Permit me to take you back, briefly, to the summer of 1914—a beautiful summer. A great calm lay over most of the world. Everybody in Europe was on vacation. The house parties on Literature and Education were never nicer. On the continent the spas were filled with the rich and the fashionable. ... Millions of the middle class swarmed through the art galleries and up the green valleys of Switzerland.”
“And then … a shot was fired at Sarajevo. War. It was incredible. It was a bad dream. It was a sudden insanity which would pass. But it didn’t. In that beautiful summer of 1914 something ended forever—something very great and wonderful!” wrote Henry Luce, the co-founder of Time and Life.
In fact, there were two shots fired by a pale Serbian youth, killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and the Archduchess Sophie. The shots seemed to have ricocheted a trillion times, their destructive potency growing to volcanic proportions by the hour, smashing cities and irreparably hitting civilised human relationships. At last, after four years, three months and nine days of havoc the curse lost its vitality and “at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918 it was declared dead.
Sarajevo was the capital of Bosnia which, along with Herzegovina, had been annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was against the interests of Serbia. That explains the assassination. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. As Russia sided with Serbia, Germany, an ally of Austria, declared war on Russia. Next it declared war on France and invaded Belgium.
A provoked Britain declared war against Germany. Soon the rival camps stood well identified: Britain, France, Russia, Japan and Serbia, later joined by Italy, Portugal and Romania constituted the Allied Powers. The determination of the idealist president of the United States Woodrow Wilson to maintain neutrality while Europe was burning ended when, early in January 1917, it was disclosed that Germany was conspiring with Mexico for a surprise attack on the US. He joined the Allies, followed by Greece. Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ottoman Turkey and Bulgaria constituted the other camp, the Central Powers.
Out of 65 million people engaged in the war, 10 million were killed, apart from six million civilians. Around 20 million were wounded and at the time of armistice eight million were in prison. The disgust of the intelligentsia found vent in a letter by Bertrand Russell in the Nation: “And all this madness looked at, all this rage, all this flaming death of our civilisation and our hopes, has been brought about because a set of official gentlemen, living luxurious lives, mostly stupid, and all without imagination or heart, have chosen that it should occur rather than that any one of them should suffer some infinitesimal rebuff to his country’s pride.”
But that was too simplistic. Sri Aurobindo wrote during the war in his monthly review Arya: “National egoism remaining, the means of strife remaining, its causes, opportunities, excuses will never be wanting. The present war came because all the leading nations had long been so acting as to make it inevitable; it came because there was a Balkan imbroglio and a Near-Eastern hope and commercial and colonial rivalry in Northern Africa over which the dominant nations had been battling in peace long before one or more of them grasped at the rifle and the shell. Sarajevo and Belgium were mere determining circumstances…”
There had been innumerable wars in history, their effects limited to regions. Even though the World War I did not cover the globe, its direct and indirect effect, political, economic and cultural, was global. But Nature’s subtle law of social progress, generally slow and dull, took some dramatic strides too. Sceptres and crowns tumbled down.
Formidable dynasties—Romanov (imperial house of Russia), Habsburg (royal house then ruling over Austria and Hungary), Hohenzollern (German ruling dynasty) and Ottoman (Turkish dynasty) ended. The rapid collapse of the Tsarist rule and the surge of Communist revolution went together and the latter’s success proved to be the biggest single factor in the politics of the 20th century. The most beneficent contribution of the great war was of course the formation of the League of Nations.
For many it had been the war to end all wars, partly because, they believed, the terrible spectre of doom it presented as fighting in the sky would keep the rivals in check, but positively because a grand innovation like the League of Nations held out promises of alternative to war.
Not even three decades had passed when the extremely vicious World War II broke out. Once again fixing causes like Germany’s frustration at the Treaty of Versailles perverting itself into Nazism can be only symptomatic diagnosis.
The Constitution of the UNESCO states the reality very politely: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defence of peace must be constructed.” But let us dare question ourselves: Where are men with independent minds in the 21st century? Aren’t we reduced to clumps of mobs? And the ghastly irony is, a mob has no mind. If little mobs can lynch innocent passers-by, a giant mob can demand open-air hanging of a woman for an imaginary fault.
Several countries are under theocratic or army-dominated or dictatorial one-party rule. Elsewhere democracy is tending to turn into mobocracy. A time has come when this must be the prime concern of all still conscious of their individual minds—common men and our leaders in different fields. A wise man is supposed to have said that he did not know how men would fight in a third world war, but if there were a fourth, they will find only burnt bricks for weapons.
But there could never be a fourth one, for the mushrooming nuclear vampire grasping the already ailing atmosphere would cause a complete extinction of life, sparing probably only the cockroaches.