WWI, what happened?
July 24, 2009 10:51 AM   Subscribe

What was WWI about anyway?

Last night my roommate and I were watching Jules and Jim, and both realized we know nothing about World War I. As she summed up our mutual lack of information: We know that someone was assassinated and then everyone started senselessly killing each other. Surely there's more to the story than this.

Can you, in simple terms, sum up the context leading to WWI, and/or explain its aftermath in simple terms? Simple outside references also welcome!
posted by serazin to Education (54 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wikipedia
posted by unreasonable at 10:54 AM on July 24, 2009


I think the summary part of of the WWI Wikipedia page does a pretty good job of summing it up as well as it can be summed up concisely:

World War I (abbreviated as WW-I, WWI, or WW1), also known as the First World War, the Great War, and the War to End All Wars, was a global military conflict that embroiled most of the world's great powers,[1] assembled in two opposing alliances: the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance.[2] Over 70 million military personnel were mobilized in one of the largest wars in history.[3] The main combatants descended into a state of total war, pumping their entire scientific and industrial capabilities into the war effort. Over 15 million people were killed, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in history.[4]

The immediate or proximate cause of war was the assassination on 28 June 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist. Austria-Hungary's resulting demands against the Kingdom of Serbia activated a sequence of alliances. Within weeks the major European powers were at war; their global empires meant that the conflict soon spread worldwide.

By the war's end, four major imperial powers—Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire—had been militarily and politically defeated, with the latter two ceasing to exist as autonomous entities.[5] The revolutionized Soviet Union emerged from the Russian Empire, while the map of central Europe was completely redrawn into numerous smaller states.[6] The League of Nations was formed in the hope of preventing another such conflict. The European nationalism spawned by the war, the repercussions of Germany's defeat, and the Treaty of Versailles would eventually lead to the beginning of World War II in 1939.[7]

posted by dyslexictraveler at 10:57 AM on July 24, 2009


We know that someone was assassinated and then everyone started senselessly killing each other. Surely there's more to the story than this.

It wasn't the sole cause, but the reason that one person got assassinated led to "everyone killing each other" was because there were a lot of military alliances that had been set up at that time -- "if you get attacked, I'll automatically come to your defense."

So the king of the Austro-Hungarian empire got assassinated, and the Austro-Hungarian empire went to war against Serbia -- so all the people who were in an alliance with Serbia got dragged into it, and attacked the Austro-Hungarian empire, which meant that all the people allied with the Austro-Hungarian Empire ALSO got dragged into it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:57 AM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


What Empress said, with the additional note that most of the military alliances were secret.
posted by chiefthe at 11:03 AM on July 24, 2009


The Great War according to Urban Dictionary.
posted by Ugh at 11:04 AM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


The very best thing about WWI was that Princip (Archduke Ferdinand's assassin) messed it up the first time, then, disconsolate, went to eat a sandwich. A vegetarian sandwich.

During the eating of said 'wich, the Archduke, whose driver had gotten confused by the earlier excitement, drives slowly right past the restaurant. At which point Princip abandons the sandwich and starts WWI.

Ta-daaaa!
posted by Aquaman at 11:04 AM on July 24, 2009 [8 favorites]


In short:

Many european nations fought wars in the 1800s. Nobody was happy with how that all turned out. Ethnic rivalries, mutual-defense treaties, and expansionist policies cause the house of cards to come tumbling down.

As for why WWII happened, it was basically because of WWI.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:04 AM on July 24, 2009


First off, just read The Guns of August.

But if you want the really short version, there are actually two questions to consider here: Why was there a war between Germany and France and why did it widen into a world war.

Even without "entangling alliances", assassinated archdukes or any other proximate cause after 1870 there was going to be another war between Germany and France. Both sides wanted a war so very badly. France because they had lost the war of 1870 and with it a fair bit of territory and were just itching to have a go at getting it back. Germany because they had won the battles in 1870 so completely yet only took a few border territories instead of taking over all of France. They wanted another go at taking the whole thing.

As to the widening of the conflict, that is a bigger question and a deeper one. Not one to be answered in a message board.
posted by Riemann at 11:09 AM on July 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


Some people think it was actually over oil, though I don't recall the exact reason why. It comes up in the film History of Oil, which you can watch online and is awesome BTW. Something about the Germany building a train to Iraq or something. Does that sounds vaguely like anything?

Oh wait, here we go: oil and WWI.
posted by chunking express at 11:09 AM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


The biggest reason for the huge spread of the war was the multinational alliances which formed during the early conflict. It didn't take long for other countries to go and send troops to help their allies.
posted by JJ86 at 11:10 AM on July 24, 2009


chiefthe - Some of the alliances were "secret" in that the general populace was not supposed to know (though they usually did). But every government, at least at the executive level, was fully aware of who was allied to who and why.
posted by Riemann at 11:10 AM on July 24, 2009


Yep, see that video I linked to, 13 minutes in. The first British troops deployed in the first world war end up in Bassara. (Incidently, Bassara is a great name for a city.)
posted by chunking express at 11:11 AM on July 24, 2009


I seem to be referencing Barbara Tuchman around here a lot lately, but her book The Guns of August is one of the better popular discussions of the start of WWI. Later, she wrote The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914, which sets some of the ancillary causes of that war in a larger historical perspective.

The oft mentioned proximate cause of the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, but that's a bit like saying that the "cause" of the 1993 Aggie bonfire disaster was a match. French and German nationalism had been building for decades, along with political unrest in the populations of a number of other European populations. Moreover, there was no real mechanism of standing alliance (like NATO) or international governance (the EU or the UN), in place, through which diplomacy could act to defuse growing nationalism. The assassination of Ferdinand, according to many historians, merely provided a casus belli for a conflict that would have inevitably occurred, on some other pretext, if it had not been for that one.
posted by paulsc at 11:12 AM on July 24, 2009


The Kingdom of Serbia wanted expansion at the cost of other Balkan states.
The Austria-Hungarian Empire opposed the Serbs.
The Russian Empire supported the Serbs.
The German Empire supported the Austrians should Russia enter the conflict.
The French Empire supported the Russians should they get into a war with Germany.
The Turkish Empire supported Germany should they get into a war with Russia.

