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World: The War That Changed Everything

Washington, 12 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The first World War was a defining conflict of the 20th Century.

It swept away empires that were built and sustained over hundreds of years -- the empires of Germany, Russia, Turkey, and Austria. It weakened the British Empire and wounded the French Republic because waging total war imposed tremendous financial burdens and human losses on them, even in victory. And it gave rise to the United States, a latecomer to the war, as a formidable economic and military power.

The Great War, in fact, helped create the modern world with all its horrors yet to come -- slaughter on a terrifying scale, communism, fascism, the Soviet gulag and the Nazi death camps. It also brought scientific breakthroughs and cultural achievements, modernism in the arts, new approaches to psychology and fashion, women's equality and mass communication.

British military historian John Keegan has written an excellent book, "The First World War", recreating the bloody engagements whose names have become synonymous with the war -- Verdun, the Somme and Gallipoli. It is eminently readable.

Keegan writes that World War I was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Tragic because it shook the foundation of a peaceful and prosperous Europe, unleashing a huge conflict and ultimately revolutions and upheavals. And unnecessary because, as Keegan argues, the chain of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any time during the first five weeks of the crisis if the leaders had possessed greater courage and foresight.

The war, Keegan writes, ended the lives of 10 million people and destroyed an optimistic European civilization. After the guns fell silent four years later in 1918, the fighting left a bitter legacy and hatred so intense that World War II cannot be understood without reference to the first one.

Indeed, Keegan notes, in September 1922, former front fighter and struggling politician Adolf Hitler threw down a challenge to Germany that he would later deliver by declaring: "It cannot be that two million Germans should have fallen in vain. No, we do not pardon, we demand vengeance."

Keegan concludes his book by writing: "The first World War is a mystery. Its origins are mysterious. So is its course. Why did a prosperous continent, at the height of its success as a source agent of global wealth and power and at one of the peaks of its intellectual and cultural achievement, choose to risk all it had won for itself and all it offered to the world in the lottery of a vicious and local internecine conflict?"

He tries to answer by noting that principle was at stake -- the war was triggered by the assassination in the Balkans of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Also at stake, Keegan writes, were defense of national territory, economic interests, and upholding the principle of mutual security agreements.

And the other mystery, Keegan says, is how millions of people were able to find the strength and resolution to sustain the fighting and to believe in its purpose.

But perhaps the biggest mystery, the author writes, is that comradeship flourished in the trenches through bonds, mutual dependency and self-sacrifice -- perhaps stronger than any of the friendship made in normal times. "If we could understand its loves, as well as its hates," Keagan concludes, "we would be nearer understanding the mystery of human life."