Paul  Kengor

On June 28, 1914, a Bosnian-Serb student named Gavrilo Princip killed Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the duchess. It was the shot-heard-round-the-world, unleashing a series of events that by August 1914 embroiled Europe in war. That deadly summer unfolded 100 years ago, and the world truly was never the same.

Civilization was soon engaged in a horrific conflict marred by mechanized warfare previously unimaginable: tanks, subs, battleships, air power, machine guns with names like “the Devil’s paint brush,” and legions of poison gas—the largest-scale use of chemical weapons in history. Winding through all the agony were rotten, death-strewn trenches, an incomprehensible maze of thousands of miles of freezing, disease-ridden, and rat-infested tunnels where men subsisted below the earth. They rose from this hell only to be fed into a worse one—no man’s land, a dénouement with the human meat-grinder.

It was World War I, the “Great War.”

Ever since, professors have struggled to explain to students how the major powers became engulfed by this nightmare. I start my lectures on WWI with an hour on its causes. These ranged from colonial and tariff disputes to a complicated network of alliances that inexorably committed various countries to battle, beginning with Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Germany, and Russia.

Still, as I cover these causes with my students, they are confused, frustrated, unsatisfied. Where was the Pearl Harbor? Where were the concentration camps? Where was the Hitler-Stalin Pact? Who was the brutal dictator?

There was none. No such blatant evils precipitated this war.

It was a disastrously wasteful affair that Pope Benedict XV publicly declared an unjust war, a mad form of collective European suicide. The pontiff rightly judged that there were no salient moral issues dividing the combatants. These countries should not have been at war, let alone slaughtering their boys by the millions.