In the United States, the First World War’s centennial anniversary has been marked by unusual ambivalence. The war doesn’t quite fit into a tidy narrative of American greatness, of America’s rise as the “indispensable nation” that defeated Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to rule the world now and, hopefully, forever. World War One does not easily lend itself to a morality play justifying the United States’ emergence as global hegemon, the conventional American historical narrative for the 20th century history. Nor does the war dominate American popular culture’s imagination like the Second World War. World War One poses much more of a challenge for proponents of American militarism: What Very Serious Lessons can be drawn from a conflict that began with the assassination of a ridiculous-looking central-European arch-duke named Franz? That devoured 16 million lives over a geopolitical dispute that was fuzzy even at the time? That seemed to offer no moral except that war is hell and people will blow each other to bits by the score for seemingly no reason?

The challenge of forcing the First World War into the “good war” rubric of the Second hasn’t stopped some from trying. Lacking a genocidal, mustache-twirling villain along the lines of Nazi Germany to explain what the war was “about” hasn’t hindered attempts to invent one. The recent Wonder Woman film (2017) tries to fashion one out of a demonic, megalomaniacal Erich Ludendorff in love with the smell of his own gas (OK, spoiler alert: He’s controlled by Ares and the gas is magic). Others are finding politically convenient ways to celebrate American greatness in its participation in the war. Most recently, an op-ed by Geoffrey Wawro on “How ‘Hyphenated Americans’ Won World War I,” applauds how white immigrants and their children “fought as bravely and desperately as native-born Americans,” to the dismay of the homogenous Germans. He appears to be promoting a new account of America’s (military) Greatness-Through-Diversity in his recent book, titled Sons of Freedom: The Forgotten American Soldiers Who Defeated Germany in World War I. Embarrassing details like the hundreds of thousands of black Americans who fought in segregated units with inferior equipment, and who returned to a hero’s welcome of lynchings and race riots, make no appearance in the op-ed, though it would be shocking if they aren’t discussed in the book.

Having first vanquished his enemies in the worlds of international finance and the automotive industry, Elon Musk too has famously weighed in on the war, naming the conflict as one of the “[t]hree separate occasions in the 20th-century where democracy would have fallen … if not for the US.” (The others being World War II and the Cold War.) According to Musk, these wars cemented America as “the greatest force for good of any country that’s ever been.” While on Reddit and elsewhere, commenters were quick to mock Musk’s bold foray into grand historical theorization, it turns out that Musk really isn’t that far from the mainstream of American historical consciousness.

The most emblematic example of the prevailing American narrative might be PBS’s three-part, nearly six-hour documentary miniseries titled The Great War, which first aired in April 2017, almost exactly 100 years after the United States joined the war. The Great War tells us quite explicitly how the hawkish liberal cultural establishment of West Wing watchers has come to understand the events of 1914 to 1918 on this side of the Atlantic. The series’ subtitle says it all: “A Nation Comes of Age.” The story of the First World War, in PBS’s telling, is of the United States’ reluctant emergence as “the preeminent world power” in a kind of Bildungsroman. Europe of 1914 “was a bastion of culture and enlightenment, but beset by ancient dynasties and autocratic rulers competing to control the world’s resources.” While on the one hand, Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia were ruled by exotic-sounding Kaisers, Sultans, Tsars, and so on, on the other hand, the narrator notes that “Great Britain and France, two democracies, jealously guarded far-flung colonial empires.” The assassination of the “obscure archduke” in Sarajevo, then, was “a pretext to unleash imperial rivalries.”

To be fair, that’s a pretty neat and concise way to summarize the European context for the First World War. But, as the years of war went on, the immensity of the war’s upheavals, not to mention German atrocities, unrestricted submarine warfare, and the Zimmermann Telegram, inexorably pulled a rather naively idealistic, innocent, and uninvolved United States into the conflict, which it finally joined in April 1917 on the side of imperial democracies Britain and France (oh, and Russia).

