The First World War, George Kennan wrote decades after it ended, was the ur‑catastrophe of the 20th century. The first conflict among industrialized global powers killed 10 million soldiers and mutilated over 21 million more.
Both the war and the peace that followed have marked our world in indelible ways. Especially Europe. The deaths of more than 110,000 Americans in uniform, half to the Spanish flu, were equivalent to just one-quarter of the death toll in the French army alone during the first four months of the war. Europe suffered a bloodbath such as the world had never seen. Two million German soldiers died, along with about 1 million British troops, counting those from the colonies and dominions. Proportionately higher losses were suffered in Russia, Serbia, and Ottoman Turkey, where a war of 20th-century firepower was fought under 19th-century sanitary conditions.
The contrast between American and European perceptions of the world order in the 20th and 21st centuries is incomprehensible without considering the catastrophe of 1914–18. Ever since, Europe has felt an underlying pessimism, a sense of danger and disorder that the United States hasn’t shared. Americans have continued to believe that progress is built into history. Most Europeans, other than Marxists, dropped this notion once the Great War began. [Read more]
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