Forget 1938. Here’s another historical analogy: 1914.


Quick! Can you explain how the assassination of Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb nationalist in 1914 caused World War I?

On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip shot and killed the archduke and his wife Sophie.  Austria-Hungary was a bloated empire that in 1914 included not only what is today Austria and Hungary, but the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and parts of today’s Croatia, Serbia, Poland, Ukraine and Romania, and many of those component parts were agitating for political self-determination.  About three weeks later, Austria-Hungary sent an ultimatum of demands to Serbia to be met within 48 hours.  Needless to say, Austria-Hungary wasn’t satisfied and it declared war on Serbia five days later on July 28.


In the meanwhile, Russia mobilized its army in preparation to assist Serbia — Russia saw itself as a protector of the Serbian people, what with their cultural, linguistic and religious similarities.

That complicated matters further.  Russia’s menace toward Austria-Hungary (in defense of tiny Serbia) triggered the Triple Alliance among Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, a set of treaties advanced by Otto von Bismarck, who politically unified Germany only in 1871.  The idea behind the Triple Alliance was that if anyone picked a fight with one member, the belligerent was picking a fight with all three.  Ironically, Bismarck’s plan was to reduce the likelihood of war.

A day later, on July 31, Germany demanded that Russia end its military preparations within 12 hours, bringing the two countries even closer to blows, but also putting France on edge.  That’s because a German attack on Russia could trigger another set of alliances, the Triple Entente, a three-way alliance among Great Britain, France and Russia.  In fact, the Triple Entente was a series of three separate agreements, the Franco-Russian Alliance from the 1890s, the 1904 Entente cordiale that formalized the Franco-British peace that had existed since the end of the 1815 Napoleonic Wars, and the 1907 Anglo-Russian alliance that ended the ‘Great Game’ between Russia and Great Britain, carving up central Asia from Persia to Tibet.

Germany declared war on Russia the next day, August 1.  

Just for good measure, Germany took a minor pause in the week’s escalations to sign a secret treaty with the Ottoman empire on August 2, which by 1914 was even more bloated than the Austro-Hungarian empire.  From its base of what is today Turkey, the Ottoman empire at the time encompassed what we know today as part (or all of) Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.  The German-Ottoman alliance gave Germany an important ally that could attack Russia from the south and it gave the Ottomans crucial support for an empire in decline. 

Meanwhile, back in Europe the next day, on August 3, in light of the Franco-Russian alliance, Germany decided that it had no other option but to declare war on France.  Germany also made clear that it would invade Belgium to attack France if it became necessary (It did become necessary, though it only took the Germans about two weeks to occupy Brussels).

The next day, August 4, Great Britain, which became terribly concerned about upholding the neutrality of tiny Belgium, declared war on Germany.

If you’re still following along, in the span of a week, a local conflict over Serbia morphed into a potential war between Germany and Russia.  In the span of another 72 hours, it transformed further into a war among all of Europe’s top powers.  Ultimately, Japan, Italy and the United States would join the Allied Powers (France, Britain et al) and the Ottoman empire and Bulgaria would join the Central Powers.

The consequences of World War I should be familiar to everyone — tens of thousands dead in pursuit of two or three feet of gains, trench warfare, the advent of modern aerial warfare, the first widespread use of chemical weapons.  The war spread very quickly throughout the European colonial holdings in Africa and the Middle East, with some fighting in east Asia as well.

By the end of the war in 1919, Europe was in shambles, economically and politically.  Russia had undergone a revolution that deposed the tsar, introduced Bolshevism to the world and brought the Soviet Union into existence.  At the Paris peace conference in 1919, European leaders ultimately failed to prevent the causes of what would become World War II, and they attempted to carve up Asia, Africa and the Middle East in such short-sighted ways that those decisions burden foreign affairs to this day.  In the horse-trading of 1919, you’ll find the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian civil war, Iraq’s sectarian conflict, the Vietnam war of the 1970s and the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

In a media environment where everyone’s shouting ‘it’s just like 1938,’ you’ll excuse me if I whisper, ‘don’t forget about 1914.’

The gruesome history of the past century provides many lessons, but if you’ve been following the debate over the world’s reaction to Crimea, from chess champion Garry Kasparov to almost every almost point on the spectrum of US foreign policy, you might get the impression that the 20th century was just ten cycles of the 1930s.

The 1935 referendum of the Saarland to reunite with Nazi Germany invariably led to the 1936 march into the Rhineland, which invariably led to the 1938 Anschluss with Austria, which invariably led to the 1938 taking of the Sudetenland.

For a significant (and very loud) segment of opinon-makers on both sides of the Atlantic, everything boils down to 1938, when that wilted houseplant, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, failed to stand up to the big, bad Adolf Hitler at the Munich Peace Conference.

Chamberlain’s declaration that Munich brought ‘peace in our time’ was obviously and tragically overhasty, but he’s given chicken-hawks the excuse to cry ‘appeasement’ in every conflict in the ensuing 75 years.