In The Great War, we learn that for President Woodrow Wilson, “[a]n idealistic Democratic crusader… the war was a crusade ‘to make the world safe for democracy,’ a chance to transform the international order in America’s image.” This is indeed what Wilson argued before Congress on April 2, 1917, demanding American entry into the First World War, then nearly three years old. Wilson claimed war would finally resolve “the menace to… peace and freedom [that] lies in the existence of autocratic governments backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their will, not by the will of their people.” Germany’s “unlawful violence,” in the form of unrestricted submarine warfare and disregard for neutrality, and the implications of the Zimmermann Telegram (the ludicrous diplomatic maneuver by which Germany promised that, in the event it went to war with the United States, it would return Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico to an impoverished Mexico embroiled in civil war) demanded American involvement. This would come in the interests of “peace and justice” and because, in those words we still hear to this day, “[t]he world must be made safe for democracy.”

Wilson echoed rhetoric that had been circulating the Entente since the war’s inception. At the war’s onset in 1914, Britain too was beset by apocalyptic, millenarian rhetoric, with figures like H.G. Wells proclaiming victory would bring about a kind of messianic age. In 1914, Wells’ The War That Will End War pushed for Britain to enter the war against Germany firstly “to protect the integrity of Belgium”, as the invasions of Belgium and Luxembourg constituted crimes of such immensity that they demanded the exercise of “our honour and our pledge” in the face of “German Imperialism.” Britain’s goals of 1914 needed to include the destruction of “an evil system of government and the mental and material corruption that has got hold of the German imagination and taken possession of German life.” Though fought “without any hatred of the German people,” this was a necessary war against the German Empire’s “evil” and “physical and moral brutality.” Wells predicted victory over Germany could lead to “disarmament and peace throughout the earth.”

The language of a war for democracy and freedom is central to the story in The Great War, though the documentary quite carefully avoids saying that this was actually what the war was about. It does delve into some other possible motivations for the United States’ involvement, such as ensuring the massive loans to the Allied Powers would actually be repaid. But all of these are overshadowed by the United States’ innocent idealism, particularly when confronted by the appalling reality of what was unfolding in Europe. Although it makes some gestures at even-handedness, The Great War lingers on the outrage generated by German atrocities in Belgium, but not quite to the point that it regurgitates the Allies’ lurid “Rape of Belgium” propaganda. Viewers are meant to feel how Americans felt at the time reading journalists like Richard Harding Davis, who compared Germany to a “mad dog” running amok in a village, perpetrating outrages against civilization itself, and making it “the duty of every farmer to get his gun and destroy it.”

Illustrations by Skutch

At times, The Great War is an insipid love letter to Woodrow Wilson. We hear all about his personal life, his profound desire for peace and freedom, his insecurities and fears, and even how his upbringing might have been what made him such a colossally racist bastard. That said, it doesn’t entirely take Wilsonian rhetoric at face value. The documentary delves into the contradictions of waging a war for democracy while disenfranchising women and black Americans (and often massacring the latter) at home. For the United States, the First World War was both unifying and dividing, and attention is paid to anti-immigrant “hysteria” and wartime restrictions, to the point that some internet reviewers felt the documentary was “too political.” But, even in drawing attention to these admitted blemishes in America’s past, the narrative still tells Americans what they want to believe about themselves, or, at least, what a powerful faction of liberal hawks wants them to believe. The segregation and humiliation of black soldiers, race riots, and nativist paranoia were obstacles that needed to be overcome so that the United States could live up to its founding ideals. We see that American democracy may be flawed, but it’s improving; that the free American people have and continue to strive to bring freedom to oppressed peoples around the world; and above all, that the United States neither is, nor was, an empire. The narrator quotes Woodrow Wilson establishing that “we have no selfish ends to serve. We seek no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind.” Writer A. Scott Berg informs us “Wilson realized the country had a new power. We were not going in for treasure, we were not going in for territory. We were not there to be an imperial nation.”

