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31 August 1914

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One hundred years ago, Europe plunged into mass self-immolation in the service of dim and corrupt monarchs. After a short skirmish to determine lines of defense, WWI settled into massive trench warfare for more than four years, and the blood flowed in Europe like never before. By the end of August 1914, everyone had declared war on everyone, and the long march of death commenced.

Among the millions of dead are the approximately 10,000 souls whose unidentified bones rest at the Navarin Ossuary in northern France, as depicted above. The ossuary is located just north of the Champagne region, and they still occasionally find unidentified bones today, in the nearby fields and the remains of the adjacent network of trenches and surrounding bomb craters. The machinery of death ground up soldiers so thoroughly that it was impossible to identify who belonged to which bones so they threw up monuments like the above, and took a wild guess at the number of dead.These ossuarys are all over northern France, I simply stumbled across the one above, along with numerous military cemeteries. If you really need to further ponder the carnage of WWI, go here, for example.

This war was not necessary. Law cannot abolish wars, but it can absolutely minimize them. The problem with World War I is that the ineptitude of monarchs and their concentrated power caught up with the world. As the US Constitution shows law can fragment power, and law can help assure that meritocratic competition determines who is the most competent and ethical for purposes of wielding power. Simply stated law can curb and channel power productively.

Many believe that WWI was inevitable, that alliances and militarism caused WWI. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently took that position. I argue that the world spins from crisis to crisis. That in order to manage these crises, it is essential to have the best and the brightest at the helm and the full costs and benefits of crisis resolution or irresolution must fall on those with power. Monarchies reflect the opposite of these principles. These monarchs were not the best and the brightest, simply the most inbred. When they decided to let slip the dogs of war, they calculated that the costs would be borne by their people, not themselves.

The corruption of Tsar Nicholas, the ineptitude of Emperor Franz Joseph, and the arrogant stupidity of Kaiser Wilhelm caused WWI, not a group of abstract notions. In closing let me offer some quotes from some of the new scholarship on the causes of World War I.

On the folly of the Kaiser and Germany: “how would an Austro-German alliance of 120 million defeat an Entente alliance of 260 million that wielded more troops, more ships, and 60 percent more national income? Superb at tactics, the Germans were appalling at strategy, avoiding the net assessments of themselves and the Austrians that would have led them to seek a diplomatic solution, not war, in July 1914.” (Wawro, 373).

On the ineptitude of the Emperor and the Austrians: “[Austria] was a desperately conflicted power that thought nothing of throwing all of Europe into the flames to preserve its ancient rights to lands like Bohemia and Hungary–lands that had lost all interest in the Hapsburg connection and were trying to break away. Austria’s Great War was built on the reckless gamble that the monarchy’s internal problems could be fixed by war. They couldn’t.” (Wawro, 383).

But my own favorite example of a dim-witted and corrupt monarch is Tsar Nicholas. His support of state-sponsored terrorism (knowingly or otherwise) is the proximate cause of WWI. It led directly to the source of ignition–the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. His blundering decision to mobilize for war in late July of 1914 made war inevitable. He held the last clear chance to avert war and he unleashed war knowing it would lead to a bloodbath:

“The decision for European war was made by Russia on the night of 29 July 1914, when Tsar Nicholas II, advised unanimously by his advisers, signed the order for general mobilization. General mobilization— as he knew— meant war. So clearly did the tsar know this that, on being moved by a telegram from Kaiser Wilhelm II, he changed his mind. ‘I will not be responsible for a monstrous slaughter‘ is the key line of the entire July crisis, for it shows that the tsar, for all his simplicity—knew exactly what he was doing when he did it. He knew exactly what he was doing when he did it again, sixteen hours later, after agonizing all day about it.” (McMeekin, 398).

Tsar Nicholas “opportunistically” pushed for Russian expansion into the Balkans and for a warm water port and thereby triggered a “monstrous slaughter.” (Wawro, 51).


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