Dr. Arne Kislenko, Professor in the Department of History, Ryerson University
Staring out his office window at dusk on August 3, 1914, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey said to a friend, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” In just a few weeks that summer, Europe’s greatest powers were drawn into a war that shattered a century of relative peace. By September, fifteen million soldiers mobilized. By 1918, over seventy million joined in from around the world. Nearly ten million died, along with seven million civilians. Another fifty million were victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic, spread by war.
While no one could have anticipated the changes the Great War brought, Grey’s quote is often seen as prophetic. Of the six empires that marched to war in 1914, four collapsed. The survivors—Britain and France—faced economic and political chaos at the end with challenges in their colonies, enormous debts, and staggering losses. New powers emerged with the United States and Japan, and in Russia a communist revolution brought radical ideology to the forefront of the international order.
Considering such massive changes, it is easy to think that war was inevitable, but most historians caution otherwise. They debate many factors and events that caused the conflict, but argue that none was unstoppable. Often violent nationalisms threatened stability. An arms race, evolved from unprecedented scientific and technological advances, fed militarism and a desire for war. Economic rivalry and competition for colonies fuelled tensions. Entangling alliances pitted empires against one another. Internal pressures came with labour unrest, class conflict, and revolutionary movements. The incompetency and callousness of leaders exacerbated matters. Widespread fear, ignorance, prejudice, and pride added to the toxic mix and brought the world to the precipice. But a lack of determination to maintain peace pushed it over the edge.