Though Russian president Vladimir Putin’s naked aggression in Crimea clearly violates the norms of international law, we live in a world where the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council can basically do whatever they want, including the arguably illegal US invasion of Iraq in 2003.  If you want to stop Putin today, go back to 1945 and kick the Soviet Union out of the Security Council.  Even Hillary Clinton, the former US secretary of state and presumptive 2016 Democratic Party presidential nominee, got in on the hysteria:

“Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the ’30s,” Clinton said Tuesday, according to the Long Beach Press-Telegram. “All the Germans that were … the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they’re not being treated right. I must go and protect my people, and that’s what’s gotten everybody so nervous.”

That’s ridiculous.

Putin is not Hitler.

Crimea is not Sudetenland.

Russia today has neither the military strength nor the economic dynamism nor the political will to conquer Europe.  You can certainly place a lot of valid criticisms on Putin’s doorstep — his sketchy KGB background, the last phases of the Second Chechen War, attacks on political freedoms and harassment of political opponents, constraints on media freedom, large-scale corruption, economic mismanagement, ending democratic elections for regional governors, using the supply of natural gas to play hardball with Ukraine five years ago, invading parts of Georgia six years ago, and so forth.  But that’s not the Holocaust.

We like to think that today, in the year 2014, with a highly globalized world, intricate commercial ties linking the world, nothing like World War I could ever happen again.  But at the time, 100 years ago, Europe was a highly inter-connected continent with intricate commercial ties, too.  (And nearly two weeks after a Boeing 777 jet simply disappeared somewhere in Asia, we might not be as interconnected as we thought we were.)

European policymakers worked in a multi-polar world where shifting alliances kept an uneasy peace, with minor eruptions, throughout much of the 19th century.  For the same reason that US and Soviet nuclear stockpiles prevented the Cold War from becoming a hot war, everyone in Europe in 1914 thought that the arms buildups of the British, German, French and Russian militaries were strong incentives to prevent annihilation.

Just as 2014 isn’t 1938, it’s not necessarily 1914, either.  But it’s just as valid a comparison point, especially this year, with Europeans planning all sorts of memorial events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I’s beginnings.

A showdown over Crimea is probably not going to lead to World War III — or even to a new Cold War between Washington and Moscow.  Yet there are plenty of lessons to learn from all of those other decades in the 20th century (and a fair amount from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries too, as nation-states were forming and emerging).

For example, the provocation between Serbia and Austria-Hungary certainly wasn’t a vital national interest to any other country in Europe at the time.  It certainly didn’t involve the national interests of France, or Great Britain, or the United States, or Japan.

In the same way, it should be fairly clear that the United States in 2014 has no vital national interest in Crimea, the peninsula that voted Sunday in a suspect referendum (that we should all agree doesn’t meet any normal standard of ‘free’ and ‘fair’) to leave Ukraine and join Russia.  Nor, perhaps, does the United States have any real national interest in whether Russia gobbles up even more territory in Ukraine, or the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or even Belarus or Kazakhstan.

Though the European Union has an interest in Ukraine’s political and economic stability, its actions to date reflect that interest in its efforts to shore up Kiev’s new interim government, while otherwise avoiding a showdown over Crimea.

The entangling alliances of World War I, moreover, aren’t unlike the  28-member alliance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a mutual aid defense arrangement designed for the Cold War among almost all of western Europe, the United States, Canada and Turkey.  

NATO’s purpose was clear enough during the Cold War, but its  membership has expanded significantly the 20-plus years since the end of the Cold War.  That includes all three Baltic states (until 1991, they were members of the Soviet Union), along with eight other countries that used to be part of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact from Poland to Albania.  Georgia, another former Soviet state, would join NATO instantly if NATO offered membership tomorrow.

What happened during World War I is exactly what Article 5 of the Washington Treaty provides — an attack on one NATO member is an attack on the other 27 members:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Article 5 has been invoked just once — not during the Cold War, but in 2001, following the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States, obligating NATO to assist the US effort in Afghanistan.  The US occupation in Afghanistan continues to this day, and Canada’s troops left Afghanistan only two days ago.

A decade-long invasion of Afghanistan lies pretty far afield of  NATO’s core mission upon its creation in 1949 or even any reasonable articulation of its mission two decades ago.

That’s not a call to disband NATO, but it is a reflection that Article 5 obligations are a more efficient, broader version of the Triple Alliance, Triple Entente and other alliances from a century ago.  We believe, generally speaking, NATO contributes to a more secure world, just as Bismarck believed his system of alliances would stabilize Europe.

For example, it’s not unfathomable that Putin could send troops into eastern Ukraine or Belarus. It’s also not unfathomable that  Lithuania or Poland would overreact to that (perfectly understandable, given the historical context).  So it’s not unfathomable that NATO, and its entire 28-country membership,  might soon be dragged into real engagement with Russia. That’s one reason why US vice president Joe Biden is making such a sudden trip to Poland and Lithuania this week.

The final point about 1914 is that no one in Europe in 1913 expected the rest of the decade would be given to a brutal, bloody war — just as in 2008, no one believed that the global financial system was quite as susceptible to financial meltdown as it was.  Events can take a fierce, destructive turn very rapidly in world affairs.  In 2008, economic policymakers and central bankers deployed all kinds of tools to ameliorate the damage, based in large part on the lessons from the Great Depression.  The United States and Europe are still shaking off the economic effects, but we didn’t see a second Great Depression.

In 2014, it would be a lot more reassuring if it didn’t feel like we’ve over-learned the lessons of 1938 and neglected the lessons of 1914.

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