When thinking about history, there’s always the question, “what if x never happened?” The trouble is, when you untangle the threads of history, you find that some threads go back hundreds of years.
So let’s start with an easy one: What if the second world war had never happened? The trouble is that the second world war was a direct consequence of the first one. Hitler’s rise was precipitated by a collapse in the German economy and in confidence in the German state. The German state had collapsed after the Second Reich had given way to the Weimar Republic, and that collapse was due in part to the sanctions of the Treaty of Versailles and in part due to the Great Depression. That in turn was caused by the rampant growth that followed the First World War in the 1920s war boom, that led to the catastrophic collapse when that growth couldn’t be sustained.
The Great Depression more or less started in America, so to understand the Second World War, you have to understand the impact of the American involvement in the First World War.
Aside from a few US citizens who joined the French and British in the early days of the war (many of them joining Canadian regiments that were the hardest hit at Ypres and The Somme), the US did not have an active role in the war until 1917. By that time, the Allied Powers had been fighting the Austro-Hungarians and their allies for three long, bloody years. It had been a war of attrition, with very little gained.
Where I would have been- on the Ypres Salient- would have been an apocalyptic tug of war where armies would declare a victory in battle over a gain of a few hundred yards of No Man’s Land. That is more or less how the war continued on the Western Front until the arrival of the American forces, which had bigger arsenals of automatic weapons including the Thompson Sub-Machine gun, dubbed the “trench broom” because it was used by troops to sweep the trenches clean during raids. The British had no such weapons; the Vickers was a fixed post machine gun, set up at a defensive post. Most of the troops who went over the top had nothing more than a Lee-Enfield and maybe a semi-auto pistol (such as the American Colt 1911) if they were lucky.
Such a mismatch in firepower meant that if the American forces hadn’t been involved, there would have been only one of two outcomes:
1. The US would have agreed to supply weapons to the British and French while not committing ground troops and- with heavy losses- the German lines would have been punched through, leading to an allied victory.
2. The US would have stayed out completely, and by 1918 the Western Front would have become a great scar on the landscape that would mark out the future boundary of a unified German/Austro-Hungarian state.
It’s highly doubtful that the US would have stayed out. By this time, the US was already making a bid to become an imperial power, with a growing number of colonies in the Pacific and the Caribbean, and several decades of influence peddling in South and Central America. The US more or less finished what the British started, by beating Spain back to a total retreat in the 1890s with the Spanish American War.
Being a budding imperial power, the US would have been looking out for its interests, and it’s doubtful that anyone in Washington would have thought a massive land grab by Austro-Hungary and its allies was nothing to worry about. In fact, the US military was generally wary of any state that had imperial ambitions, and as late as the 1930s there were plans (dubbed “War Plan Red”) to invade Canada in a pre-emptive action against the British empire. The outbreak of the Second World War helped alleviate tensions between the Americans and British and cement what became a very close (some would say uncomfortably close) alliance.
But what if the First World War had never happened? To prevent that, you would have had to go back almost as far as European history. The tensions- ethnic, cultural, and nationalistic- that led to this conflict had been stirring under the surface since the end of the Roman empire.
In fact, Austro-Hungary was in essence a continuation of the Roman Empire, the last incarnation of what was dubbed the “Holy Roman” empire. Among the relics of the royal family in Vienna were items dating back to the reign of Charlemagne and the Carolingian kings, who ruled in the same idiom as the early emperors such as Justinian.
It was also a product of tensions that had been building as a result of the Enlightenment. Democratic republics had sprung up in France and England over the ensuing centuries, while in the east traditional monarchies still held absolute sway. Two competing and thoroughly incompatible philosophies of government shared uncomfortable borders in Europe from the 17th century onward.
Finally, it was the product of the British Empire, a phenomenal success story by the 20th century, that had started with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in the time of Elizabeth I.
For the First World War to have not happened, it would have required nothing less than a decisive victory for either the parliamentary governments of Western Europe, or the traditional monarchies of Eastern Europe, prior to 1914.
Barring that, it would have required that the whole idea of an empire had never been introduced to Europe in the first place; ergo, it would have required the Romans to have never advanced beyond Italy.
Essentially, the First World War was an inevitable consequence of the modern world as we know it; the dominos were being set up practically from the beginning of history, with ideas that seemed good at the time and showed their true ugliness as the power struggles in Europe- begun in the vacuum of the collapsed Roman empire- reached their logical and devastating conclusion.
It could be argued that the Great War never truly ended; when traditional monarchies were defeated, new ideological contenders sprung up to replace them. In the wake of the collapsed Second Reich and the beleaguered Weimar Republic, Germany became disenchanted with their brief experiment with parliamentary democracy and became seduced by the Third Position, the fascist dictatorships that rose in much of Europe. In the East, Soviet Communism sprung up and joined the fray.
The current efforts by Islamist militants to influence culture in Europe and the Americas (also an indirect result of two world wars) can hardly be compared to the chaos of the 20th century; what happened between 1914 and 1989 was by far the worst conflict the world has ever seen, and the dust has only just begun to settle on much of the world with conflicts becoming regional and isolated once more.
I, for one, see a lot of hope for the Western World. We’ve gotten tired of fighting each other. Poles, Germans, British, and Americans, who in living memory were bitter enemies, now can gather in relative friendship. The enlightenment ideas about government by consent and consensus have survived, and have become a part of our collective psyche. We’ve learned volumes about how to diffuse threats by diplomacy, we’ve developed our defenses to where we can hold our own if we’re invaded, and we’ve begun to build the kind of world that was dreamed of in the 17th and 18th centuries. Yes, we’re a long way from achieving perfection; there are still plenty of people who want to go back to the old ways of empires and theocracy and bullets before diplomacy, but look at how far we’ve come! In only 100 years we’ve gone from heavy-handed empires to smaller, leaner nation-states that have resolved so many ethnic and cultural conflicts in so little time.
I’m thankful to have been born in time to see the 21st century come into its own. Our troubles are far from over, but I don’t think we’ve ever had it this good.