As the world reflects on the 100th anniversary of World War I this July, we wonder: will there ever be an end to war? Your Bible gives an encouraging answer!
At the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, what can the “war to end all wars” teach us about mankind and human nature? A look at the past can teach us much about our future.
It was the summer of 1914, and the weather across Europe was unusually pleasant. Though storm clouds of political and social developments had been building toward a crisis for some time, the average man-in-the-street could scarcely have imagined the heartbreaking tragedy that was about to consume the entire continent. War on a truly industrial scale, slaying millions, was about to be unleashed!
The conflict on the horizon—so devastating that for a time it would be called the “war to end all wars”—would lay the foundation for a troubled century of bloodshed. European civilization would be brought to its knees; totalitarianism—the political continuation of war by other means—would be unleashed; empires and the monarchical form of government would be abandoned.
New nations would arise, realizing the long-held aspirations of their people; the map of much of the world would be dramatically redrawn. The center of gravity of world power would decisively shift from the “old” world to the “new.” Belief in God would precipitously decline in the face of man’s ungodly, brutal and inhuman treatment of fellow man.
Wars may well have been part of human history from its inception, but war in the twentieth century took on an entirely different complexion, which for the first time threatened the extinction of mankind. Peace may be man’s heartfelt desire, but peace just seems to elude us, even as our capacity to kill each other expands exponentially.
Why should this be? As the world marks the centenary of the start of World War I, it is fitting to meditate on humanity’s extraordinary and seemingly innate capacity to slaughter one another. What lessons can we learn about the reasons for war, and the human nature that lies behind it? Is there a hidden cause of war to which we are blinded? Is it possible to look forward to a time when there will be no more war? Thankfully, we can be assured of a peaceful future—though from a source few in our modern day expect.
What was European life like in 1914? Business and commerce were prospering in a plentiful era of globalization. Populations were expanding rapidly, fuelling the emigration of millions to the Americas and Australasia. Labor conditions were improving, stimulated by a vigorous socialist movement active across many nations. Commercial interdependence and internationalism had given rise to the popular notion that large-scale warfare was now a thing of the past.
Life for many was abundant, civilized, cultured and extraordinarily optimistic. Unprecedentedscientific and technological advancement promised a rosy future.
Yet the entire continent was also marked by “naked nationalism” and an accelerating arms race. The three great European empires, Germany, Austria and Russia, were beset by internal dissatisfaction, with marginalized groups making demands for greater democracy. Along with Britain and France, all the European powers had reason to feel their position was in some way threatened.
Europe’s continental powers were fixated on the timeless quest for security in military superiority. There were millions of trained soldiers ready to fight for their countries, with enough firepower to annihilate each other at unprecedented speed. As a complicating factor, rapid communications were still in their infancy, making it difficult for national leaders to act knowledgeably and decisively should a crisis develop.
It was General Sherman of the United States who, in an earlier conflict, had famously said: “War is hell!” As Europe entered into the summer of 1914, the world was about to find out how hellish it could be. These powerful nations “proceeded, as if in a dead march and a dialogue of the deaf, to the destruction of their continent and their civilization” (The First World War, Keegan, p. 23).
All it took to ignite the conflagration was one vital spark. It came when Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew to the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, during a visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia on June 28, 1914.
At first, nothing seemed to change. European life continued normally. Behind the scenes, Austria was seeking an alliance with Bulgaria and Turkey to settle their “Serb problem” once and for all. Yet Austria dared not act alone. Had it done so, a local conflict might have gone relatively unnoticed.
Instead, Austria—backed by Germany—dispatched a provocative note to the Serbs demanding a response by July 25. Serbia, however, emboldened by Russian support, rejected important conditions of the note, and after two days mobilized its small army.
The die was cast. Events quickly spiraled out of control. Between July 28 (when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia) and August 12 (when Britain and France declared war on Austria), all the major European nations declared war on each other.
Like a series of enormously destructive triggers being pulled, Russia began mobilizing its forces against Germany and Austria; then Germany against Russia; France against Germany; Germany against France. Britain declared war against Germany, and neutral Belgium was forced to side with the Allies.