Just before the campaigning season of 1914, and in response to the assassination of their Arch Duke, Austria moved to repress the Serbs. Russia mobilized in response. Germany declared war on Russia. France, looking to recover territory it lost in the Franco-Prussian war, eagerly declared war on Germany.

On war with France, Germany's plan was to swing through Belgium and attack Paris. The British Empire guaranteed Belgian neutrality, so that brought the UK into the war.

I don't know how Italy got mixed in with this. They bordered the Austrians and had territorial disputes so like WW2 they probably got into the war opportunistically. (reading . . .) ah, yes, Italy dithered and joined the Allies in 1915 after its centuries-old nemesis in the Mediterranean, Turkey, was attacked by the Allies.
posted by @troy at 11:19 AM on July 24, 2009 [4 favorites]


If you're ever in Kansas City, the National World War I Museum devotes a lot of time and space toward answering this surprisingly complicated question. It's really a top-notch museum.
posted by mkultra at 11:19 AM on July 24, 2009


It was purely mechanical: World War I was fought because of mobilization. This trumps all the arguments about ethnic rivalries and French desire for revenge.

Once Germany started mobilizing the troops, they couldn't stop the process - it was too complicated. The Germans, by advancing through Belgium, and onward toward Paris, were too efficient.

Purely mechanical causes, purely mechanical slaughter.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:20 AM on July 24, 2009


Read Europe's Last Summer by David Fromkin. Three people in my office are reading it after I told them about it. If you read Tuchman, read this one afterwards. Fromkin used newly discovered materials that Tuchman didn't have access to.
posted by jgirl at 11:34 AM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


@troy has it. A series of cross-pollinated alliances existed. One domino fell. Every other domino fell in order. Several years later, all the dominoes were lying flat.

People started picking the dominoes back up. Then Hitler said, fuck you all, and started swatting dominoes with a giant broom, knocking them all over the floor.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:35 AM on July 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


It's important to note that nobody thought they were getting into WW I in the summer of 1914. Everyone expected some quick campaigns to be fought, surrenders to be taken, and new treaties to be signed, all by Christmas.
posted by @troy at 11:37 AM on July 24, 2009


"There were a lot of military alliances that had been set up at that time -- "if you get attacked, I'll automatically come to your defense."

This is what makes Civilization 3 so annoying.

Seconding Tuchman's Guns of August, which is a great read.
posted by rokusan at 11:49 AM on July 24, 2009


Well, basically it was a family squabble between Queen Victoria's children and grandchildren. Kaiser Wilhelm was overcompensating for having a 'withered arm.'
nthing "The Guns of August".
posted by pentagoet at 11:57 AM on July 24, 2009


This New Yorker book review of WWI histories includes a fantastic description of the origins of the war.

Here's the short version:

The origins of the war, which, in six weeks of the summer of 1914, took Europe from a long peace to mutual massacre, are exhausting to read about, in part because there is no real protagonist. There is no Lincoln or Napoleon, no Bismarck or Hitler. As happens in car wrecks, every actor reacts, and even those who are most at fault seem to be bystanders at the general catastrophe.

posted by diogenes at 12:02 PM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


For more on the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, both within the context of the struggles between Europe's imperial powers as well as within the broader social/political tensions bubbling under the surface: Thunder at Twilight: Vienna, 1913-14.

And to roll it back another generation, there's also A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889 , which is about the political and personal events leading up to the death of Crown Prince Rudolph, which set the stage for Franz Ferdinand to become the archduke in the first place.
posted by scody at 12:04 PM on July 24, 2009


KokuRyu, that's a pretty dumb answer. "Once Germany started mobilizing the troops" skips over a whole lot of explanation.

@@troy: Italian intervention had nothing to do with Turkey, and I really don't know where you're getting that from. Italy had been allied with Germany and Austria at the start of the war, but they had no interest in joining a war. They interpreted it as a defensive alliance and believed Austria started the war, giving them an out. But as the war progressed and it became obvious it wouldn't be "over by Christmas", the Allies started calling and offering some very generous terms - big chunks of Austria that the Italians coveted. Eventually the offer was high enough that they went for it. That they didn't end up getting everything they were promised when the war ended was a big factor in Mussolini's rise and Italy siding with Germany in WW2.

As for the original question, the origins of the Great War has been the subject of enormous historical debate for almost a century. There are dozens of reasons cited. You've got the economic powerhouse of Germany, finally united and past that initial awkward stage, ready to be a world player, building a strong navy and looking for colonies. You've got the polyglot empire of Austria-Hungary, internally weak and beset on several fronts. You've got a host of newly independent states in the Balkans, fresh from a series of small wars, with a long list of grievances against each other, looking for rematches. You've got industrialization kicking into high gear in less advanced areas, giving tottering nations excess power. You've got Britain, king of the hill, suddenly realizing it's isolated and not nearly as superior and invincible as it thought. You've got the Ottoman Empire, once a dominating force in the Mediterranean, pathetically weak yet still holding vital strategic points at the Dardanelles, the Suez, and the Persian Gulf. And you've got France, recovered from wounds inflicted by Prussia forty years before, ready for a rematch - but this time it has friends. Above all else, the system of entangling alliances ensured that any small war wouldn't stay that way long. And with political, ethnic, military, cultural, and economic tensions in dozens of areas, small wars were inevitable. The diplomats of Europe defused crisis after crisis, but it was only a matter of time before somebody slipped up, and one mistake would bring the whole thing down.

