Scholar and author George Weigel proposed that World War I was caused and prolonged not only by political struggles and complex intra-continental alliances, but by materialism, Social Darwinism, and a rejection of Christianity.
The cultural conditions underlying the Great War, he maintains, still hold lessons for us today.
World War I began and continued “in no small part, because 'Men had forgotten God',” Weigel said, quoting Russian author Aleksandr Solzenitsyn.
The European world during the war, he continued, was one “in which it was widely believed that Europeans, masters of the world’s lead civilization, could create the world and the future without the God of the Bible.”
But what they actually proved, he said, “was that they could only build a world against each other, which was a world with no future.”
Weigel delivered the annual William E. Simon Lecture – hosted by the Ethics and Public Policy Center – Feb. 6 in Washington, D.C.
He address focused on the pivotal place that World War I holds in studying the 20th century.
Known for decades as the “Great War,” he said, World War I is significant not only for its unprecedented global scope and loss of life, but also because it set “in motion virtually all the dynamics that were responsible for shaping world history and culture between August 1914 and August 1991.”
The war, which saw the fighting of more than 65 million soldiers, evoked both “great acts of valor” and brutality such as poison gas use that “raised profound ethical questions about war, about nationalism, and about moral judgment in political and military affairs,” Weigel said.
Interpretations of the war have ranged from a “virtually incomprehensible act of civilizational suicide” to “a necessary piece of nasty work that had to be fought to prevent a militaristic Germany from dominating Europe politically and economically,” he observed.
While the question of why the war began has been debated in thousands of books, the scholar said, “it is time to consider a different question, rarely explored but no less urgent: 'Why did the Great War continue?'”
At the beginning of the war, “there is more than enough blame to be shared,” he explained, pointing to the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian radical Gavrilo Princip as the event that triggered the war, through a series of alliances and miscalculations throughout the continent.
Intense Serbian nationalism, Austrian diplomatic failures, an already volatile relationship between Germany and Russia, alliances between France and Russia and political instability in Great Britain contributed to Europe's absorption into global war, he added.
However, the war's continuation, Weigel said, was a product not as much of a military stalemate but of an ideological standoff: while it was quickly visible that “quick victory was impossible” and a war of attrition was inevitable, ideologies guiding Europe also led the countries to continue the conflict and the bloodshed.
One of the most influential forces was Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which “it seems, affected politics as well as science and religion,” he suggested, explaining that “xenophobia and national-racial theories” borne out of Social Darwinism, imbued the conflict with the weight of a greater war for racial triumph.
Misconceptions of the scientific theory melded with Friedrich Nietzsche's “irrationalism, his proclamation of the death of God, his notion of regeneration through destruction, and, perhaps above all, his celebration of the will-to-power,” the scholar continued.
The resulting combination was a “lethal” perspective that interpreted casualties from the advanced military technologies of World War I as “evidence of a willingness to endure greater suffering and loss,” and therefore a greater will to survive and triumph, he said.
Xenophobia and historical fatalism were added into the mix, “eating away at the notions of honor that had had long tempered European politics and warmaking,” and reinventing the idea of honor to excuse greater cruelty.
This erosion of restraint was influenced greatly by the rejection of “traditional religious authority” that respected not only the “structures of authority in the various churches” but mores built on the “Christian concept of the human condition and the moral life,” Weigel explained.
Ideas of positivism based in what science can empirically teach, subjectivity of human experience, and materialism that rejects spirituality then mixed with Nietzsche’s 'will-to-power', he said, chipping away at “any biblically or theologically informed understanding of public life and political responsibility.”
At the same time, a growing emphasis on national pride, even within Churches, replaced a centuries-old cultural understanding of the human person, and a common human origin and destiny, which had bound political authority to higher authority.
“Thus,” he continued, “the disenchanted world led to inhumanity on an unprecedented scale in the Great War – and then gave birth to even worse horrors in communism and German national socialism.”
The modern world has much to learn from World War I, Weigel cautioned. By studying the Great War, we can see the consequences resulting from the erosion of cultural Christianity.
When a God-centered world view is replaced by nationalism, Social Darwinism and the 'will to power', a distorted sense of honor evolves, “in which the national other (is) thoroughly dehumanized.”
The ideas underlying World War I played a “major role in creating the moral and cultural conditions for the possibility of the Great War,” Weigel emphasized, and the study of those ideas offers “lessons to be pondered in this centenary year, and beyond.”