Virtually all of Europe was now at war! But it did not stop there. Some 36 countries were eventually involved in hostilities, mobilizing more than 70 million military personnel. These included the British dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India, with Japan, Italy, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Greece, Portugal and eventually the U.S. all joining the Allied cause. The Central Powers were joined by the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.
All these hostilities were happening more or less at once, in many different theatres of conflict. In Europe, the Western Front saw Germany pitted against France and Britain. On the Eastern Front, Russia faced Germany and Austria, eventually battling each other from trenches along a 900-mile front. On the southern Balkan Front, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Turks fought against Russia, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Greece and Italy. On the Italian Front, the Italians engaged Austria-Hungary.
On the high seas, Britain successfully blockaded German ports and neutralized the German navy. In the Middle East, Britain and France fought along with the Arabs to protect Egypt and the vital Suez Canal, eventually liberating Jerusalem and Palestine.
The Allies also fought the Ottoman Empire in Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf, and—despite a famous defeat on the Gallipoli peninsula at the Dardanelles—finally emerged victorious.
This was war on a truly epic scale, never seen before! This was the entire world at war!
Though it was a war that enmeshed the whole world, the Western Front remained the most gruesome arena of carnage. Events there moved very rapidly. Each army possessed its own carefully prepared war plans, which were quickly translated into action. The task of rapidly moving millions of troops with all their equipment, food and other support by rail—including 2.5 million horses—was formidable.
At first the German offensive proceeded according to an ambitious timetable hoping to crush the French in 40 days. Once this was accomplished, they thought, German forces could concentrate on the Eastern Front to annihilate the approaching Russian Army.
What in fact happened? The French, joined by British troops, conducted an orderly retreat southward towards Paris. Their plan was to mount a massive counterattack that would repulse the Germans and turn the tide of the war.
Instead of a whirlwind victory for either side, there was stalemate. German troops were forced back to form a complex of defensive trenches across a 600-mile front. The Allied forces confronted them with their own trenches, and thus began the intractable and bloody trench warfare that ebbed and flowed over the next four years with neither side gaining a decisive advantage.
The losses on both sides were almost beyond comprehension; Germany lost 2 million dead, France 2 million and Britain around 1 million. The trenches became renowned for almost unimaginable mud and filth, barbed wire, machine guns and poisonous gas. And, shockingly, about 50 percent of those who died were never recovered from the battlefield!
Hoping to cut supply lines from America to Europe, Germany resorted to indiscriminate submarine warfare. As a result, an angered U.S. entered the war in early 1917, soon afterward flooding France with men and materiel at a rate of 10,000 troops per day.
As the war progressed, so did the technology of war, especially for the Allies. Tanks were developed, and the use of aircraft and most other forms of military hardware advanced, giving decisive advantages over the enemy.
Eventually the German-led forces, war-weary and demoralized in the face of a now-superior foe, were forced into an ignominious armistice on November 11, 1918—“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”
By the time it was all over, nearly 10 million soldiers had been killed, more than 20 million had been wounded and nearly 8 million were missing. The war caused endless sorrow and lasting heartache for millions more. In the value of today’s currency, the total cost of the war exceeded $1 trillion.
The war was an unparalleled tragedy in which the entire continent of Europe ensnared much of the world into a suicidal maelstrom of bloodletting. The world reacted, and continues to react, with utter horror at what man can do to fellow man.
In August 1914, famous British author H.G. Wells looked forward to Britain’s participation in what he called “the war that will end war.” Even afterward, looking back on the horror of it all, many turned to pacifism and internationalism with new fervor, calling the events of 1914–18 “the war that will end all wars.”
Of course, in hindsight, we know that another world war ravaged Europe barely 20 years after the end of the first. That war saw more than 50 million directly killed in war, with countless millions more dying as a consequence of the violence.
Today, we look at the history of the last hundred years, and we come to a sobering conclusion. So far, every time mankind has invented a technology that can be used for warfare, it has ultimately been used for warfare. The mustard gas of World War I and the atom bomb of World War II have given way to “suitcase nukes,” chemical and biological weapons and sophisticated airborne drones.
Amid all the retrospective discussions that will take place this anniversary year, one dimension is likely to be neglected—the spiritual dimension. One cannot understand war without appreciating this dimension, whichis provided by God’s inspired word—the Bible.
Scripture offers us the most basic, yet profound insights: “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:1–3).