In its conclusion following the armistice of November 1918, The Great War focuses on the fate of Wilson’s brainchild: the League of Nations, and laments the political maneuvering and partisanship that conspired to prevent the United States from joining that international body. Historian Margaret MacMillan suggests that this might have been the true tragedy of World War One: “We can’t help asking what if. I mean what if the United States had joined the League? What if the United States had been in the League when Mussolini rose in Italy? What if the United States had been in the League when Hitler rose in Germany? Just what if.” This is how the ultimate lesson, never quite explicitly stated, comes out. We see that the United States is, or should be, in the words recited by Keith David’s gravelly voice in ads for the United States Navy, “a global force for good.” The remedy for the world’s ills is more selfless involvement and intervention by the United States.

The problem with all of that, though, is that it’s a load of total bullshit. Despite the proclamations by the likes of H.G. Wells and Woodrow Wilson of a war to end war, or crusade to make the world safe for democracy, the First World War was not a war for democracy, freedom, peace, or justice, even if some of the participants were motivated by these notions. If we take off the blinders of liberal imperialism, and step back and look at World War One from a world-historical perspective, it becomes staggeringly obvious that the war was fought between tyrannical, immensely undemocratic empires over the spoils of 19th century industrial capitalism and global imperialism. The First World War was an imperial war waged by empires for empire, utilizing the new organizational and technological innovations of the Second Industrial Revolution. Ignoring the immense imperial element of the conflict, and refusing to see the United States as an imperial power among others, even as its leaders saw little opportunity for territorial gain, makes the First World War an incomprehensible bloodbath.

No definition of democracy should include the United States of 1914, a country that despite its 15th Amendment, brutally disenfranchised millions of black people in the American South, and in which women, the majority of the population, could only vote in 11 out of 48 states (New York became the 12th in 1917). Nor did the United States ever seem particularly interested in peace. Even without delving into the United States’ genocidal conquest and colonization of the western portion of the North American continent, by the turn of the 20th century, America had more in common with European empires than the Wilsonian fantasy spun by The Great War would have us believe. Just like its counterparts across the Atlantic, the United States pursued an aggressive, imperial foreign policy abroad, and America had only recently been embroiled in horrendously violent colonial wars in the Pacific and the Americas. A mere 16 years before the outbreak of the “war for freedom” in Europe against Teutonic barbarism, the United States had itself waged a nakedly predatory war with Spain, snatching the country’s colonial possessions in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Higher estimates for the number of civilians dead in the Philippines, where American forces engaged in counterinsurgency warfare of astonishing viciousness, approach one million, and some claim that the United States committed genocide. Historian Glenn Anthony May has argued that the American war in the Philippines may have constituted a “total war,” that is, a war unlimited in scope, acknowledging no boundaries between civilian and military adversaries. We often forget that Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden,” emblematic of an era of imperial megalomania, was directed not at the British Empire, but at American involvement in the Philippines.

American military excursions just in the period from 1890 through the end of the First World War must have made the German Kaiser green with envy. These include the 1893 overthrow of the independent Kingdom of Hawai’i and its subsequent annexation to the United States in 1898, a state that had previously enjoyed diplomatic recognition by France, Britain, and the United States itself. Among other adventures, the United States carved Panama off from Colombia in 1903, invaded and occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, essentially ruled Cuba as a colonial dependency from 1898 until the Cuban Revolution in 1958, invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic from 1916 until 1924, and this is not to mention repeated interventions and occupations of Nicaragua, Honduras, and parts of Mexico. While not formally incorporated into an American empire per se, Central American “banana republics” were nonetheless forced into subordinate, exploitative colonial relationships with the United States. Outside its own backyard in 1900, the United States joined with its peers Britain, Japan, Russia, France, Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary in the invasion of China during the Boxer Rebellion, contributing 2,500 soldiers, with American marines even participating in the battle for Beijing. Following the war, the United States, like its imperial counterparts in Europe and Asia, was a recipient of Chinese indemnities. Far from an alien European phenomenon, the United States practiced empire with enthusiasm.

