The last mud–stained warrior to fire a shot in anger 100 years ago on the killing fields of Europe’s great upheaval is now dead. Only pictures remain of the First World War, the immolation that collapsed four empires and wrenched the world into an industrial environment no one was ready for.
The history of the 20th Century is the story of a newly unified Germany coming to terms with being a nation state. That is the underlying principle that defined the slaughter.
Germany today is no longer a dangerous power dragging the world into war. The leash of the European Union has reigned in its phenomenal muscle, but it is still an insecure power with worryingly open borders.
What forced Germany to lash out with war was its geography and, more to the point, Europe’s geography. The unification of the German state in 1871 amalgamated the highly prosperous agricultural landmass of the North European Plain in a position squeezed between much larger powers.
Few places on the planet have proven as dynamic as the German section of Northern Europe. By the time the First World War began, Germany was already economically stronger than Britain, even while Britain had a larger empire.
The rise of the German powerhouse destabilised the world system and the European powers were going to have to deal with this reality at some point, probably sooner rather than later.
The first act began on 28 June 1914 when an assassin’s shot rang out in Sarajevo killing Archduke Ferdinand, and arguably didn’t come to a close until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990.
Had the assassin failed in 1914 – and he very nearly did – then the events of the proceeding century may not have happened. But the inescapable history of Europe did not bend on a fateful bullet; there were many more layers of tension waiting for a spark.
Sarajevo merely provided convenient pretext for an inevitable war brewing between the Continent’s true powers. Germany believed they could win.
Britain was deeply afraid of Germany, and the feeling was mutual from Moscow to Paris. Germany knew that if the powers to its east and west were to attack simultaneously, it would be destroyed.
German elites had begun planning for an engagement with the Russian, French and British alliance well before the shooting in Sarajevo. Both sides were terrified of each other’s intentions.
In the end, many of the German High Command’s calculations proved to be wrong: the British did join the war, France discovered trench warfare, the Austro–Hungarian Empire was more useless than predicted and the United States reversed its isolation and mobilised 1 million troops.
But the First World War did not solve Germany’s vulnerable geographic problem. Another devastating war – followed by a long Cold War – convulsed the peninsula for the remainder of the century. To a large extent in 2014, the issue remains only salved, not saved.
The point is, no single event can be blamed for the horrors of last century; it was always going to happen. The question is why it happened and whether 100 years later there is any residue of upheaval remaining on the European peninsula.
Most of Europe’s political, economic and military developments can be understood through the bilateral relationship of France and Germany. The very integrity of the European Union (EU) is predicated on balancing these two behemoths.
NATO and the EU were created to corral the inevitable return of Germany. Geography dictates that the core of Europe will always be a dynamo; the key was to ensure Germany never again felt threatened by its neighbours.
France is crucial to this plan. Connecting the two countries through economic ties rather than willpower alone might assuage this fear. For the experiment to work Germany needs to genuinely be wealthier inside the EU structure than it could be on the outside.
However, following disheartening results in the recent EU elections, the core bilateral relationship of France and Germany is in looking increasingly unstable.
The EU experience of the Global Financial Crisis quickly morphed into a political and social crisis. And it became painfully obvious that no amount of supranational bandages would be able to mend the fissures riven over thousands of years.
Following the crisis, the EU has steadily diverged its national interests. All the dots uniting France with Germany, or Italy with Greece, or Germany with Italy have slowly come unstuck. They now each prefer to focus their own voting public, before thinking about the union as a whole.
This is not a criticism, it is simply the reality of the constraints of supranational government.
Nevertheless, it has become clear that Berlin may have to commit a large chunk of its own wealth to avoid a socio–economic collapse in the union. France cannot perform this role alone, and the no one wants to ask the Americans. There would be strings attached, and nobody wants more of those.
Propping the EU is in Germany’s interest at the moment, but what happens on the day this reality changes?
Then again, the union may be happy to crawl indefinitely and sit on stagnation like Japan once did. On the other hand, Europe may pull itself out of the economic mud.
However, if the recent elections are a bellwether, radical political parties and an increasingly anti–EU sentiment give little cause for such optimism.
A full 100 years after the First World War, Europe is probably not staring down another major war – there are too many layers to breach. But the integrity of the union is not as certain.