Monday, November 12, 2012

World War I Continues to Affect Us

Called the “War to End All Wars,” World War I never lived up to its billing.  Besides, it wasn’t the initial world war.  Wars stretching across continents were fought before, such as the French and Indian War and the later battles against Napoleon that included the War of 1812.

Sunday marked the 94th anniversary of the end of World War I.  It stopped at the11th second of the11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.  The time was specifically selected to be sure the day would be remembered.  That didn’t work.  Today, no soldier who fought in that war is alive.  The last known combatant died in February.  Few if any people who have first-hand memories of the war are still living.

Everyone else doesn’t seem to care. Most people don’t even take off Veterans Day.  The national holiday was original called Armistice Day to mark the end of the war, but that was before World War II showed up.

Maybe World War I would be better off forgotten, except that the impact of the war continues to affect our lives and will into the future.  World War I created the modern world and many of its ongoing problems.

No one should forget it.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand
The war started in 1914 when Ferdinand,  archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife were assassinated during a visit to Sarajevo, Serbia.  By the time the war ended, four empires had been obliterated, the United States had become the most powerful country in the world, the center of world’s finances had changed, the political environment was completely altered and a host of new ideas began to dominate.

In Europe, Russia became the first country affected.  The Czar of Russia and his family were assassinated by the Communists, instituting a new regime that became the American adversary for close to 80 years.  The Germans had hoped to destabilize Russia by allowing the Bolshevik militant Lenin back into the country in 1917.  They succeeded admirably.

Lenin and his cohorts established a Communist government, pulled Russia out of the war and began their efforts to convert the world to their philosophy.  Much of American foreign policy since then has been devoted to countering Communism, while verbal attacks on dissenters and outspoken opponents of this government have continued virtually unabated since. Remember "Love it or Leave it?"

The Red Scare of 1919 led directly to the blacklisting of actors and Hollywood writers as well as the McCarthy era.  Today’s attempts to curtail civil liberties continue the process.

France, until then a world power, lost its preeminence in the carnage of a war fought mostly on its soil.  That country has never recovered.

England was so heavily in debt after the war that the financial center of the globe shifted from London to New York, where it remains today. 

People worldwide began to demand independence.  As a result, England increasingly lost control of its many colonies and, in the ensuring decades, granted freedom to many of them, including India.
In Europe, the war forced the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the creation of new, smaller countries, such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, itself destined to splinter after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

In Germany, the war altered everything.  The German government had not been honest with its people, so the loss came as a shock.  A wounded Austrian corporal named Adolf Hitler, a modestly talented artist who had tried to avoid conscription into the war, was convinced that people inside Germany had caused the loss, not the Allied armies.  He swallowed erroneous eugenic ideas about lower types of people undermine genetics and spoke tirelessly about cleansing the country of such dangerously weaker non-Germans.

He was helped by a sick economy ravaged by reparations demanded by the wining Allies, which created raging inflation as the government simply printed more money.  Once in power, Hitler inaugurated mass murder and World War II.  His satanic work completed the effort started during World War I to alter global politics.

In the Middle East, the changes were equally dramatic.  In its bid to defeat the Turkish Empire, England promised independence to nationalist groups throughout the region, without the slightest intent to fulfill any promise.  However, led by young English linguist T.E. Lawrence, who believed his government, Arab guerrillas harassed the Turks and helped the English Army win.

England and France promptly split up the spoils, ignoring requests for independence.  Only later, did they allow the kingdoms of Jordan and Saudi Arabia.  In addition, they carved such countries as Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan from the hide of the moribund empire.   The boundaries cut across tribal and religious lines, guaranteeing the turmoil still roiling that region of the world. 

The Jews, also promised a homeland, finally were given Israel by a vote of the United Nations after an exhausted England gave up trying to hold on to any authority in the region after World War II.    The result has been a constant state of war between the Jewish nation and its neighbors since 1948.

After World War I, the English and French were determined to ensure their superiority over other nations.  Their heavy-handed efforts to control military in other nations outraged the Japanese, whose army and navy were limited to second-class status.  The Japanese response led to the rise of militaristic-minded leaders and subsequent attacks initially on Korea and China, and then against the Philippines and the United States.

The war created profound changes in this country.  The U.S. suddenly became the most powerful country in the world, a unexpected shock to Americans.  While Democrats pushed for a “just and lasting” peace under President Woodrow Wilson, the Republicans turned away from the progressive policies of Theodore Roosevelt that lead to minimum wages, 40-hour work week and child labor laws, along with efforts to guarantee clean food and to end monopoles. 

Instead, the GOP blocked American participation in the League of Nations, which was Wilson’s way to provide a forum to discuss disagreements outside of the battlefield.  Without the U.S.’ involvement, the idea foundered.   In addition, the Republicans grew increasingly conservative, rejecting industrial controls and helping precipitate the Great Depression.

Republicans who had pushed for annexation of Hawaii and demands that this country become a world presence now insisted on isolationism.

Little has changed since.

World War I had more effect in less-obvious areas.  The war, which mixed so many people together, helped encourage the spread of the influenza epidemic of 1918, which led to the deaths of millions while foreshadowing the rise of AIDS and other pandemics. 

At the same time, technology guaranteed that World War I would herald the start of modern warfare.  Horses were replaced by tanks.  Airplanes began aerial bombing, grounding balloons that had been used for that in the Civil War.  Radio increased communication, and improved weaponry guaranteed the slaughter of millions.  Submarines that first appeared in the Civil War became sophisticated hunters of ocean shipping.

At the same time, the unpredictability of war undermined religion.  The idea of God was so entrenched that the word “atheism” wasn’t even invented until the 1800s.  However, the obvious unpredictability of such massive battles seen in World War I ensured that religion would be questioned.  The effort to find proof of the Bible stories, a field called Biblical Archaeology, was born after World War I, while evolution, which had been largely ignored for several decades, returned to the fore.

Scopes' courtroom
The debate would culminate in 1925 with the trial in Dayton, Tennessee that pitted fundamentalists who accepted every word of the sacred texts as true against those opting for less supernatural answers.  That debate has continued, but fundamentalism increasingly is losing.

Their position has been undermined by scientific discoveries that demonstrate the random nature of life and events.  That process began during World War I when German physicist Albert Einstein introduced his special theory of relativity, which eventually led to the atomic bomb.

Meanwhile, the horror of war and the fact the consequences could neither be predicted nor were distributed evenly forced American institutions to change.  Top universities like Yale and Harvard changed their curriculum to de-emphasize religion and to eliminate quotas on types of students. 

In addition, culture began to accept more-universal ideas.  Showboat , the first great Broadway show, attacked the idea of racism, something unheard of prior to the war when the U.S. was rocked by repeated race riots. Soon after, Porgy and Bess presented Black life in a humanistic light.   It would take decades for the impact to spread, but the process was underway.

Today, of course, few people realize the role World War I plays in global politics and life.  History these days has lost its charm.  That’s why Republicans can conveniently ignore the economic problems that are the direct result of the Bush Administration policies and instead insist they are Obama’s fault.  Politicians are fully aware that few people today know anything about history or care.

That’s all the more reason to study such events like World War I and to understand how they have affected our lives.  We may not be doomed to repeat them, as philosopher George Santayana famously said, but we are left without any understanding of our world and how it arrived at its present situation.  Without that knowledge, we also have no clue where we are going or why.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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