We can grant, at least, that the United States never quite exerted direct foreign rule over a population vastly larger than the one it considered to be its own citizens, mostly choosing to bully and exploit its weaker and poorer neighbors. The term “democracy” is even less applicable to the United States’ ally and partner in the First World War, the British Empire, where a tiny, elite gaggle of tea-swilling European men wielded despotic power over a global empire of nearly 500 million people, then around one quarter of all people on earth. Like Americans, proud Britons fancied their country to be a democracy, perhaps one that championed liberty in an empire of freedom, although even on the island of Great Britain itself, property restrictions to the franchise were not fully eliminated (for men) until 1918.

It’s difficult to quite properly articulate the absurdity of claiming that the British Empire of 1914 was fighting a war for peace, freedom, or democracy. In 1914, Britain was at the apex of its power. It was the wealthiest country on earth, commanded the oceans with the world’s largest and most powerful navy, and had positioned itself as the global hegemon. Britain, quite possibly the most warlike state in human history, did not become the ruler of a quarter of the world (both in terms of land and population) peacefully, nor did it do so with altruistic intentions. Even if we leave out the horrors of British rule in India, where untold millions died in famines from 1876 to 1900 (termed “late Victorian holocausts” by Mike Davis), and only examine the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there aren’t enough pages in this magazine to do justice to any list of horrors perpetrated by the British Empire to further the interests of its ruling elite.

If we just look at the practice of settler colonialism alone, the United States largely limited itself to one measly continent to conquer and practice what geneticist David Reich might now call “population replacement.” British migrants, prisoners, farmers, and soldiers fanned out across more than three continents, building genocidal settler democracies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa.

In the decades immediately preceding the First World War, British imperial fantasies of wealth and power seemed to transcend any conceivable earthly limit. During the so-called “Scramble for Africa” of the 1880s and 1890s, in a drive to conquer territories stretching from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to Cairo in Egypt, Britain took control of enormous territories, including the lands that now constitute Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa. In their conquests, the British never hesitated to deploy the bleeding edge of technological or organizational innovation, particularly when asserting their rule over relatively helpless “natives.” In one notable episode of imperial aggression, the Anglo-Zanzibar war of August 27, 1896, a British naval bombardment by modern warships killed or wounded over 500 hundred defenders of a recalcitrant ruler in just under 40 minutes. On their end, one British sailor was injured. British forces were also early adopters of the Maxim gun, an early machine gun, which they put to good use on September 2, 1898 at the Battle of Omdurman in what is now Sudan. The numerically inferior Anglo-Egyptian force suffered fewer than 50 dead and a few hundred wounded, while massacring 12,000 and wounding 13,000 Sudanese. Even when facing white people of European descent, the British found their commitment to justice or freedom failed to hold them back. From 1899 to 1902, Britain fought campaigns to invade and annex the independent South African Afrikaner republics, where Britain pioneered one of those notorious innovations of the 20th century, the concentration camp. In British camps, 26,000 civilians, mostly women and children, died under horrendous conditions.

None of this is to say that the German Empire was, or would have been, any more benevolent. Not long after Germany’s unification in 1871, German thinkers came to imagine a colonial empire as a key economic and military asset, a guarantor of national prestige, and a place to house surplus population. Like Britain, Germany participated in the Scramble for Africa, as well as colonization in the Pacific, though its conquests were certainly more modest than those of the more established colonial powers. It was, after all, the German colonial empire that perpetrated what some have called the first genocide of the 20th century from 1904-1908 against the Herero and Nama people of what is now Namibia. Following years of brutal land expropriation, German colonial officials faced an uprising by the some of the region’s indigenous inhabitants in which over a hundred Germans were killed. In retaliation, German forces deliberately attempted to annihilate the entire Herero and Nama population, slaughtering those who survived battle, and driving much of the remaining population to starve or die from thirst in the desert. Many survivors who were not executed on sight in a racialized war of annihilation were deported to slave labor in the Shark Island concentration camps. Higher estimates for the number of indigenous lives lost exceed 100,000. It’s no wonder that scholars have investigated links between German genocide in Namibia and the Holocaust.

