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WWI history still important, powerful

Date published: 8/3/2014

It was with great interest and pleasure that I read Professor Stephen Schuker's July 27 Viewpoints piece ["Germany turned a local conflict global"].

The "Great War" is generally under-appreciated, which is unfortunate because that war was the seminal catastrophe of the modern era; it broke the West's heart, its doleful echoes very much affecting us to this day.

World War I is the supreme historical exemplar of the law of unintended consequences.

For example, the present (and endless) trouble in the Levant can be traced somewhat plausibly to a 1917 letter from the United Kingdom's foreign secretary, a Mr. Balfour, to Baron Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community.

It began: "His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."

Likewise, Mr. Putin's dangerous adventures in Ukraine today harken back to the actions of another Russian hard man of action, a certain V.I. Lenin, who was secreted into Russia in 1917 by the Germans in the hope of disrupting the Russian war effort. He gave his German sponsors (and us) far more than bargained for.

One of the most fascinating (and controversial) aspects of the war relates to its beginnings, or more to the point, to who actually started the thing.

Over the years, majority opinion among historians has fluctuated between it being a tragic accident at one extreme, to the result of deliberate German provocation at the other.

For a wonderful representation of the accidental view I recommend Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August," which more than makes up for its supposed lack of historical rigor with literary brilliance.

Current thinking seems to place the blame on a combination of Hapsburg idiocy and German vainglory and ambition and is well represented in the very readable "Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War" by British historian Max Hastings.

Schuker holds very strongly to the idea of German culpability, going so far as to excuse the Austrians as dupes. I wouldn't go that far; having spent my working life in the government, I have come to greatly respect the power of idiocy.

Whatever your view, if you have a passing interest in history I strongly recommend you take another look at this terrible event, which still, after all these years, has the power to bring tears.

Dennis Carraway