It was originally called the Great War—great meaning “notably large in size”—but after a second war that was even greater in size, it has come to be known as World War I.
The immediate cause of WWI was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, on June 28, 1914, by a Serb nationalist in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia.
Exactly one month later, on July 28, Austria declared war on Serbia. Within a week, Germany, Austria’s ally, had declared war on both Russia and France.
On August 4, Britain declared war on Germany. Later that month, Japan, who had been an ally of Britain since 1902, declared war on Germany. Then in October 1914 Turkey and the Ottoman Empire entered the war.
In May of the next year, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungry. Nearly two years later, in April 1917, the U.S. declared war on Germany.
The Great War, truly, involved all of the most powerful nations of the world at that time.
When the armistice ending the war was finally signed on November 11, 1918, some 10 million soldiers had been killed, and millions more were permanently injured. In addition, around 7 million civilians had also died, and, as one analyst put it, “the physically broken and psychologically scarred were beyond counting.”
The formal peace accord, the Treaty of Versailles, was signed by Germany in June 1919. But the terms of that treaty were punitive; creating resentments that fostered the rise of Nazism a few years later.
Rather than being “the war to end all wars,” as many in the U.S. hoped and expected, WWI proved to be the first act in a global tragedy that was to resume 20 years later with even greater consequences.
In an outstanding new book, “The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade” (2014), Baylor University professor Philip Jenkins points out that Christians found it easy to use “fundamental tenets of the faith as warrants to justify war and mass destruction.”
Criticism of the war from religious leaders was scant. Traditional peace churches such as the Quakers and Mennonites did speak out, and Pope Benedict XV publicly lamented “the suicide of civilized Europe.” What stands out about such voices, however, is how rare they were.
In some ways, WWI seems to show the failure of European Christianity.
In 1914, most Brits were Anglicans, most Frenchmen were Catholic as were most of the people of Austria-Hungry, most Germans were Lutherans, most Russians and most Serbs were members of the Orthodox Church. Rather than pledging allegiance to Jesus Christ, however, most people were primarily loyal to their national monarch.
It was only the U.S., it seems, that fought “over there” in the Great War for altruistic reasons, as well as, admittedly, to protect its economic interests. Although the intended goal was not fully reached, U.S. involvement was fueled by the desire to make the world safe for democracy.
Nevertheless, WWI was one of the greatest tragedies in human history, leaving important lessons for political and religious leaders to heed today.
The World War I Museum
Earlier this month when my son Ken, who is a high school history teacher in Maryland, was visiting us in Missouri, we went through The National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City. Some of you have done the same at one time or another. If you haven’t, I highly recommend you do so when you are in the area. It is not much fun seeing the detailed displays of the war that began in July 1914, but it is an excellent, very educational museum.