We’re going to need a great of luck to avoid a nuclear catastrophe – and this can be traced back to the First World War and the death of Frederick III in 1888

British soldiers line up in a narrow trench during World War One

British soldiers line up in a trench during World War One Photo: Hulton/Getty Images
As we look forward to the First World War commemorations, three stark conclusions are hard to refute. First, that in the course of this century we will need a great deal of luck to avoid a nuclear catastrophe. Second, that the Enlightenment has failed. Third, that
this can all be traced back to the Great War.

As a result of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, it seemed that mankind might make a decisive break with the scarcity and oppression that had characterised previous eras. There was, admittedly, one early warning. The French Revolution proved that a radical reconstruction of society on abstract principles was likely to end in tyranny and bloodshed. But after 1815, the 19th century developed into one of the most successful epochs in history. Living standards, life expectancy, productivity, medicine, the rule of law, constitutional government, versions of democracy – there was dramatic progress on all fronts, and in the spread of civilisation across the globe.

Then one of the scourges of modern life struck and killed. In 1888, Frederick III became Emperor of Germany. Queen Victoria’s son-in-law, he was a thoughtful man who had an easy relationship with his English relatives. By temperament he was a constitutionalist, a liberal and no enthusiast for militarism. As he had served in the field with distinction, Frederick could have mobilised the prestige to justify his pacific inclinations.

It was not to be. Already in the grip of cancer when he ascended the throne, he lived for only 99 days. There is an irony. Frederick, not a blood relation, would have had much in common with Prince Albert. The new Emperor, William, Albert’s grandson, was more like some of the worst Hanoverian princes. Envious and insecure, he was a strutting little ponce of an emperor: Kaiser Sarkozy.

It is by no means certain that 1914 could have been avoided. There was a great deal of tinder around, and most of the policymakers had a wholly insufficient understanding of the horrors of modern war. But a German emperor of immense authority, who would have been seeking a 20th-century version of the post-1815 settlement, who might even have invented the concept of collective security – it could have worked

If so, Adolf Hitler’s name might now be gathering dust in a police file: “Failed artist and casually employed house painter, who sometimes tries to rabble-rouse the bierkeller dregs in the poorer quarters. Once spent the night in the cells for causing a disturbance outside a Jewish household…” An early British socialist, Robert Tressell, wrote a novel about house painters, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Without the Great War, Hitler would have been a mere unchronicled ragged-trousered misanthropist.

If only; 1914-1945 was the worst period in European history since the Dark Ages. In 1914, there was talk of “the war to end all wars” – possibly the most fatuous geopolitical mistake of all time. It makes “the new world order” sound like common sense. By the end of the First World War, they were rolling the pitch for the Second. Enlightenment, the Whig theory of history, any other theory based on inevitable and steady improvement: they had all formed a Pals’ battalion and died in the trenches.

The deaths continued

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