The early years of the 20th Century were seemingly a time of international peace and prosperity. There was a widespread belief that nations had become so closely entangled and interdependent via trade and technology that another major conflict was highly unlikely. This feeling was captured in a popular book published in 1910, The Great Illusion, which argued that war between industrial countries couldn’t possibly make any economic sense for participants. Even as tensions later escalated, many kept faith in the balance of power in Europe, maintained by two equally-opposed military alliances.
Few could have predicted that the largest and bloodiest global war to date would be set in motion by an event so localised as the assassination of an Archduke in the Balkans. And when war did start, many predicted it would be a speedy and mobile affair, and that cavalry would play an important role in victory. Kaiser Wilhelm II is reported to have told troops departing for the front in 1914 that they would “be home before the leaves fall from the trees”. Tragically, these predictions did not appreciate the importance of recent defensive innovations, the result being four years of mostly static trench warfare, at tremendous human cost.
The mistake could be as relevant as ever to our situation today. On the surface of it, the possibility of another major war between European powers seems incredibly remote. Thanks to globalisation, advances in technology, the European Union and many other factors, European nations are more closely aligned and interconnected than they have ever been. But in recent years tensions have started to bubble beneath the harmonious surface. Ongoing troubles with the Euro, the possibility of Brexit, a resurgence of nationalism, and Russian and EU expansionism – all these factors have the potential to sow discord and turn European nations against each other. Instability in the Middle East is only piling on further pressure: the migrant crisis, coupled with an increased risk of terrorist atrocities – tragically exemplified by the recent cowardly attacks in Paris – has placed a serious question mark over the future of Schengen and the concept of a borderless Europe. All said and done, Europe is looking more fractured and fragile than it has for some years – how might the situation develop over the next few years?
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