there was only one world war in the twentieth century
trigger warning – violence
of course, anyone saying that the first or second world wars or the cold war didn’t exist would be nothing short of delusional. this is more an argument that these three constituted simply one conflict for simple reasons that continued for nearly an entire century. dividing these conflicts as three separate things was not originally done for the purpose of simplicity. people experiencing them generally believed they were discrete, minimally-related events. through the benefit of hindsight, however, it is clear that no such division is a sensible perspective on warfare in the twentieth century.
first, let’s look at why the first world war happened. it was not because an insignificant member of the habsburg dynasty was assassinated by a member of a small serbian terrorist organization. that was certainly one of many excuses that was used but certainly not the cause – not even one of the causes, realistically, as it was a truly meaningless event to all but his immediate family, even at the time. many people have argued that it was the alliance system that truly caused the war to begin but this, again, is a weak statement. yes, the alliance system made it far easier for war to go from a simple encounter between two countries to something that spanned an entire continent or the whole world. in that way, yes, the alliances at the beginning of the twentieth century certainly contributed to the sheer size of the conflict. they did not, however, truly make war more likely. the war would have occurred without either of these things, whether it happened at that time or a few years later. it was unavoidable without a far larger change in both government and society.
the simple reason there was a war is twofold – everyone thought they could win and they wanted to fight. europe at the beginning of the twentieth century was much as it had been for the previous century. the nineteenth century was an endless conflict between rival empires, each believing itself to be better and more powerful than its rivals. the major players were england, germany, france and russia. there were certainly others but, by the end of the century, much of the world’s land outside europe had been divided between those powers. looking at a map of europe, however, it is very clear that these countries were far too close to each other for comfort. it was a situation of four loud, aggressive people in a very small room progressively getting more and more angry, each looking for a reason to fight the others regardless of how much they’d get hurt in the process.
there were several other considerations, of course. tsarist russia, a western empire with delusions of divine grandeur, had just been summarily thrashed by the far more modern military of japan. this wasn’t like being beaten in the constant wars of the nineteenth century and before, a conflict with theoretical equals. this was seen as embarrassing, a non-western nation quickly and decisively beating the military of a western one called into question the idea that western (white) people were dominant and they should remain that way and this was intensely frightening to all of europe, especially the newly-defeated russians. they were eager to demonstrate their military power against what they saw as a defeatable but worthy enemy, the germans or the austrians, their two near-neighbor imperial powers. they were happy to take any excuse.
germany and france had been fighting over territory (not restricted to the border area of alsace-lorraine but that was the most hotly-contested region, full of both french and german speakers and historically neither truly french nor cohesively german) since before the foundation of germany in the second half of the nineteenth century. bismarck had used racial and cultural fear of the french to unify german states into a single nation (with the exception of austria) and the animosity between these historic rivals was ready to break out into war at any moment. no provocation was necessary, only an excuse to blame the other for starting the war. neither wanted to be seen as the aggressor by its population but any excuse would be fine if it could be blamed on the other.
with the largest and most powerful empire, england had exactly the reaction to the rest of the world that would be expected in a strong bully. any challenge to its authority, however tiny or insignificant, was enough to respond to with brutality and aggression. it had something to prove and that had to be proved continuously to avoid other empires taking its territory in places like india and east-asia. they had already (and relatively recently) lost first the united states then canada to either revolutionary or independence movements with much the same results. much as russia felt regarding japanese defeat, english military superiority as epitomized by the conquest over the spanish armada, a naval joke if ever there was one, had been shattered by the american revolutionary army, seen by european aristocrats as wild criminals and bandits rather than the organized army it truly was. with a chip on its shoulder the size of north america, england more than anyone in europe had something to prove and was simply waiting for an excuse to prove it. combine this with potentially the most culturally violent and oppressive population in the modern world and the result is inevitable. it was just a question of finding a worthy enemy – the combined forces of the german and austro-hungarian empires were a challenge too good to pass up, much like being called out by the strongest, biggest person in a bar fight.
and that’s exactly what it was. the first world war was a bar-room brawl between relatively modern militaries that killed millions both in uniform and as civilian casualties in numbers no western conflict had ever even come near. the cause was, simply put, a desperate desire for war combined with a vaguely acceptable excuse that would play well in the public sphere.
this was compounded by the fact that military forces had dramatically modernized in the first few years of the twentieth century but all the military leadership was trained decades earlier both in strategy and equipment. each thought they could quickly and decisively beat the others in a war of total domination because they had so much technological advantage. the problem was that they were fighting using nineteenth-century tactics and assumptions with twentieth-century weapons against fairly evenly-matched opponents who had the same views and opinions of the battles that were to come. it was the national equivalent of a roomful of people all thinking they were so much better at fighting they could easily defeat everyone else there then, having declared their intention to fight, discovering that each other person in the room was surrounded by armed bodyguards. the problem in the case of nations, however, is that the sensible response to such a situation, to walk away to fight another day against another enemy, didn’t seem to occur to anyone and the fighting was a foregone conclusion before the first shots were fired. each thought they were too smart to lose so everyone ended up losing, whether in name or simply in result.
