Earlier this year—in 2017, I stopped by to see a friend. It was over Memorial Day weekend and her little granddaughter joined us. At school, she said, they talked about heroes, like her dad, who fought in wars. She was proud of him. When I told her I was proud of my grandpa, who had fought in a war, she asked, “And why did that war happen?”
I didn’t have an answer. I struggled with simple explanations like disagreements or wanting to be in control. I didn’t bring up the story I’d been taught, which never made much sense, about an archduke from a faraway place called Sarajevo.
Months later, in October, I visited the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. The exhibits are divided between the origins of the war in Europe and the later entrance of American forces. It’s a great presentation, illuminating and thought-provoking, well worth a visit.
The introductory panel to the European section, reproduced below with the museum’s permission, brought me back to the little girl’s question. It also shook me into a realization that some of the tensions that took my grandfather into war remain unresolved today: globalization, wage inequality, nationalism, and the threat of an arms race.
In 1914, Europe was at the height of its power. A century of relative peace had brought great prosperity. Europeans had created a modern industrial society, pioneering the use of coal, oil, and hydroelectricity. Their empires controlled half of the world’s surface and resources. But beneath the economic and political success lay deep tensions. In industrialized countries, workers demanded a greater share of the wealth. In the Balkans, oppressed national groups clamored for self-determination. Europe’s leaders worried about competition from other nations over global trade, markets, raw materials, and colonial possessions. National rivalries led to the formation of military alliances. An unbridled arms race produced fleets of large battleships called Dreadnoughts. Despite the tensions, peace still prevailed. But Europe prepared for war.
Reproduced with permission from the National WWI Museum and Memorial Kansas City, Missouri, USA.