of an excellent 1989 book on the topic by David Fromkin.

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