The Meaning of the First World War
by René Albrecht-Carrié
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Since this brief book was originally written for the 50th anniversary of World War I, it is in itself a historical artifact. But more than that makes it worthwhile.
Albrecht-Carrié does not try to place blame for the start of the war. Instead, “the little Eurasian peninsula that was Europe, which had conquered the world and was its powerhouse, contained too much energy and power for the narrowness of its confines. The very process of imperial activity had simultaneously furnished occasion for clashes and crises and served the function of safety valve for the overflowing energy of Europe. There was, in 1914, no more room in the world for fresh conquests.” (Page 43)
In other words, in addition to poor leadership, bad diplomacy, pent-up need for social change, and an inability to understand the new nature of warfare – what another author has labeled “sleepwalking” – the thrust of history itself pushed Europe toward a crisis that left few good outcomes, although they were possible. Poor choices meant they did not happen.
Once war began – and the book does not examine the military campaign with any depth, only the political considerations around it – all these factors caused greater change than anyone expected: politically, geographically, economically, militarily, and socially. Russia, for example, became Marxist. The United States had to get involved and become a superpower. France and Britain were bled dry. And, in the end, true peace was impossible because there were too many problems to solve. The meaning of the war could be summed up in one word, “change.”
Then World War I led directly to World War II, which solidified those changes.
Albrecht-Carrié ends the book attempting to assess the situation of Europe and the world fifty years after the start of World War I. He tries to understand what will happen with the bold and hopeful agreements that we now know led to the European Union, which at the 100th anniversary of the start of the war faces its own crisis. He also tries to imagine how the clash between the United States and the Soviet Union will go, and how the United States and Europe will finally relate.
In that way, the book ends with as much tension as it starts, a useful reminder to our time that the decades past were not as rosy and easy as we might remember. In 1964, he wrote:
“No one should be surprised to find that our time is beset by deep uncertainty and bedeviling confusion. The scientific and technical explosion is no less a source of stress than the population explosion, and the current state of literature and arts is apt expression of the search for an answer to unresolved dilemmas. But on whatever clouded course we may be launched, no one now thinks of going back to the days of 1939, let alone those of pre-1914. The First World War was a great break with the past. That is its fundamental meaning.” (Page 172)View all my reviews