To be sure, there were important differences between the western empires of 1914, but for the most part, these were in differences in the details, not in kind. To understand the First World War, then, we have to look at the geographic, political, and economic worlds these empires inhabited and hoped to dominate. Although Britain was the wealthiest and most powerful country on earth in 1914, it was experiencing a relative geopolitical decline. The United States, with its vast and growing population and immense natural resources (including most of the world’s oil) overtook the British economy in the late 19th century, and seemed destined to usurp Britain’s position as global hegemon. On the European continent, Germany was the ascendant power and the most dynamic European economy. The German Empire industrialized at an astonishing pace at the end of the 19th century, with its steel production, for example, exploding from half of Britain’s in the 1870s to matching it in the 1890s, and then doubling it before the First World War. By 1914, Germany had far surpassed Britain as the largest European industrial economy, making it the second largest economy in the world after the United States. The German army was also the largest in Western Europe, second in size globally only to Russia, and as the war proved, by far the most competent and effective. To Britain and France, German foreign policy, arising from an up-and-coming power, appeared especially threatening—its colonial Weltpolitik in particular. Denouncing its “encirclement” by hostile powers, demanding “a place in the sun,” the rising German Empire threatened to challenge the global order.

When we look at them now, German leaders’ fears of encirclement were entirely rational. Despite boasting an expanding economy, a booming population, and a powerful military, the country was quite hemmed in. To the west lay France, a smaller and, for the time being, weaker country with a large colonial empire in Africa and Asia. To the east, the almost incomprehensibly vast Russian Empire stretched more than 6,000 miles to the Pacific Ocean. And in the North Sea and on the world’s oceans, the British navy controlled the waves, threatening to cut off German access to vital commodities, raw materials, and the world market. This is, in fact, what happened during the war. In the race for colonial possessions in Africa and Asia, Germany had made considerable gains, but certainly nothing to allow it to compete with Britain, Russia, or the United States. One way out of Germany’s encirclement could have been closer union with the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the south and east, and building a German-dominated customs union to serve the German economy, styled “Mitteleuropa.” Other possibilities included building a European empire in the east, and colonial expansion in Africa: Possessions like the Belgian Congo lay between German colonies.

By 1914, German imperialists faced a world that had been largely carved up before their country had even been founded, threatening to relegate Germany to a subservient position at the mercy of foreign powers. The final straw, according to historian Edward Dickinson in The World in the Long Twentieth Century, may have been the slow disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. With the discovery of oil in the fragile Ottoman Empire, potentially the largest reserves in the world, the Middle East assumed new strategic importance in the minds of imperial planners. In their eyes, the Ottomans’ wealth and vulnerability raised the possibility that whoever gained access to the region’s resources might be able to compete as a world power in the century to come. To the British, Germany’s alliance with and influence over the Ottoman Empire, including the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway bringing German power to the Middle East, threatened to do just that. This was a moment of enormous opportunity: With so little of the world left unconquered, if Germany did not move to change the facts on the ground in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, the opportunity to become a world imperial power might be lost forever.

The war that unfolded in 1914 was a war between empires over empire. Despite whatever rhetoric they used, the empires fought over the power and wealth to shape the fate of the world in the 20th century. Nothing makes this clearer than the outcome of the peace settlement that followed the Central Powers’ defeat. Britain and France dismembered the Ottoman Empire, and divided Germany’s colonial empire between them. In the Middle East, Britain, as usual, took the lion’s share, including the oil-rich Iraq. In Africa, British imperialists finally realized their Cape-to-Cairo dream. Wilsonian self-determination only applied to the new states in eastern and central Europe amputated from the war’s losers.