It's really a fascinating subject, and there are dozens of top-notch books on the subject. Get started with "Guns of August", but don't stop there.

As for those saying WW2 was Hitler just being mean... that's so wrong. The Great War didn't end so much as it paused from exhaustion. When French Marshal Foch read the Treaty of Versailles (1919), he said, "This isn't a peace, it's a ceasefire for twenty years." WW2 really was the sequel to the first one.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 12:04 PM on July 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


A pseudo-prequel to The Guns of August is The Lions of July, by William Jannen. It's basically an expansion of the "Outbreak" section of Guns, focusing on the diplomacy involved. Jannen and Tuchman have similar styles.
posted by bassooner at 12:05 PM on July 24, 2009


Here's another insightful quote from the New Yorker article:

So it was not a march of folly at all. It was a march of fools. That is, it was not a tragedy of errors and misunderstandings that carried the unknowing participants toward an end that they could not envision. It was the deliberate decision of individuals who thought they knew just what they were getting into. The causes of the First World War, the newer scholarship often implies, can be understood in classic game-theory terms, with all the players trying to maximize their own interests. Except that this was a game being played by terribly inept players.
posted by diogenes at 12:08 PM on July 24, 2009


There's no single easy answer to your question. There were a lot of things going on, and by the early part of the 20th Century, Europe was primed for catastrophe. If it hadn't been an assassination in Serbia, it would have been something else.

Among other things that contributed to that super-critical situation:

French desire for revenge for the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war
The creation of Germany as a modern nation, and Germany's desire to have an empire just like everyone else
Germany's desire to build a world-class navy, in competition with the French and British
The deep rot in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the deep rot in the Ottoman empire
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:28 PM on July 24, 2009


As I read through these various helpful insights, it is clear how rational, thought-out, and sensible WWI was. Suddenly, the war makes a great deal of sense.
posted by Postroad at 12:51 PM on July 24, 2009


A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889

Great book, btw. Shines a light on the period when alliances were shifting: before that, Germany and Austria were still fairly paranoid of each other, having fought their own war in 1866 over who would get to be the top dog in regard to German unification.
posted by gimonca at 1:01 PM on July 24, 2009


The Bosnian War is a legacy of post-World War I changes to Europe.

Ho Chi Minh went to the Versailles talks in 1919 to hold Woodrow Wilson to his promised "free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined" (one of Wilson's Fourteen Points).

The aftermath is still happening. One of the motivations for the Armenian Genocide during World War I was Turkey's fear that it's Armenian population would act as a fifth column for Turkey's enemies and Turkey still denies it happened. People in Belgium and France are still occasionally killed by World War I shells that didn't explode during the war. An estimated ton of explosives fell on every square meter of the front from the English Channel to the Swiss border.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:18 PM on July 24, 2009


The deeper cause of WW1, was simply the cultural consensus about how nation states function. That consensus, can be summed up in one word: territorial expansion. That's how the economy was set up and that's how the major powers directed how a country prospered. A lot of the expansion was outside of Europe - colonialism. But eventually, that came to a stop at the natural limits of available lands without sufficient push-back. Europe held about as much in colonies outside the continent as they could. How to expand now? Germany rose into a world power a bit late, after the colonial party was over, and the only way to grab a piece of the cake was to carve it up anew - whereas Britain was mostly interested in holding onto what they already had. Meanwhile, the thinking all over Europe was still more territory = more prosperity. They had to expand or perish, like a shark that must not stop swimming. In that context, it didn't matter what the immediate trigger was - it would have happened one way or another, because that's how both the guns and the culture were pointed and that's where the economic and political momentum was.

That consensus held on into WWII, which really was still a consensus of expansion (lebensraum). In Europe, that finally died after WWII. Since then, nobody anywhere in Europe has thought that the way to national prosperity is expansion - except countries where natural political/cultural evolution was arrested by an externally imposed totalitarianism, i.e. parts of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Nobody today thinks in Germany or France, or Britain, etc. that they'll be richer and more successful if only they managed to make their country bigger territorially by grabbing land mass from a neighbor.
posted by VikingSword at 1:45 PM on July 24, 2009 [5 favorites]


World War I also led to the 1917 Russian revolutions, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:55 PM on July 24, 2009


The creation of Germany as a modern nation, and Germany's desire to have an empire just like everyone else

2nd. The structure of the alliances helps explain why people got in where they did and which side they were on.

But take one more metaphorical step back: Remember Napoleon? Took over after the French Revolution, conquered a whole bunch of Europe, got exiled, came back, eventually lost at Waterloo?

Well, that whole Waterloo thing --- The English and Americans mostly remember that being the Duke of Wellington's bag, but actually most of fucking Europe was there, 'cause they all had it in for the littlest general. Defeating Napoleon forced them to get their shit together, as it were. After that whole thing, there was a big peace conference called The Congress of Vienna where everybody hashed out what territories were whose and who X would call if it had a problem with Y, etc. Kinda like a 5 Families meeting in the Sopranos. That was in the 1810s, and everything was pretty much copa in mainland Europe for 60 years or so, great powers wise.

But by the late 19th century, some of the Big Swinging Dicks who'd been at the table at Vienna were old and not so swingy. Specifically, the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Austria, Hungery and a big chunk of what we'd now call Central/Eastern Europe) was facing numerous internal politcal problems that made it a lot less threatening to its neighbors. The Ottoman Empire (Turkey and most of what we'd now call the Middle East), which hadn't signed the treaty, was in the same situation.

Meanwhile, Germany and Italy, which had been dissolved into a bunch of city-states and princely territories post-Napoleon, had gotten back together in the 1860s and 70s. Unified Italy was still kind of a mess and quite poor, but Unified Germany was now one of the biggest countries in Europe, and as many of its cities had long been centers for learning and commerce, quite an advanced, rapidly industrilalizing one.

