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World War I Did Not End All Wars

November 11, 2018

By the time that representatives of warring nations met in a railway car north of Paris to sign the armistice ending World War I — 100 years ago today — nearly 20 million people lay dead, including about 10 million civilians. Another 21 million were wounded. This was supposed to be the end of the “war to end all wars,” the beginning of a perpetual peace in which the horrors of industrialized warfare forever would convince world leaders to choose negotiations over armed conflict. But the armistice did not repeal geopolitics and economics. The terms of the armistice itself, coupled with the crisis of the Great Depression, helped plant the seeds of an even worse global upheaval just 20 years later that eventually took 60 million lives, about 3 percent of the global population in 1938. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of World War I was that it probably was unnecessary. The June 28, 1914 assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was the spark that ignited a continent-wide bomb of rampant militarism in support of super-nationalism. Leaders on both sides missed innumerable opportunities to avoid conflict and eventually maneuvered themselves into war. The scope of the conflict, coupled with advances in killing technology produced by the Industrial Revolution, caused it to be known as “the war to end all wars.” But today, many of the same forces that produced the unthinkable a century ago again are loose in Europe. Following World War II, NATO joined many of the formerly warring nations of Europe, along with the United States and Canada, in a common defense alliance that has produced the longest era of peace in European history. And the European Union has attempted, with less even success, to do the same in economics. But rabid nationalism, fueled by an immigration crisis and economic disparities that the EU has not resolved, again is on the rise in Europe. Demagogues like Hungary’s Viktor Orban are ascendant. Today near Paris, 60 world leaders — including self-proclaimed “nationalist” President Donald Trump — will gather to commemorate the war that did not end all wars. They should not just commemorate, but rededicate themselves to working together against the errors that needlessly produced so much carnage.

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