World War I started over a small incident. Can the same thing happen today?
Whatever has happened, will happen again; whatever has been done, will be done again. There is nothing new on earth.
— Ecclesiastes 1:9 (ISV)
People keep making the same mistakes. Human beings keep committing the same sins over and over again. There are new technologies, but people (and what motivates them) stay pretty much the same. The axiom, “There is nothing new on earth,” applies to the history of human experience as well. Nothing escapes the rule of God, the One who calls all of history to account.
Look back 100 years to 1914. In September 1914 Germany, France, and Great Britain fought the First Battle of the Marne, a battle that Germany meant to press to crush those two allied powers and bring the conflict that became known as World War I to an end. Instead, the two sides lost a total of 160,000 dead and began a long stalemate that was to mark the following four years.
When the armistice was finally signed on 11 November 1918, Europe and the world were very different places. Russia was in the grip of the Bolsheviks; the hold on the country would last over 70 years. Germany had become a republic; Austria-Hungary was breaking apart; and, the Ottoman empire, an empire that was over 600 years old became a mere shadow of itself in what is now modern-day Turkey.
World War I wasn’t supposed to happen. Europe was enjoying the longest period of peace in its history. While there were wars fought, they were minor ones—fought on the edges of Europe and of short duration.
The long period of peace had given Europe the opportunity to prosper as it took advantage of breakthroughs in science, technology and industrialization. Cities were cleaner, food was better and more plentiful, and goods that were luxuries not that far in the past flowed endlessly out of factories. Most important, people were living longer.
Doesn’t that sound like today? For almost seventy years the world has had relative peace. There have been border wars, guerrilla wars, and a fairly major war in Korea (which, sadly, no one seems to remember) to be sure, but there has not been a global conflagration as was seen during World War II, despite the pall of nuclear annihilation hanging over us.
A Minor Event That had Worldwide Consequences
The carnage the befell the world as never before was sparked by a diplomatically minor incident in the Balkans, the botched assassination of a small-time royal, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Bosnia by a Serbian Nationalist.
The assassination was only the spark. The causes of the war went back forty years and were a combination of nationalism, militarism, imperialism, and entangling alliances. Today’s world seems to be gearing up for the same type of scenario.
China–The New Germany?
In China and Japan, nationalistic passions on both sides have been inflamed in a dispute over a string of islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China. The islands represent a point of contention between the two countries over sovereignty in the area. They also hold a store of natural resources both countries desperately want and need.
The moves and counter-moves between the U.S. and China are eerily reminiscent of the relationship between Germany and England a century ago. Just as with the United States today, in 1914 there was a growing disquiet in England over German investment in Great Britain while “the Germans complained that Britain treated them as a second-rate power.”
Clash of Ideologies
Just as it is today, in 1914 there was a basic clash of ideologies.
In 1914 the trouble spot was the Balkans, where nationalist ambitions overlapped religious conflicts between the Christian states, such as Greece and Bulgaria, and the Islamic Ottoman Empire.
The Austria-Hungarian Empire, dominated by Roman Catholics, was being challenged by Orthodox Serbia. Just as there have been a series of regional wars in the Middle East (in 1948, 1967, and 1973), so too there had been wars in the Balkans, between Russia and Turkey in 1877–78 and between Serbia and Bulgaria in 1885.
The Middle East today bears a strong resemblance to the Balkans back then. A similar mix of allegiances is drawing in outside powers as the U.S., Turkey, Russia, Iran, and to a lesser extent, China all look to protect their interests in the region.
One problem a great power faces when it throws its support behind a lesser power is that the smaller power gets reckless. China has found that out with North Korea.
To make matters worse, the stronger power is often reluctant to abandon their weaker clients, no matter how bad their behavior and no matter what dangers they themselves are being led into, because to abandon them can make the greater power appear weak and indecisive.
This is eerily reminiscent of Ezekiel’s admonition that God gave to Gog. He said, “I’m going to turn you around, put hooks into your jaws, and bring you out” (Ezekiel 38:4).” Could those hooks be coming from Damascus?
A look at the map of 1914 showed both Ukraine and Crimea as part of Imperial Russia. It has been stated here previously that Vladimir Putin’s role model is not Josef Stalin, it’s Peter the Great. Putin’s recent actions and his diplomatic thumbing his nose at the West would seem to indicate that he is ready to put Russia back together again and restore it to its previous Imperial glory.
Global War Impossible?
Today we assume that large scale, all-out war is something that will no longer happen. The belief is that nuclear weapons make that scenario impossible. As mentioned before, there have been regional wars since the end of World War II, but nothing like the size of the conflagration that occurred between 1939 and 1945.
In short, we have grown accustomed to peace as the normal state of affairs. We have become so sure of that premise that countries, led by the United States, are not only “building down” their military, but making what is left behind a social experiment, rather than a fighting force.
Today’s Tipping Points
Today, the world community is watching with detached interest developments in the Middle East and Western Mediterranean, believing that whatever happens there could not possibly affect them. And just as in 1914, the Great Powers ceased to believe that effective and concerted action could avoid conflict. At that point, world order began to break down—with disastrous consequences.
In 1908, when Austria-Hungary enraged Serbia by annexing Bosnia, where some 44 percent of the population were Serbs, Germany forced Russia, Serbia’s protector, to back down. Tsar Nicholas II wrote to his mother: “It is quite true that the form and method of Germany’s action—I mean towards us—has simply been brutal and we won’t forget it.” He didn’t. And when the crisis of 1914 erupted, Tsar Nicholas, a weak man who had until then preferred peace to war, was determined, like most of his ministers, that this time Russia would not give in to pressure from Germany or its ally, Austria-Hungary.
Almost a century later, under the leadership of the weak, sometimes sober, Boris Yeltsin, the Soviet Union broke apart. At that time a KGB apparatchik named Vladimir Putin saw the humiliation of his country at the hands of the world community and vowed he wouldn’t forget it. He hasn’t either. (Don’t think for a minute that Putin will back down from the Crimea.)
A History Lesson
Mark Twain once quipped, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” While there are things in history that do seem to repeat itself, that does not mean that everything is as it must be. The Bible teaches that history is controlled by a God who will make all things new (Revelation 21:5); whose mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:23); who gives His people new hearts (Ezekiel 36:26), and puts a new song in them (Isaiah 42:10).
It is the person who has an eye for the eternal who sees the hand of God within the temporal and knows that a different course can be taken if we follow 2 Chronicles 7:14 and “humble ourselves, pray, seek His face, and turn from our wicked ways.” Only then will we hear from heaven, have our sins forgiven and have our land healed.
- Clark, C. (2012). The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. London: Allen Lane.
- Macmillian, M. (2014). “1914 & 2014: Should We Be Worried?” International Affairs, pp. 59–70.
- Pechawer, Larry. (2008). Poetry and Prophecy. Vol. 3. In L. Pechawer, Standard Reference Library: Old Testament. (Poetry and Prophecy. Vol. 3. Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing, 2008. Print.
- Solzhenitsyn, A. (1972). August 1914 (First American Edition). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Tuchman, B. W. (1962). The Guns of August. New York: Macmillan.