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The Lost Lessons of World War I

A combination of willful blindness, utter complacency, and intense stubbornness on the part of Europe’s leaders subjected their countries to two devastating wars in the twentieth century. With nationalism and populism once again flourishing across the West, the risk of another large-scale conflagration is rising fast.

PARIS – It has been 100 years since World War I ended, and the centenary was commemorated this month with great pomp in Australia, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. Germany sent high-level authorities to France to mark the occasion, reaffirming the reconciliation between the two countries. But the fact that Franco-German reconciliation did not occur until Europe had suffered another devastating war demonstrates how fragile peace can be, especially when political leaders are as shortsighted as they often are.

The Cambridge historian Christopher Clark aptly titled his 2012 book on the origins of WWI The Sleepwalkers. Through a combination of willful blindness, utter complacency, and intense stubbornness, Europe’s leaders subjected their countries to a conflict that shattered an entire generation.

By the time WWI erupted, it should have been clear that industrialization and the transportation revolution had transformed warfare. The Crimean War of 1853-1856 had over one million casualties; the American Civil War of 1861-1865 resulted in over 600,000 deaths.

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