The Great War does hint at more pragmatic motivations for American involvement when the narrator tells us that under Wilson, America saw the war as “a chance to transform the international order in America’s image,” and was fighting to “determine the shape of the peace.”  Facing an apparently hostile Germany threatening to destabilize a world order that was actually working quite nicely in America’s favor, in 1917 the United States chose to put its weight on the side of Britain and France. In any case, these were countries with which it was already deeply economically entwined, and became increasingly so as the war dragged on. It was in the United States’ interest to ensure that the world order that emerged from the chaos of the First World War did not threaten its own ascendance.

Little of this was lost to astute observers at the time. In his 1915 The African Roots of the War, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote:

The present world war is, then, the result of jealousies engendered by the recent rise of armed national associations of labor and capital whose aim is the exploitation of the wealth of the world mainly outside the European circle of nations. These associations, grown jealous and suspicious at the division of spoils of trade-empire, are fighting to enlarge their respective shares; they look for expansion, not in Europe but in Asia, and particularly in Africa. [In the European conflict,] the ownership of materials and men in the darker world is the real prize that is setting the nations of Europe at each other’s throats to-day.

Similarly, in the preface to Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin described World War One as “a war to decide whether the British or German group of financial plunderers is to receive the most booty.” He denounced the conflict as “an annexationist, predatory war of plunder…on the part of both sides.” In his powerful June 16, 1918 speech in Canton, Ohio, American socialist leader Eugene Debs too condemned a war “waged for conquest and plunder”:

Every solitary one of these aristocratic conspirators and would-be murderers claims to be an arch-patriot; every one of them insists that the war is being waged to make the world safe for democracy. What humbug! What rot! What false pretense! These autocrats, these tyrants, these red-handed robbers and murderers… the purpose of the Allies is exactly the purpose of the Central Powers, and that is the conquest and spoilation of the weaker nations that has always been the purpose of war.

Soon after, Debs was arrested and imprisoned for sedition, supposedly for encouraging resistance to the draft in that very speech.

Perhaps these are the thinkers we should keep in mind as we contemplate World War One in 2018, 100 years after its conclusion. From 1914 to 1918, millions of young men fought and died unimaginably cruel deaths, pitted against one another as pawns in an imperial game, a catastrophic and unnecessary conflict waged by greedy megalomaniacs hoping to play Risk with the fate of the planet. Millions more died in the influenza pandemic and the civil wars that followed. When we look at the main antagonists discussed here—the United States, Britain, and Germany—the First World War had no standout “bad guys.”* While more autocratic than Britain or the United States, the German Empire of 1914 to 1918 was not the nightmare Adolf Hitler created 20 years later. Nor were there any real “good guys.” The United States, Britain, and France were themselves exploitative, predatory empires that fought to defend and expand their wealth and power. While the high ideals of democracy, freedom, and civilization certainly motivated some of the war’s participants, the post-war settlement shows what the victorious imperial regimes believed to be the stakes and the spoils. So one lesson we should take away 100 years later is to subject any rhetoric of a war for peace, for freedom, or a fight “to make the world safe for democracy” to a healthy skepticism. Clearly, justifications for the United States’ ongoing and seemingly unending involvement in the Middle East periodically tap into this discourse. Another lesson is to challenge the systems of wealth, power, prestige, and exploitation that undergirded the imperial competition that made such a conflict conceivable or even desirable. Above all, if we hope to build anything approaching a true democracy, we should reject imperial fantasies of greed, control, and domination, in all the different forms they take now. These are the dreams of empire that shaped the world of 1914. Ultimately, the fact that there was a Second World War, one even more horrible and one with truly exceptional villains, shows that the First resolved little in the name of peace, freedom, or democracy. 

* Note: This does not mean that there were no bad guys in World War One. The dying Ottoman Empire’s vicious murder of around 1.5 million Armenians certainly places it in that category.

This article originally appeared in Issue 15 of Current Affairs. Get your copy today in our online store or by subscribing

If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation, purchasing a subscription, or supporting our podcast on Patreon. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.