Why We Remember WWI

We cannot understand the 20th century without understanding the impact of the First World War, argues Margaret MacMillan.

By: /
29 July, 2014
By: Margaret MacMillan
Historian and Professor at the University of Oxford

We often prefer not to think about war, to see it as an aberration and interruption of the normal, and peaceful, state of affairs. Like it or not though, war is deeply woven into human history. A century ago the Great War broke out in Europe and in the course of the next four years drew in over twenty nations from around the world including, of course, our own country. The impact and consequences of that gigantic struggle were huge and we cannot understand the 20th century without taking that into account.

As Canadians commemorate what is now called the First World War, we should reflect that many others, from India to Serbia, are remembering it too. The war was a significant event in the history of many nations and it lies across modern history like a great shadow. Things really were different after the guns fell silent. The war, which few had expected would last for over four years, destroyed lives: 9 million soldiers died and many more were wounded, women lost husbands or those they might have married, and children grew up fatherless.

The rich and prosperous continent of Europe, which had dominated the world before 1914, wasted the lives of its peoples and poured out its resources in the war. It has never recovered its former strength and position. Moreover without the strains imposed by the war, old regimes might not have collapsed as totally. Russia was already changing fast but the war finished off Tsarism and made possible the Communists’ seizure of power, with long term consequences both for the Russians themselves and the world. Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman empires fell to pieces and in their place new and often shaky states appeared. Too often the new countries were based on a single ethnicity which marginalized minorities, whether Shia in Iraq or Germans in Czechoslovakia. Worse still the war brutalized European society and helped to pave the way for the rise of extremist movements of both the right and the left. Worst of all, perhaps, was that it did not bring a lasting peace but rather created the conditions which helped to lead to the Second World War in 1939.

For other countries though the war hastened more welcome changes that were already occurring. The United States moved closer to being a super power. In the great European empires, independence movements grew stronger and readier to challenge their rulers. Canada, like Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa, already had a measure of self-government. The war and the realization that Canada had played a major role in contributing soldiers, goods, raw materials and money, speeded this country’s growing maturity. At the start of the conflict our prime minister, Sir Robert Borden, deferred to British leadership; by its third year he was banging on the table and demanding a change in the management of the war. At the subsequent peace conference in Paris, Canada insisted on being present as a full member and on signing the treaties and joining the League of Nations in its own right.


In the 21st century we have yet another reason for looking back at the First World War. Our world, in several key ways, resembles that of 1914. We are seeing shifts in the international order with some powers rising and others declining. The United States may be in the position the British Empire was then—as a hegemonic power which has dominated the world and much of its trade feeling challenges from new and often brash powers, Germany, Russia and the United States in the case of Britain, China, India or Brazil for the United States. We too have seen a series of crises which have weakened the international order. We too assume that peace is the normal state of affairs but we are conscious that there are small conflicts around the world which risk drawing in the larger powers.   Now as then the world has its trouble spots where local tensions or rivalries have the potential to drag in larger powers. A hundred years ago the Balkans were dangerous; today it is Syria, Ukraine or the South China sea. Nevertheless Europe had weathered a series of crises just as we have. Why in 1914 did it go over the edge into an all out war? It was a mystery at the time and has been ever since. And that is worrying. If we don’t understand how the First World War happened, we might also find ourselves in a war without meaning to, perhaps even by accident.

In 1914 many people assumed that the spread of trade and investment had linked nations so closely together that they would not rationally chose war: the costs for everyone would be too high. We too live in an age of globalization which is drawing the world together in a number of ways: economically of course but also through rapid and efficient communications and mass movements of peoples. We tend to assume that this can only have beneficial effects, that the closer we become, the greater the harmony and understanding. Yet that other great period of globalisation in modern times should give us second thoughts. Before the First World War the reaction to globalization helped to heighten nationalism and spurred and imperial rivalries. So we should be careful of complacency.

Great disasters can also bring recognition that changes must come and that was certainly true in 1919. The American president, Woodrow Wilson, articulated for many war-weary Europeans their hopes of a better, fairer and more peaceful world. In his scheme for a League of Nations to provide collective security, a new diplomacy and self-determination of peoples, he drew on ideas which had been well-discussed in Europe for decades. We tend to judge the League too harshly because in the end it did not prevent another global war but we should remember what it did achieve whether in settling disputes between nations, promoting disarmament or furthering human well-being through its organizations such the International Labour Organization. Perhaps more importantly still, the League introduced the idea that it was possible to develop and manage an international order and that the world was not condemned to a state of anarchy in which nations jostled for advantage over each other. That idea and that hope never went away. Even during the Second World War Allied statesmen were drawing up plans for a successor to the League and for new international economic institutions. This time, under the wise leadership of President Franklin Roosevelt, the United States became the key player in building the new order and itself joined the new institutions such the United Nations and the World Bank. We are still trying to build a strong international order and keep as many states as possible within international society and that endeavour must not end.

This piece was originally published by the Office of the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. It is the second in a two part series to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Read the first part by Robert Bothwell here. The Bill Graham Centre and the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, with support from the Canadian Armed Forces, will also hold a conference “1914-1918: The Making of the Modern World” on July 30 and a concert “1914-1918: In Memoriam” on July 31 to commemorate the centennial.

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