For many of our students, II War World sounds much more familiar than the Great War. There are lots of differences between both conflicts that explain this fact. First of all, the Second war was a clear fight between good and evil, a clash of ideologies incapable to coexist peacefully (and even Spanish civil war may be understood as a prelude in this conflict). Nazism represents for most of people the incarnation of evil, of human hatred and cruelty (although this is not the whole scene of the picture, since Communism wasn’t better).
Secondly, it seems that the Second was more definitive than the First. At the outbreak of the war, all politians and militar staff thought that this should be the definitive war that would solve all the problems between the European nations, but the fact was that most of the conflicts that prompted the outbreak of the Great War remained mainly unsolved after the conflict. Moreover, historians understand the second war as a continuation of the former. In opposition to this, a new age starts after 1945, in which Europe is going to lose his preminence in geopolitics forever, and becomes merely a stage in the confrontation of the new two supreme world powers, USA and URSS.
Finally the inner history of the Second War seems more attractive to study. The blitzkrieg was more brilliant than trench warfare. Strategist like Rommel, Montgomery or Patton are much known than the Great War dark generals, stuck in a old fashioned way of warfare and unable to understand the impact of technology in the frontline. Undecisive bloody battles were fought for five years in the Great War, meanwhile the II WW campaigns were dynamic and seemed that any of them could change the tide of war and the winner side. From 1915, soldiers in the frontline stopped to understand what they were fighting for and despair and nonsense started to spread out. Existentialism had its origins in the trench warfare and pacifists started to rise their voices in opposition to war, like Russell in the UK. Only Americans could think that they were fighting for freedom when they joined war in 1917 for different reasons than Europeans did in 1914. In the Second, from the first day till the last bullet was shot, people were fighting for ideas or they were made to believe that.
But these assessments could lead us to a serious mistake: to consider that current and future wars are more similar to the IIWW and not like the Great War. American society tends to judge any war in terms of good and evil; fairness and mischief. It worked in the beginning of the Cold War, but it was soon revealed that it wasn’t a mere conflict of ideologies but of interests and power. Nowadays, holy wars against terrorism are always tainted by economical and geopolitical interests (oil and Israel mainly). The main reasons in our present conflicts are just greed from one or both sides, and the faint moral advantage that one side can offer from the other, is its own weakness (as it happens in the Palestinian conflict, for instance). Tucydides was right, almost 2500 years ago, when he assured that the origin of most wars relies on too much power in one side, and fear of that growing power on the other. Athens was too ambitious, and Sparta too scared, so after all diplomacy failed, war started.
These circumstances were present in the first worldwide conflict,
as it’s perfectly showed in the works of Margaret MacMillan in The war that ended peace. The Great War was a scary addiction of greedy selfish interest, suspicion from all sides, plus enormous miscalculations, and these conditions make the conflict more interesting to learn, especially in the previous period to the war, where complex reasons created an unbreathable atmosphere that ended in a shared war declaration. It’s extremely hard to find good reasons that enable to legitimate one of the fighting sides from the other. Some could say that the Triple Entente was fighting for democracy, but it wasn’t since Russia was on this side. For British and French, political and economical purposes easily banned any kind of moral biases against the Russian autocracy. This changed a little bit, since Russia left war after the bolquevis¡h revolution and America entered in the conflict due to the German terrorist attacks against neutral ocean liners like Lusitania, but for then, all moral superioriy had disappeared in both sides.
But what made IWW an exception from all the previous conflicts were the terrible miscalculations from all the political and military elites. There were two main mistakes: a diplomatic one and other based in the proper warfare. Politics in the previous years of war was becoming more and more intrigating and destructive. Elites of different powers were playing a complex chess game, where little countries were considered as pawns, and often changed alliances in order to fulfil their national interests. In addition to this, political game was only played inside the government offices and Royal palaces of Europe with little regards for transparency and public information. This led to four crisis at least in ten years, that could end in a war outbreak, mainly centered in the Balkans and Morocco. It was just a question of time that military conflict should emerge, and all the countries were getting prepared for this unpleasant context.
The second miscalculation came from the impact of technology and industrial society in the manners of warfare. All the countries thought that war would last only for a few months, consisting in a brief and powerful military campaign where the enemy should be overunned or vanquished. Nobody expected that trench warfare came out, and technology created an impasse that would last four bloody years. And of course, nobody could imagine that fighting for trifles, they would lose everything in the end of the conflict.
All these sound familiar for the present. Conflicts are getting more difficult to discern in moral terms (the “good side” promptly disappears), increasingly being a fact of power, and mistakes are in the order of the day. Just taking the example of the Ukraine crisis, the destruction of the civil aircraft in the hands of one of the sides in war was an unexpected fact in the conflict, with unknown consequences for the conflict. And unfortunately, these unpredictable consequences are paid with civilian and innocent blood.