So: One end of the see-saw was going up, the other down. As others have stated, the newly resurgent Germany fought a war with France in the 1870s (they were still pissed about Napoleon; the French, having lost that war, were now super-pissed at Germany). The crisis was papered over and the basic C o' V power structure preseverd, but: Grudge match there, which each side looking to bite off some territory the other controlled. And now that Austro-Hungary was threatening to break apart --- who was gonna take over those shards? (This was the Age of Imperialism ---- you think they were just gonna let all those Czechs and Slovaks and Romanians have thier own countries? Oh, it is to laugh.) Same deal on the eastern flank, with the Ottomons. Even the powers that did not themselves necessarily want/have plans to conquer central Europe were mighty interested in making sure their rivals didn't get their grubby little hands on territory that could make them a threat or affect thier own trade and colonies. (Britian fits in here, pretty much.)

So while the assasination was the match, and the streak of gasoline immediately flared out in certain directions due to the way the treaties were set up, the reason people were looking to light the place on fire in the first place was to, as it were, provide the current owners with a reason to vacate the property so they could take over the space and develop it.
posted by Diablevert at 1:59 PM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


No one has mentioned it (so I will) but it is partly because The People wanted it. The European people, that is. Hard to get our heads around now, but the contemporary writings make it pretty undeniable. They bought all that guff about terror tactics and honor of the nation and such, and were willing to see it through. No peace rallies, even after years of this stuff (not that the governments would allow it, mind). Conscientious Objectors were roundly despised, if not prosecuted.

The US People had doubts. Well, the Civil War was still a living memory. Europeans had to go back to Napoleon's little adventures to have first hand experience of the pity of war. Having enjoyed small victories overseas with professional soldiers and despised volunteers over far weaker enemies, they thought it would be a doddle. Masses of civilian soldiers and the power of mechanized warfare was a surprise, though it shouldn't have been.

US situation is interesting. WIlson ran for his second term on the He Kept Us Out Of War platform. The number one song in 1916 was I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be A Soldier. What a difference a year and a torpedoed passenger liner makes! By 1917, the number one song was Over There! Doubters and non-buyers of war bonds could and did lose their jobs.

Interestingly, America was the only major power with no territorial ambitions, only a pious hope for democracy and Can't We All Just Get Along? Of course it was treated as bumwad once Versailles was over, but, hell, we tried. (Europe's failure to play nice at the Peace Conference was a major reason why America Firsters did not want to be dragged into WWII. Fool me once....)

For a quick read of the period from a serving soldier, try Robert Graves' Good-bye to All That. He has interesting things to say about how various people felt about the war before during and after.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:02 PM on July 24, 2009


What a difference a year and a torpedoed passenger liner makes!

It's a common misconception that the Lusitania incident was what pushed America into the war. But it was torpedoed in 1915, before the 1916 election which Wilson won because "he kept us out of the war".

The real event that pushed America into war was the Zimmerman telegram. David Kahn characterizes that as the single most influential decipherment of an enemy code or cipher message of all time.

In January of 1917, German foreign minister Zimmerman sent a coded message to the German embassy in Mexico City telling the ambassador to make an offer to the Mexican government: if the US entered the war, Germany would support Mexico in a war against the US to recover the territory lost in the Mexican-American War in 1848.

The Mexican government decided it wanted no part of such a deal, and said so. But the British intercepted the message and decoded it, and gave it to the US government.

It was published in US newspapers on March 1 1917. The US declared war on April 6 1917.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:53 PM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Curse you chocolate pickle for revealing my ignorance!
posted by IndigoJones at 3:02 PM on July 24, 2009


No no no... it was all due to the vile hun and his villanous empire building!
Or... an ostrich? I must defer to Edmund... Blackadder on WW1
posted by oldefortran at 3:11 PM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


H.P. Willmott's World War I is essentially a coffee-table book, but the maps are stunning (similar to Google Earth), and there is a lot of social history, notably some coverage of the role of women in the Great War.


The aftermath is still happening.

Indeed, it is.

There are still threatening munitions and mustard gas around in Europe. In April 2001, thousands of French homes were temporarily evacuated. Even in the U.S., there are threats.

In Osama bin Laden's first televised statement after the 9/11 attacks, he described them as vengeance for what had happened 80 years earlier -- basically the intrusion of Christian Western nations into the Muslim Middle East as a consequence of World War I.
posted by jgirl at 4:10 PM on July 24, 2009


Germany also started unrestricted submarine warfare in January 1917 and sank seven US merchant ships before the US declared war.

From the New Yorker book review: "The war began on August 4th. By August 29th, there were two hundred and sixty thousand French dead."

Another legacy of World War I, which also applies to World War II, is the myth of the US winning the war*. In both cases, the US entered the war very late and American involvement was not decisive. It took until March 1918 for the American Expeditionary Force to have a million troops in France.

Germany launched the Spring Offensive against the French and British in March 1918 with nearly 50 divisions freed up by Russia's surrender, and lost 1.1 million men in six months despite making the biggest gains of either side since 1914. The AEF stopped part of the German offensive at Belleau Wood in June.

Germany's last major offensive was the Second Battle of the Marne in July and August, which was turned back mainly by the French. The AEF's major actions were during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel (origin of the terms "D-Day" and "H-Hour") in September, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, part of the Allies' Hundred Days Offensive from August until the end of the war on November 11.

US military deaths were 116,708 for 1917 and 1918. The UK had 19,240 men killed in the Battle of the Somme in one day. Almost 1.4 million Frenchmen died, 885,138 UK soldiers died, Russia lost 1.8 million, Germany lost 2.8 million, Austria-Hungary lost 1.1 million, and the Ottoman Empire lost 771,844. Serbia had more people killed than the US did. (Those are all military deaths only. France's military deaths were 3.9% of the population.)