To many war-weary cynics, this may sound deceptively simple and even obvious. Wars and conflicts arise from human desires—the things we want badly enough to fight for. Ramp up what is true of individuals, and it is even more true of nations and states that are, after all, led by individuals.
Consider that in 1914, Germany was ambitious and hungry for expansion and dominance; it wanted the supreme place for itself on the world stage. France wanted security in the face of Germany’s burgeoning military might, and desired the return of Alsace and Lorraine, which Germany had annexed in the Franco-Russian War of 1870.
The Russians—defeated and humiliated in the Russo-Japanese War of 1902—wanted to recover their industrial and military might, to catch up with and defend against the growing German menace on their borders. The Austro-Hungarian Empire wanted to permanently resolve its problems with a violent and nationalistic Serbia, which wanted a Greater Serbia free of Austro-Hungarian control.
And so the stage for war was set, in just the manner Scripture described, by a clash of fundamental and conflicting human and national desires.
Yet there were further influences being exerted on a spiritual level. The Bible reveals that this world is now controlled by a spirit being known as Satan, or the devil (2 Corinthians 4:4). He is a fallen archangel who long ago rebelled against God (the first war about which mankind has any information), and drew one-third of the angels into his rebellion (Revelation 12:4). The Bible calls these rebellious angels “demons.”
Satan is the great adversary, the arch-accuser (from the Greek diabolos) and deceiver of humanity (v. 9). He is the great destroyer. The Bible calls him a murderer, and the father of lies (John 8:44). He is the malignant enemy of God and of mankind.
Until Satan and his demons are removed from the scene, this world will never see lasting peace and serenity. Why? Because the Bible warns that Satan’s evil spirit permeates this world. He is “the prince of the power of the air” whose spirit “now works in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). The outcome of his nature will always tend towards the confusion, chaos, violence and war that, above all, is Satan’s signature activity. For human beings to live at peace, we must repudiate Satan’s violent nature—not just collectively as nations, but as individual human beings with free moral agency.
Even now, the Bible tells us, Satan is very angry because he knows his time is running out (Revelation 12:12). When Jesus Christ returns to establish the Kingdom of God over the entire earth, Satan will be removed and neutralized (Revelation 20:1–3). Satan knows this—and it makes him very angry, indeed!
So, will there be a World War III? Sadly, Scripture warns us of a greater cataclysm yet to come.A terribly traumatic time of intense war, destruction and loss of life is prophesied to occur soon, immediately before the return of Jesus Christ. It will be so much more devastating than any war that has preceded it that Jesus Christ will need to intervene to save all life on planet Earth from total annihilation (Matthew 24:21–22).
Yes, there is good news beyond the bad. Christ will return to save mankind from itself, and from the evil machinations of Satan. Coming as the newly reigning King of the Kingdom of God on this earth, He will completely crush Satan’s attempt to prevent that kingdom from being established (Romans 16:20).
This will usher in a prophesied thousand-year “Millennium” of peace. Today, only a relative few are being called to the Truth, and are living the Way that God intends for all mankind. During the Millennium, every human being alive will be able to live God’s way, without the corrupting influence of Satan.
Yet even this will not quite be the end of war, nor of Satan’s place in it. Revelation records that Satan and his demons will be released once more, near the end of a thousand years of peace. Will mankind by then have learned all the lessons of war? Amazingly, rebellious human beings will once more be swayed by Satan and will cause the world to erupt one final time into violence and war (Revelation 20:7–10). This will be Satan’s final assault, after which he will be cast into a lake of fire, unable ever again to gain a hold on mankind.
Then will come a time known as the Great White Throne Judgment, during which all those who died without an opportunity for salvation will finally have that opportunity offered to them. At this point, war will truly become a thing of the past for mankind, as the Plan of God will then move into its next phase, when the Headquarters of God’s throne over the universe will come to planet Earth for the first time (Revelation 21:1–4).
So, yes, mankind will finally see an end to war. But there will be great turmoil between now and that wonderful day. You, however, can individually have peace in your life. If God is calling you now, turn to Him and resolve to live His way. If you would like to talk personally with someone about how to do all of this, call or write to the Regional Office nearest you, listed on page 4 of this magazine. Our representatives will be eager to help you find the peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7).