What caused the terrible world war that began 100 years ago this month? The answer is complicated. Economic trends and social oozes certainly had a big role. Man-centered pride rather than God-centered humility ran rampant among both leaders and followers, with some church hierarchs looking to “progress” rather than Christ for salvation. But many of us were struck in the late 1990s by the irresponsibility of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich in putting their personal urges ahead of the national interest, and a parallel problem emerged a century ago.
Yes, early versions of Monica Lewinsky occupied the minds of many leaders during the summer of 1914. I’m of course not saying that their adultery caused the war, but it’s depressing to see the obsessions of minds that should have been dwelling on ways to avoid the worst kind of military hell, a conflict between two evenly matched opponents.
Austria-Hungary was the first to declare war: Its chief of staff, Conrad von Hotzendorf, instead of realistically appraising the situation, was obsessed with Gina von Reininghaus and wrote her more than 3,000 letters between 1907 and 1915. Typical letter: Hotzendorf hoped for a “war from which I could return crowned with success that would allow me to break through all the barriers between us.” Consistent message: Only thinking of her could rouse him from despair.
Hotzendorf stuck many of those letters, unmailed, into an album labeled “Diary of My Sufferings.” Christopher Clark, author of “The Sleepwalkers,” concludes, “It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this relationship; it was at the center of Conrad’s life…eclipsing all other concerns, including the military and political questions that came to his desk.” Conrad, who fantasized about returning from a “Balkan war” draped in triumph, got the war he wanted—and within five months got 150,000 of his soldiers killed, with no positive military results.
French and English leaders also were distracted. Max Hastings in “Catastrophe 1914” notes that French Prime Minister Rene Viviani, on a state visit to Russia during crucial days in July, “had his mind fixed more on domestic issues than on foreign affairs,” and was particularly “anxious about his mistress, an actress at the Comédie Française.” British foreign secretary Edward Grey, remembered largely for one eloquent statement—“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”—left his desk often for not only fishing but trysting.