* In Europe for World War II. The US beat Japan in the Pacific, but we tend to underemphasize the importance of Japan having millions of troops tied up fighting China in their conflict that ran from 1931 until the end of World War II.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:42 PM on July 24, 2009


The aftermath is still happening.

Forget the lost munitions. The geopolitical history of the last 80-something years all hinges on Gavrilo Princip. The bastard.

Without WWI, there's no WWII.
Without WWII, there's no Cold War.
Without the Cold War, there's no proxy wars between the U.S. and the USSR.
Without proxy wars, there's no Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Without Afghanistan, there's no US-backed mujihadeen.
Without the mujihadeen, there's no Taliban.
Without the Taliban, there's no 9/11.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:44 PM on July 24, 2009


The geopolitical history of the last 80-something years all hinges on Gavrilo Princip. The bastard.

No, afraid not. The history of the last 80 years was unquestionably altered drastically by WWI, but the situation in Europe were such that even if Princip had not assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, something else would have set off hostilities.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:53 PM on July 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Without WWI, there's no WWII.

No - if anything, the opposite. War was happening regardless of the roman numeral. In fact, the opposite argument has been made - that had WWI been concluded properly (i.e. without bankrupting Germany for decades into the future), there would have been no WWII. Only one world war was inevitable (i.e. WWII did not have to be the result of WWI). But it was inevitable that a world war would happen.

Without WWII, there's no Cold War.

No. The ideological conflict vs Communism would have happened regardless... it was already under way before WWII. We called it Cold War after WWII, but it was going on at different levels from before WWII.

Without the Cold War, there's no proxy wars between the U.S. and the USSR.

This is bass-ackwards. The Cold War was an inherent expression of the ideological war between the two superpowers. And there would have been proxy wars between the two major leaders of rival ideologies, regardless - no additional excuse was needed. Both believed in the application of military pressure to reach political objectives, hence proxy wars.

Without proxy wars, there's no Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

No, no, no, no. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was not an expression of a proxy war. It was a direct war involving Soviet troops, and the U.S. then took the opportunity to proxify the war. But the Soviet invasion itself - your claim - was not a proxy war. Without the proxy wars there would still be a "Soviet invasion of Afghanistan". There were other objectives - the Soviets didn't think "hmm, invading Afghanistan is a way to have a proxy war with the U.S." - quite the opposite, the Soviets would have been super happy not to have a proxy war with the U.S. over Afghanistan, they'd love to have an old-fashioned imperial geopolitical invasion contained to just two parties - themselves and the Afghans.

Without Afghanistan, there's no US-backed mujihadeen.

Yeah, though without Afghanistan there would be no Soviet invasion, so that whole thing is a bit of an odd causality, though trivially true.

Without the mujihadeen, there's no Taliban.

Er, no. The Taliban would have existed without the mujihadeen. The Taliban were intent on liberating Afghanistan from the Russians, but they were primarily interested in imposing their religious ideology, so they'd exist regardless, because their ideology existed and in fact exists to this day even in Pakistan. The mujihadeen were not necessary for the Taliban's existence.

Without the Taliban, there's no 9/11.

Er, no. OBL was interested in a holy war, and striking the U.S. regardless of location. He could have accomplished that anywhere. Sure, it was convenient that he had safe harbor in Taliban's Afghanistan, but he could have safe harbor in more places... and does to this day in Pakistan. Taliban, or no Taliban, 9/11 could have happened - the main terrorists were all non-taliban Saudis. OBL was only their mentor. And he could mentor from anywhere.

Wow, pretty bad record of analysis there, CPB.
posted by VikingSword at 6:16 PM on July 24, 2009


Wow, pretty bad record of analysis there, CPB.

Are you fucking kidding me? Seriously, you're joking right? You're nuts.

Without WWI, there's no WWII.

No - if anything, the opposite.


Somebody should've told Hitler, who several times spoke about the loss of "honor" that Germany suffered during the wind-down from WWI. The fucker accepted the surrender of France in the same railcar that German leadership used to end WWI!

Without WWII, there's no Cold War.

No. The ideological conflict vs Communism would have happened regardless..


The U.S. and the USSR were allies during the war, and enemies after. The goddam Berlin Airlift was a direct result of the US and USSR coming to blows over the settlement of the after-war German borders.

Without the Cold War, there's no proxy wars between the U.S. and the USSR.

This is bass-ackwards. The Cold War was an inherent expression of the ideological war between the two superpowers


I can't tell what you're saying here. Whatever it is, it's not logical at all. There's a Cold War. The two sides enter into proxy wars because they can't settle things directly in a nuclear age. I don't understand what you can't understand about that.

Without proxy wars, there's no Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

No, no, no, no. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was not an expression of a proxy war


Again, no idea what you're saying here. Just pops, clicks and buzzes and vague, undergraduate ramblings. Guess you missed the part about the Soviets making the move to threaten the oil-producing Middle East, dominated by U.S. energy interests.

Without Afghanistan, there's no US-backed mujihadeen.

Yeah, though without Afghanistan there would be no Soviet invasion, so that whole thing is a bit of an odd causality, though trivially true


So you're mad at me because you missed the point? Okaay...

Without the mujihadeen, there's no Taliban.

Er, no. The Taliban would have existed without the mujihadeen


You do realize that the Soviets would still be in Afghanistan had there been no mujihadeen, right? And that the Taliban were composed of several mujihadeen groups? And when the Soviets left, the Taliban took over, right? You got that, right?

Without the Taliban, there's no 9/11.

Er, no. OBL was interested in a holy war, and striking the U.S. regardless of location.


Did you miss the part where the Taliban gave OBL support and cover? And that OBL had been with the Taliban since the late 80s?

