With increasing frequency lately people have been anxiously raising the question: are we in the same situation now as in the summer of 1914? Even Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany has voiced it, not of course as a question but rather as an assertion that the present situation "reminds" him of 1914.
In the current period of chronic crises and a prevailing sense that events are getting out of control and going from bad to worse, the comparison with that fatale hour is easy, even natural, but not, I think, valid -- for a number of reasons.
In the first place, events in history do not -- I would venture to say cannot -- repeat themselves; nor can they be acted out in the same pattern as before because circumstances are never the same as before. They alter as the years pass, and the longer the elapsed time, the more new factors enter the situation. When the pace of change, as in the 20th century, is rapid and the interval is 66 years or two full generations, the change can be immense.
The first and most obvious difference between now and 1914 is that in the interval we have experienced two world wars with the result that while probably not wiser, we are certainly warier, more mature in the sense of being more cautious, less innocent of possible consequences, less bellicose, more tired . . . definitely more tired.
In 1914 the world, or that part of it responsible for the outbreak of war, that is to say the dominant nations of Europe, had not engaged in major conflicts involving more than two of them on the fields of Europe for a hundred years, that is since the defeat of Napoleon. One war in mid-century, the crimean, involved three nations, Russia, France and britian, but was fought far away on the shores of the Black Sea. German expansionism under Bismarck produced several short, sharp two-nation affairs lasting barely months or weeks: Prussia against Demark, against Austria and, in 1870, against France, culminating in the creation of the German empire. Czarist expansionism pushing toward its persistent goal -- a warm water outlet to the south -- expressed itself in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, its gains being firmly contained by a gathering of nations at the Congress of Berlin.
In the same period, colonial wars were conducted in China, India and Africa, mainly by Britain, and even the United States had its "splendid little war" against Spain in the Caribbean at Manila Bay. But until the Boer War, these hardly touched the lives of the average citizen of the West. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 brought into a play a new element, an aggressive nation of the Far East, and the post-Napoleonic century closed with two exotic conflicts called the balkan wars involving several interchangeable belligerents on unpronounceable terrain with indeterminate results.
Clearly it was not a passive period, and the indirect civil effects were in some cases far-reaching (e.g. the French Commune and the Russian Revolution of 1905). Nevertheless all this military bustle through the 19th century was on the whole tangential, not central in direct personal experience, and so little was thought of it that history books when they come to 1914 are given to stating carelessly that Europe had enjoyed 100 years of peace. It was not peace, but so comparatively minimal was the disturbance of civilian life that it produced no general or profound sense of anxiety.
The two Hague Disarmament Conferences of 1889 and 1907 were impressive and ineffectual; the crises of Algeciras and Agadir were decently spaced by five years. Perceptive individual statesman may have sensed the storm coming as their diplomacy unraveled through the month after the assassination at Saragjevo, but for the people as a whole, July 1914 was bright and ordinary, and the dread Archduke just another forgettable Balkan incident.
When war was declared it was -- with certain exceptions -- not taken to seriously. The tearful word went around, "Home before the leaves fall;" French and German crowds cried respectively and ecstatically "A Berlin!" and "Nach Paris!" and sent off their departing soldiers with smiles and flowers and kisses. Political parties closed over their differences, parliaments were virtually unanimous in approval.
Does anyone suppose the public mood today with its overhanging sense of continent-spanning missiles and radioactive fallout and the whole "unthinkable" nuclear train of consequences is in any way comparable to the summer of 1914? Would anyone today wave happily and proudly to sons and brothers marching off to combat?
Granted that in the final events it is not the public or the public mood that determines whether there shall or shall not be war, but rather the fallible and nervous statesmen and generals in their "situation rooms." Nevertheless I believe these gentlemen are bound to reflect in some mysterious way, knowing or not, the mood and the fears of the country they represent. Vietnam will instantly be cited in objection, but that was a long progressive escalation, and it was in fact national disgust that finally brought it to an end. I am not suggestiving an abiding trust in the so-called wisdom of the people, but only that a prevailing unwillingness and fear in the population is not a foundation or encouragement for the adventure of war -- and I suspect this is true in totalitarian as well as democratic countries. The public state of mind is to some extent a determinant.
Weaponry is the second difference. The lethal capacity and reach of war's instruments today in contrast to that of 1914 is a change so major as to make the circumstances of the two periods incomparable. The new weaponry causes the energies and policies of the two superpowers and their allies to be directed more toward preventing than fomenting a clash, that is assuming that both equally fear it and are equally cognizant of the impossibility of winning.
That is the great question. I have no knowledge of the Soviet Politburo or of its true aims and intentions, and I expect that even the most expert Kremlinologist cannot be certain what these are. For all I know the Kremlin personnel may be as divided and uncertain as we are. They are generally credited with intentions to push slowly outward, establishing pressure points and bases of control from which to blackmail us into acquiescence in their hegemony. This sounds logical, but it is not the point of this discussion, which is whether or not we are repeating July 1914.
My third difference is the reduced grip today of fixed plans and mobilization schedules. Though I write entirely in ignorance of what these actually are, common sense tells me that, given the unpredictability, changeability and utter confusion in today's power centers -- the local eruptions, rivalries, coups, sects, dissidents, fanatics, paranoids and would-be martyrs, intertwined as they are by various ideologies and oil pipelines -- that under these circumstances fixed military plans designed to unroll at a given event or provocation are impossible. Therefore we cannot be trapped by them as the European nations were in 1914.
This does not mean we cannot stumble into war, only that we cannot do so in the manner of 1914. Arrangements were then so delicately balanced and mobilization schedules so perfected, that any move precipitated another as in a game of jackstraws: Austria's ultimatum to Serbia, followed by the mobilizations of Russia as Serbia's protector, of Germany as Russia's antagonist, of France as Russia's ally and Germany's antagonist and England's entry when Germany had according to "military necessity" violated the guaranteed neutrality of Belgium. Once the initiating move took place, the sequence could not be stopped. No such sequence could unroll in the shifting sands of today because no one is sure of friends, enemies or what may happen around the corner.
The origin of war is said to be of two kinds: either accidental or intentional, and I for one do not believe in the accidental. I think wars are willed either by both parties or by a distinct agressor. The German empire, whatever the last-minute state of the Kaiser's nerves, was at a peak of readiness and willingness in 1914 as its encouragement of Austria's ultimatum testfies. France was eager for revanche for the losses of 1870; Russia was bound by her alliances to France, England was determined to beat the German challenge.
Who wills war today? If the Russians do, we shall have it sooner or later, but given their domestic difficulities and their circle of unhappy or sullen satellites, I should imagine that infirmity of purpose, and even of will, torture the Kremlin no less than other capitals. Nineteen-eighty may have any one of several characters when history closes over it, but not I think that of 1914.