of course, they had no intention of stopping there. with the end of the conflict in theory in 1919, world leaders got together to punish rather than rebuild and created a situation where the losers (germany in particular) were so heavily burdened and oppressed that they had absolutely no choice but to fight back against that treatment. a large portion of their land taken away and massive payments coupled to the humiliation of having their military restricted by countries the local population thought were both racially and culturally inferior (namely france) meant it was just a matter of time before the decade and a half of ceasefire erupted and the war continued. with the restrictions western imperial powers put on japanese imperial expansion, realistically restricting it to asia and only the part of asia that was not already european-controlled, the result was also a foregone conclusion in a world where only imperial powers were respected and allowed to trade as equals. this was nothing short of a national poking a rattlesnake with a stick to give yourself an excuse to kill it. with the russian revolution realistically taking russia out of the warfare game and replacing it with a far larger and stronger soviet union eager to prove itself the world’s dominant military power, no longer subservient to japanese victory or german aggression, the game of searching for excuses was alive and well even after years of active fighting. as with almost all military conflicts in the modern age, sharply different from those of previous eras, the people deciding to fight were rarely those dying. it was mostly young people who were killed and old ones who gave the orders on both sides. generals might have gone into battle with their troops but politicians certainly didn’t and the relative safety of the battlefield headquarters of the general officers compared to the frontline trenches of the enlisted provided a distinct contrast in life expectancy and desire for risk avoidance.
this situation coupled with an endemic antisemitism that spanned most of the western world, a desire for revenge, enough time having passed that all countries thought they had once again gained a decisive military advantage, the construction of vast defensive formations (all of which were practically useless when the time came to fight but that’s a whole other topic) meant the temporary cessation of active fighting was just a matter of time rather than a lasting peace that could have been preserved. if people hadn’t wanted to fight, it could have been avoided. but the general mood in europe was one of aggression and confidence in a quick victory, not to mention a complete justification of each nation’s reason for fighting. for germany it was because it had been punished and didn’t deserve it. for russia (or, more practically speaking, the soviet union) it was to spread its new more equal system of government. for france it was to defend its new territory and once and for all eliminate the threat of german occupation from its eastern border. and for england the excuse was to save europe but really this was a self-serving goal. a unified europe was a threat to british dominance in the imperial arena but a divided europe would always mean each individual nation was second to english power.
so what began with vague provocations on all sides (especially the building of new german military power and invasion of weak countries like czechoslovakia and poland) was just a resumption of the same hostilities that had been briefly suspended in 1919 with a few minor changes to the alliance system and a new player added to the mix, japan. of course, japan had been of significant importance in the first conflict beginning so that’s not nearly as large an addition as it appears, especially with the expansion of modern military forces to travel far larger distances, bringing east-asia and north america within range of a european conflict.
after nearly another decade of fighting, of course, it might be expected that people would have been tired of active warfare but, really, they were only tired of being the ones doing the dying, not of fighting and killing others. from the moment the conflict labeled the second world war was officially ended with the unconditional surrender of germany and the use of japan as a testing ground for american weapons to frighten the soviet union and, while they were at it, killing many members of a race white america thought of as expendable, the war simply moved to other locations but generally continued with the same players.
american forces shifted from europe to fight proxy wars in china, korea, vietnam and afghanistan (to name only the most significant) against soviet opponents. the americans being the newly-dominant member of the group that was once led by england and france, it counted on them for token support but had no real interest in the newly-decimated western european countries from a military perspective. the allied forces became an american show and it went on to fight on stages across the eastern world, once all the western battlefields had been sufficiently filled with corpses. with the rise of soviet power, the enemy wasn’t totalitarian germany but a similar russian empire with a new name. it didn’t much matter who the enemy was, of course. both sides (the eastern and western blocs would be a good way to think of them at this point) simply needed an enemy to prove their dominance, which was fictitious at best, as results showed after decades of stalemates.
while americans and russians certainly continued to die on battlefields outside their territories, the hatred of jews and asians that was so prevalent in the first and second world wars was still alive and well as chinese, korean, vietnamese and afghan citizens were slaughtered in their millions in the name either of “democracy” or “world socialism”, practically just more modern excuses to keep fighting.
with the end of what is usually seen as the “cold war” with the fall of the soviet union, the battles that began at the beginning of the twentieth century largely ended. whether the iraq conflict was one last attempt to continue the fighting or a somewhat distinct entity starting a new type of independent-national conflict is a matter of academic interest but not nearly as significant as the ongoing war that ravaged the century. the idea of a “twentieth-century war”, however, is an interesting one. whether it’s labeled as several conflicts with intermeshed parameters or a single ongoing war is largely just a matter of perspective but i hope that this has inspired at least some level of questioning the nature of how history is viewed from a simplified and popular perspective. in this ongoing war there were many bad sides full of evil and hatred but there was no shining white knight, fighting for good and freedom.