NEW YORK – Karl Marx famously wrote that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Yet when we look around nowadays, we can’t help but wonder whether tragedy will be followed by yet more tragedy. Here we are, at the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, and we find ourselves surrounded by cascading violence, duplicity, and cynicism of the very sort that brought the world to disaster in 1914. And the world regions involved then are involved again.
WWI began with a mindset, one based on the belief that military means could resolve pressing social and political issues in Central Europe. A century earlier, the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz had written that war is “a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.” Enough politicians in 1914 agreed.
Yet WWI proved Clausewitz tragically wrong for modern times. War in the industrial age is tragedy, disaster, and devastation; it solves no political problems. War is a continuation not of politics, but of political failure.
WWI ended four imperial regimes: the Prussian (Hohenzollern) dynasty, the Russian (Romanov) dynasty, the Turkish (Ottoman) dynasty, and the Austro-Hungarian (Habsburg) dynasty. The war not only caused millions of deaths; it also left a legacy of revolution, state bankruptcy, protectionism, and financial collapse that set the stage for Hitler’s rise, World War II, and the Cold War.