Next time you try to meet someone point by point, do us all a favor and actually be correct, OK?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:14 PM on July 24, 2009


You folks are so darned smart! I totally feel like I have a handle on the basic issues (and controversies) about this war. now The recommendations for further research are also awesome. Thanks all!
posted by serazin at 7:18 PM on July 24, 2009


Now can you interpret and analyze Jules and Jim for me, from a feminist perspective? (;
posted by serazin at 7:19 PM on July 24, 2009


The U.S. and the USSR were allies during the war, and enemies after.

Only in the sense that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". If you really want to find out about this in depth, read Churchill's history of the war. The alliance with the USSR was definitely distant and cold and rife with attempts by both sides to screw the other.

The comparison of that with the alliance between the US and UK is like night and day. The US and UK shared their deepest secrets with each other, for example. (The Brits revealed to the Americans that they were reading German Enigma traffic, which the Americans hadn't broken. The Americans, in turn, revealed that they had completely broken the Japanese "Purple" system and could read many of Japan's lesser codes and ciphers.)

I wouldn't categorize the relationship between the US and USSR as an "alliance". It was more like "temporary cooperation between enemies in the face of mutual peril".

And if you look at what happened at the Malta conference, it's obvious that there was no chance at all of the alliance turning into long term friendship after the war.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:18 PM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


The ideological conflict vs Communism would have happened regardless... it was already under way before WWII.

Perhaps starting when the Allies intervened in the Russian Civil War against the Reds during 1918-1920.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was not an expression of a proxy war. It was a direct war involving Soviet troops, and the U.S. then took the opportunity to proxify the war.

According to Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter authorized the CIA to aid the mujahideen in June 1979, months before the Soviets invaded in late December. "I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention."

Without proxy wars, there's no Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Without the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, there's no Rambo III.
Or The Living Daylights for that matter.

And if you look at what happened at the Malta conference, it's obvious that there was no chance at all of the alliance turning into long term friendship after the war.

Wikipedia's article is sketchy. Could you please point to something with more detail? I'm curious.

Now can you interpret and analyze Jules and Jim for me, from a feminist perspective

"Though she isn't in the film's title Catherine is, 'the structuring absence. She reconciles two completely oppposed ideas of femininity. Francois Truffaut said: 'She is a luminous presence, and a turn-of-the-century bitch who slept around.'"

Speaking of movies, A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de fiançailles) is a great movie set during World War I, with some intense battle scenes.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:17 PM on July 24, 2009


I'll recommend you look at some of Massie's books if you want some in-depth reading on the tensions around the naval buildups and the personal rivalries around the royal families involved; his Dreadnought offers a splendid overview.

From my perspective the Dreadnought ultimately proved to be one of the biggest blunders of British naval history - it encouraged the other powers to believe that this new class of ship, in ostensibly rendering others obsolete, offered them a chance to gain parity in sea power and, in the case of Germany, compete for a "place in the sun". The Brits actually rendered their previous sea supremecy obsolete at a stroke, engaged in a hugely expensive arms race for a type of ship that was already obsolete by the end of WW I.

The Guns of August is rather good, too; I'll also echo comments about the popularity of the war Dominic Hibbard's bio of Wilfred Owen does a good job of tracing his journey, in step with many of his countrymen, from an ardent fan of war to the antipathy of experience. But yes; women would berate any man they found of service age who wasn't in uniform and there was huge hostility to anyone who suggested that the war was anything other than a splendid endeavour.

Finally, and I think Tuchman touches on this, there's evidence that one of the major contributions to the business was... train timetables. Movement of troops was tied to rail networks, and the continental Europeans were quite aware of how quickly they could assemble and deploy men by rail. The French and Germans, in particular, were painfully aware that they really only had a day or two to issue a mobilisation order - any longer a delay in responding to aggression with mobilisation would result in any chance of getting men to the front being lost, and the war starting deep inside their own territory.

Once threats were issued, millitary planners were warning politicians that if they hesistated to investigate peacable solutions, the war would already be lost.
posted by rodgerd at 9:39 PM on July 24, 2009


The alliance with the USSR was definitely distant and cold and rife with attempts by both sides to screw the other.

As opposed to the success the US had in screwing the British, and the lingering antipathy that resulted from De Gaulle avoiding the same fate for France.
posted by rodgerd at 9:40 PM on July 24, 2009


US military deaths were 116,708 for 1917 and 1918. The UK had 19,240 men killed in the Battle of the Somme in one day. Almost 1.4 million Frenchmen died, 885,138 UK soldiers died, Russia lost 1.8 million, Germany lost 2.8 million, Austria-Hungary lost 1.1 million, and the Ottoman Empire lost 771,844.

To amplify, New Zealand lost 16,697 killed, had a casualty rate of over 50%, and almost 50% of the millitary age population mobilised and abroad. In 1910 the New Zealand population had just edged over a million people, while the US was over 90 million.
posted by rodgerd at 9:53 PM on July 24, 2009


Re the Malta Conference: Could you please point to something with more detail? I'm curious.

Try Churchill's History of the war.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:59 PM on July 24, 2009


Anyway, we've answered the OP's question, and this is getting rather chatty now.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:00 PM on July 24, 2009


One aspect of the aftermath that hasn't been covered here is the creation of a dozen new states in eastern and central Europe, where for the last century only empires had tread. The Treaty of Versailles dealt with some aspects of this, but left many of these states on their own to work out their role, as well as their actual physical position, in the region. Things did not, as we now know, turn out well, in most cases.

Poland, for example, had been essentially wiped off the map in the Partitions of the late eighteenth century after a long period of independent existence for hundreds and hundreds of years, and Austria, Prussia/Germany, and Russia all tried to impose their own languages and cultures. Polish culture had survived, of course, but Poland was not "Polish" in the same way that France was French or Denmark was Danish; the authors of the Treaty of Versailles didn't really have a good understanding of conditions on the ground in the East and what the multi-ethnic democracies they hoped to create would look like once they got going, given that the only approximate example at the time was the United States. In post-war Poland, only about 65% of the population was Polish, and about 65% was Catholic. (Today, those numbers are in the high-ninetieth percentile.)

