The Great War's Legacy, a Century On | Print Version
by Adam Allouba*
Le Québécois Libre, June 15, 2014, No 323

June 1914 was not uneventful: In aeronautics, it marked the first flight away from land. In economics, the United States and Ethiopia signed a treaty of commerce. And in politics, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was felled by an assassin in Sarajevo. It may not have been immediately obvious which of these events would cast the longest historical shadow, but we now know that when Gavrilo Princip emptied his firearm into Archduke Ferdinand, he set in motion a series of events that led to modern history’s greatest catastrophe: World War I.

It may sound odd to describe the First World War in those terms—especially given the far greater destruction unleashed by World War II—but the list of tragedies whose lineage traces directly back to the summer of 1914 is lengthy and grim. The conflict engulfed Europe in a four-year bloodbath unseen since medieval times, the kind of mass violence that was considered a relic of the past after the century of relative peace that followed the Napoleonic wars. And for students of liberty, the Great War is the greatest lesson that individual rights are never more at risk than in wartime; that, as Randolph Bourne wrote in 1918, “War is the health of the state.”

To start with the obvious, the war’s immediate victims were the over 10 million soldiers murdered. They were killed by everything from bullets to bombs to shelling and even poison gas—a weapon so gruesome that it has been taboo ever since. Each of them was a real, living person with his own wants and aspirations. Among them might have been the man who cured cancer or an entertainer who could have brought smiles to the faces of millions. Countless more would have simply lived quiet, uneventful lives, each going about his business and pursuing happiness in his own way. World War I robbed these men of the most basic prerequisite to the enjoyment of freedom: their lives.

But the immediate effects of the war went beyond mere killing. Entrenched regimes groaned under the strain, and some buckled. The Russian Empire, whose borders had once stretched from Germany to the Yukon, collapsed in 1917. In October, a group of revolutionaries “found power lying in the streets and simply picked it up.” The group was the Bolsheviks and the quote belongs to the founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin. The USSR spent most of the twentieth century impoverishing, brutalizing, enslaving, subjugating and murdering people while spreading its anti-human ideology across the globe. The tsarist regime that it replaced was no friend of liberty, but without the war—and the German decision to return Lenin to Russia in the hopes of destabilizing an enemy state—it is unlikely that whatever regime eventually replaced it would have been as monstrous as that of Lenin and Stalin.

Russia was not the only belligerent to collapse: the centuries-old Ottoman Empire was another casualty, with the modern state of Turkey emerging from the imperial ashes. The new regime was born in blood, as the four-year Turkish War of Independence lasted almost as long as the conflict that begat it—a war that cost tens of thousands more lives. But it is the actions of the Ottoman state in its death throes that merit special attention. Beginning in 1915, the Ottoman army subjected the Armenians to forced labour, starvation, death marches and other inhuman measures that killed over one million people. This slaughter was the direct inspiration for the term “genocide.” To this day, the Turkish government denies that any such atrocity took place, taking the position that these events were just part of the general deadly upheaval resulting from the conflict. In other words, in wartime this sort of thing is just par for the course. What greater indictment of war could there be?

The most notorious regime that could trace its roots to Sarajevo did not emerge immediately after the war, but only after the collapse of the fragile government that took power in Berlin once peace finally came to Europe. The Third Reich may not been founded until 1933, but the Nazis were deeply indebted to the Kaiser’s decision to plunge his country into war, and especially to the framers of the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended it. The Germans repaid the heavy reparations imposed by the victors by printing as much money as was needed to settle the debts. The resulting hyperinflation destroyed the national economy, pushing more voters toward the extremes of left and right. The French occupation of the Ruhr valley, triggered by Berlin’s refusal to deliver the goods it was obliged to provide as reparations-in-kind, only exacerbated the problem. And, finally, the stab-in-the-back legend—the idea that Germany had been robbed of victory in 1918 by cowards, traitors, communists and, of course, Jews—was a major contributor to Nazi popularity and a key element of their mythology. So powerful was the idea’s symbolism that when the German army defeated its French counterpart in 1940, Adolf Hitler ordered the removal from its museum of the railway carriage in which Germany had signed the armistice that ended World War I and had it placed in the very spot where it had stood on November 11, 1918 so that the French could sign their own capitulation within it. There is good reason to believe that, but for the Great War, the world would have been spared Nazi Germany, the global conflict that Hitler triggered, and the Holocaust.

Despite all of that, World War I’s deadliest legacy was not military or even economic—it was a cataclysmic influenza epidemic that could not have spread as far or as fast as it did had it not been for the conflict. It is unclear where the Spanish Flu began, although one theory traces it back to a French army camp as early as 1915. In any case, the worst of it broke out in the fall of 1918—just as the war was ending and demobilized soldiers started returning home. Eventually the illness spread across the globe, infecting perhaps half a billion people or more and killing an estimated 50 million. Some have even suggested that these casualties should be added to the war’s official body count on the grounds that the pandemic was possible only thanks to the overcrowded conditions in the trenches, the toll of chemical weapons in particular on soldiers’ immune systems and the malnutrition among civilians resulting from poor food supplies. What has been described as the “greatest medical holocaust in history” and ranked with the Black Death in the annals of deadly plagues may well never have occurred if the summer of 1914 had been less eventful.

Not all of the war’s legacy is so glaringly harsh. Some of it lingers to this day and has become so deeply-entrenched that we forget that things were ever different. International travelers today are always careful to remember their passports, but it was not always so. Rail travel broke down international barriers in the nineteenth century, and by 1914 one could travel freely in Europe without documents of any kind. But war brings with it increased paranoia about national security and demands for more closed borders. The result was “temporary” passport measures that remain in place a century later. In the same vein, income tax was introduced in Canada in 1917, also as a “temporary” measure whose trial period seems not yet to have expired.

A world without passports or income tax may be difficult to imagine, but it is a profoundly seductive one. Without border controls, people would be free to live and work where they pleased without regard for imaginary lines on a map and the need to beg the state’s permission simply to exist within a given territory. Human smuggling and migrant deaths would simply not exist. As for income tax, the Government of Canada raises half of its revenues from income taxes—over $120 billion taken from our pockets annually. After World War I, national treasuries came to depend increasingly on taxation of income rather than of trade. But now that they were free to eliminate tariffs as a source of revenue, governments chose to do so not by lowering the rates to 0% but, often, by raising them so high that nothing would get imported at all. The most notorious example was Washington’s adoption of the crippling Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930 that helped turn the economic slump of 1929 into the Great Depression. All of these terrible policies might have been avoided, or at least attenuated, had it not been for the start of war in 1914.

As is usually the case with such things, there is a silver lining to be found in the war. Women were called upon to replace men in their jobs on the home front and saw their rights expand accordingly, including by finally winning the vote. The war’s ruinous effects on European imperial powers helped set the stage for the later decolonization movement. And necessity being the mother of invention, the war drove technological innovation—not all of it in the art of killing. But this is the thinnest of gruel, given how brutal and utterly and totally unnecessary the war was. The war was supposed to be just one more Balkan conflict, with the troops home by Christmas. No one in 1914 imagined that the conflict would instead last four years, claim tens of millions of lives and carve an unprecedentedly wide trail of destruction. A century later, the Great War’s shadow haunts us still, and there remains more work to be done before its damaging legacy can be properly unwound.

* Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B.A. and an M.A. in political science from McGill.