Counting pages on the calendar probably isn’t the most instructive way of organizing the past or understanding our progress. What did we learn the past year from the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, or the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, that we hadn’t known a year earlier?
Every now and then, though, we encounter a milestone that truly stands on its own as a moment in history. We’ve got one coming up this year, on July 28: the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. On that day in 1914 the world began anew. One epoch in history ended and another one commenced. It’s fair to say that in 2014 we mark the end of the first century of the modern era.
Make no mistake: World War I changed everything. It erased great empires that had defined the map of human civilization for a millennium — Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, German, Russian and the last vestiges of imperial China. In their place came the modern system of nation-states, established according to the newly universal principle of national self-determination.
Poles, Hungarians and Irish emerged from the shadows onto the world stage. Revolutionary nationalist movements erupted in Mexico, Vietnam and the Arab world. Iraq and Syria were added to the map. Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, recognizing Jewish national rights in Palestine, and then conquered Palestine two weeks later, setting in motion the formal Jewish march to statehood.
World War I was the first time in human history that an entire generation of young men was willingly lined up, wrapped in uniforms and marched off to be slaughtered. It introduced the world to wondrous new technologies of mass death, from machine guns and tanks to poison gas. It took at least 15 million lives, the fifth-deadliest mass killing in history. (No. 1 was the Second World War; 2, 3 and 4 were Chinese dynastic conflicts.) Counting epidemics and revolutions that were its direct results, the full toll of World War I was perhaps 65 million, nearly 4% of the world’s population.
It brought universal suffrage to Britain and America, along with Prohibition, anti-Semitic immigration quotas, the first Red Scare and the birth of the American Civil Liberties Union. It ushered in the age of dictators in Europe, spawning communism in Russia and fascism in Italy and Germany. It set in motion the events — the seething German resentment, the widespread social ferment and political instability, the war-weariness of the British and French elites — that led within two decades to World War II, the deadliest, most devastating conflict in all human history.
Looking back from the distance of a century, the reasons for that first world war seem incomprehensible. We moderns like to think that war should be fought, if at all, only when basic values are at stake — defending democracy, resisting tyranny, protecting small nations. World War I took place in our own 20th century, yet it was about none of those things. The first total war of the modern age was nothing more than a grudge match among decrepit, incestuously intermarried royal houses, idly playing poker with millions of young lives for chips.