So Poland was back, with two of their former imperial masters as next-door neighbors. Poland actually fought a regional war against Lenin's Red Army in 1920, in which they tried to recover some land lost to the Russian Empire during the partitions by taking advantage of the chaos of the Russian Civil War, and in which Lenin tried to move the revolution to the rest of Europe, specifically Germany. At the height of its offensive, the Poles had taken Kiev and Minsk, but just a few months later, the Russians were on the banks of the Vistula. Huge, huge changes in territory.

The border between Poland and what became the Soviet Union wasn't settled until the Peace of Riga in 1921. It made no one happy, and Poles east of the line began to be deported to Kazakhstan from an early stage. Lithuanians wanted their capital to be Vilnius/Wilno, now in Polish control after a late offensive. Ukrainians and Belarusians got neither independence or democracy. And the rest of Europe, mostly, was spared a Soviet invasion, at least for a generation or so, meaning that Lenin had both the time and resources to consolidate post-Civil War gains and make Soviet Russia a force to be reckoned with.

Pilsudski, Polish hero of the war and post-war leader, had hoped to create a sort of proto-NATO based on a union of these new democracies, but the plan foundered for a variety of reasons.

Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were entirely new creations that united disparate peoples with different religions, languages, cultures, and even alphabets! Finland was new, and had never been independent, and neither had Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia. In many of these states, the elements of the Treaty of Versailles which called for their independence did not adequately address issues like minority voices or rights. Germans and German-speakers, for example, were all over the East, and had been for a thousand years. In a new Polish or Latvian or Romanian state, all of which sought to promote the "native" culture or identity, animosity between minority and majority populations remained as strong as ever. Hungarians in parts of Romania, namely certain parts of Transylvania, which had been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, exceed 50% of the local population even today. Here's an excerpt from the linked Wikipedia article on what Romania's receipt of this area at the end of World War I meant on the ground:
The new regime's objective became to effectively Romanianize Transylvania in a social-political fashion, after centuries of Hungarian rule. The regime's goal was to create a Romanian middle and upper class that would assume power in all fields. The Hungarian language was expunged from official life, and all place-names were Romanianized.[6] In the land reform undertaken in 1921, Transylvanian aristocrats (most of them ethnic Hungarians or assimilated as Hungarians from other ethnic groups) were dispossessed of large landed properties, with the land being then given (in smaller plots) to peasants (the majority of whom were ethnic Romanians). This move, approved by Romania's King Ferdinand I, changed the ethnic distribution of land ownership.

The Magyar population complained about the insufficiency of schools in their language and the pressure to send their children to Romanian-language schools. In the private economy, the dominant social position of Hungarian, Jewish and Saxon business people was somewhat eroded, as the Romanian government tried to improve the relative position of businesses owned by ethnic Romanians by adopting preferential, protective measures. Higher education was completely Romanianized, except for a chair of Hungarian Literature at the University of Cluj. On the other hand, the minority's cultural activities were barely obstructed by Romanian official policies.[6]
So this is not small potatoes. People's lives on the ground were totally turned upside down by the successor states to the empires.

Finally, the desires of Germans, who did make up a majority of the populations of Danzig/Gdańsk and East Prussia, both of which had been part of Germany before the war, but were cut off from Germany by the creation of Poland's new borders - to be "united" with the homeland of Germany was one of Hitler's main justifications for expansion as he rose to power through the 1930s. At the end of the Second World War, massive expulsions of German civilians took place, with great loss of life. 10-12 million Germans moved, or were moved, to Germany and Austria. German life in the East finally came to an end after a millennium of expansion. Even today, there's a movement of expellees who seek to call attention to the lands and lives lost - a federation that may not have ever existed had the independent states of central and eastern Europe not come out of World War I.
posted by mdonley at 4:38 AM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


CPB, ordinarily, I wouldn't have addressed your post in the first place, as it is so clearly lacking in any historical knowledge. However, this is the green, and the OP deserves to have accurate information, so your post could not go unchallenged. I'll address your points one more time, for the sake of the OP, and perhaps you too can benefit (though your tone, unsuited as it is to the green, gives me pause).

Without WWI, there's no WWII.

That there was going to be a world war I in Europe was inevitable - and had Gavrilo Princip not existed, the war would have happened anyhow. So saying that "Forget the lost munitions. The geopolitical history of the last 80-something years all hinges on Gavrilo Princip." is nonsensical. Gavrilo was a random trigger, and were it not him, there would be another of a thousand triggers. There is broad agreement among historians regarding this and the factors behind WWI - and nobody thinks that "but for GP, there would have been no WWI". So you got this 100% wrong.

In contrast to the inevitability of WWI, there was no inevitability of WWII. And certainly it was not the WWI that begat WWII.

Hitler, who several times spoke about the loss of "honor" that Germany suffered during the wind-down from WWI. The fucker accepted the surrender of France in the same railcar that German leadership used to end WWI!

Here's what you are missing. It was not the war that allowed Hitler to rise to power in the first place, but the peace that followed. WWI could have happened exactly as it did, and had the peace not been fumbled, there would have been no WWII and Hitler would not be in a position to start it. That was understood at the time by many prominent people, as it was happening - from the most distinguished economists (Keynes), to politicians on all sides - hence the warnings about the Treaty of Versailles. Keynes even wrote a book about this in 1919:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Economic_Consequences_of_the_Peace

"The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) is a book published by John Maynard Keynes. Keynes attended the Versailles Conference as a delegate of the British Treasury and argued for a much more generous peace. It was a best seller throughout the world and was critical in establishing a general opinion that the Versailles Treaty was a "Carthaginian peace". It helped to consolidate American public opinion against the treaty and involvement in the League of Nations. The perception by much of the British public that Germany had been treated unfairly in turn was a crucial factor in public support for appeasement. The success of the book established Keynes' reputation as a leading economist especially on the left. When Keynes was a key player in establishing the Bretton Woods system in 1944, he remembered the lessons from Versailles as well as the Great Depression. The Marshall Plan after Second World War is a similar system to that proposed by Keynes in The Economic Consequences of the Peace."

Note the title - the economic consequences of peace. Not war. Note how the consequences of Versailles not only inflamed the Germans, but primed the British to offer appeasement. The inflaming caused Hitler to rise to power. And the appeasement allowed him to start WWII. Because WWII could have still been avoided, even with the disastrous Versailles peace, had Hitler been confronted early on, as many wanted (including Churchill). Unfortunately, one consequence of Versailles was the British support of appeasement (see quote above), and then the die was cast. Thus again - it was not the war, but losing the peace that caused WWII. See the contrast with WWII - after the war, we won the peace as a direct consequence of learning the lessons of the "peace" after WWI (see quote above) - and so the conditions were not created for another Hitler - and after WWII there would have been even more grounds for raving about "lost honor". There is broad agreement here among historians too - so this is not some exotic position I'm taking. It is your position which is out of the mainstream, and contrary to historical facts. Again, you managed to get this 100% wrong.

Without WWII, there's no Cold War.

No. Had WWII not happened, there still would have been an ideological conflict between the USSR and the USA. Whether we'd have called it a Cold War, or Grand Conflict or whatever - it would have happened. Because it already existed before WWII - for god's sake, we even had direct military conflict with the Soviets before WWII. Again, you got this 100% wrong.

The U.S. and the USSR were allies during the war, and enemies after. The goddam Berlin Airlift was a direct result of the US and USSR coming to blows over the settlement of the after-war German borders.

But this does not support your thesis - it contradicts it. Without WWII there would have been no alliance - temporary as it was - between the US and the USSR. In fact one may say: "Without WWII there's no pause in the Cold War" instead of your utterly ahistoric "Without WWII, there's no Cold War." You got this 100% backwards.

"Without the Cold War, there's no proxy wars between the U.S. and the USSR."

Again, we did not need the Cold War for proxy wars to exist - we already had them before the war, and WWII was merely a brief pause - in fact, as kickaracha points out, we actually had direct military conflict before the war.

Without proxy wars, there's no Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Here's the definition of "proxy war":

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proxy_war

"A proxy war is a war that results when two powers use third parties as substitutes for fighting each other directly."

The Soviets didn't use third parties to invade Afghanistan. They invaded directly. It was a Soviet war. Just like Vietnam was an American war. In contrast, f.ex. in Angola, it was a proxy war with Cubans and the MPLA on one side and UNITA and South Africa and the U.S. on the other. No American troops, no Soviet troops.

Guess you missed the part about the Soviets making the move to threaten the oil-producing Middle East, dominated by U.S. energy interests.

The Soviets had many objectives in invading Afghanistan - but the invasion was direct, using their own troops, and not proxy forces.

Without the mujihadeen, there's no Taliban.

The Taliban were a distinct group whose existence was not predicated on the broader mujihadeen movement. The mujihadeen were an ideologically heterogeneous group (see Northern Alliance). In fact, the other mujihadeen fought the Taliban (see war between Northern Alliance and the Taliban). So to say that without the mujihadeen there would be no Taliban is wrong.

You do realize that the Soviets would still be in Afghanistan had there been no mujihadeen, right?

If your point is that without the mujihadeen, the Taliban would not exist because the Soviets would still be in Afghanistan, then you've managed yet again to get everything exactly wrong, by 100%. The taliban would exist, even if no other mujihadeen existed. And it isn't even clear that the Soviets would still be in Afghanistan "had there been no mujihadeen" - because the Taliban was quite capable of ejecting the Soviets with no assistance from other mujihadeen. They are right now almost throwing the U.S. out - and that with the U.S. having a bunch of allied armies with them, and with no official support for the Talibs from Pakistan. How much worse would it be for the Soviets who were in there alone and with the Talib supported by the Pakistanis? Regardless, the Taliban were not dependent for their existence or success on the rest of the mujihadeen - in fact they reached power by fighting and winning over the mujihadeen.

Without the Taliban, there's no 9/11.

Did you miss the part where the Taliban gave OBL support and cover? And that OBL had been with the Taliban since the late 80s?

No, I did not miss that part - I stated it "it was convenient that he had safe harbor in Taliban's Afghanistan".

However, you utterly overstate the case. 9/11 could have happened without the Taliban - easily. Because the crucial factor was not the Taliban, but OBL. It was his idea - not the Taliban's - it was his mentoring - not the Taliban's. And crucially, the operation itself had no connection to Taliban - the funding was not Taliban, the coordination and planning was not Taliban, the training was not Taliban (actually happened in the U.S.), the operatives were not Taliban (they were Saudis). There was no connection whatsoever between 9/11 and the Taliban. The connection, such as it was, was with OBL. Now, you may claim that without the Taliban, OBL would not be effective since they provided him shelter and support and they knew each other from the 80's. And you'd still be wrong. Because OBL could have had support from other places - and in fact does to this day in Pakistan. OBL could have been anywhere - because the kind of role he had in 9/11 and terrorism in general, is not dependent on his location or Taliban support. His role is mostly inspirational and mentoring - which can be done from anywhere (as the London bombings prove). So to say "without the Taliban there is no 9/11" is completely wrong. That's not the nature of AQ - it operates everywhere, with or without the Taliban. It is not dependent on the Taliban. And operationally, not even completely dependent on OBL himself. So to stretch the support of the Taliban for OBL into "without Taliban, no 9/11" is facile at best.
posted by VikingSword at 9:20 AM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


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