‘War Causes War’

Yes, I know it was strange, but history was my favorite subject in school. I was fortunate to have excellent teachers who made it exciting.

Never will I forget, as a sophomore in high school, eager to hear our professor answer the question he had posed at the opening of the class, “What was the major cause of World War II?” Even the majority of my classmates, usually bored silly, were listening, since most of our dads had fought in that war. He went through all the classical reasons for the war—economic depression, German desire for “living space,” Fascist fanaticism and racialism, the wavering of England and France—concluding after each one that, while each reason was significant, it was not the major cause of World War II.

Well, then, what was it? All of us wanted to know. And, with the flare of a good teacher, he finally whispered, “The major cause of World War II…was World War I!”

War causes war. One war rarely solves problems, but usually causes new ones, which only leads to the next horrible one. Scholars now posit that World War I was caused by the Franco-Prussian War decades prior.

This insight—that, as St. John Paul II observed, “war only leads to more war”—is worth recalling as we commemorate the centennial of that “Great War,” that “war to end all wars,” World War I. Over my vacation in the last two weeks of July, I re-read The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman’s classic on the opening weeks of the war. As she brilliantly documents, the years leading up to August, 1914, found Germany, France, England, Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Balkans, and Italy almost hypnotized by the inevitability of war, with unrestrained military preparation, a suspicion of each other that bordered on paranoia, excessive nationalism, an obsession not to be caught less than ready, and an exaggerated sense of grievance over past wrongs.

It was really during World War I that the Pope became the most dominant voice for peace, restraint, and diplomacy, a pulpit subsequent Popes have eloquently occupied. As a British historian observed, “In his work for world peace, the Pope has the world as his parish.”

Pope St. Pius X (1903-1914), whose feast we celebrate today, was the Bishop of Rome when World War I started, and his biography claims he literally “died of a broken heart.”

It was his successor, Benedict XV (1914-1921), who was indefatigable in calling for a cessation of the fighting, who dogged the belligerent nations to stop the atrocities, and who floated a “peace plan” which, while ignored by the frenzied nations, was actually very similar to that of Woodrow Wilson.

All the following pontiffs of the bloody 20th century—Pius XI, Pius XII, St. John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, St. John Paul II, and into this century—Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis—have taken their duty as “vicar of the Prince of Peace” with urgent seriousness.

The world usually ignores them and scoffs at them, dismissing their peace plans as unrealistic and too idealistic.

Yet, as Russell Shaw notes in his fine piece on World War I in Our Sunday Visitor (July 27, 2014) it was actually ideas that caused World War I: the idea of Darwin for an evolutionary struggle for the survival of the fittest; the theory of Marx that the world is determined by economic clashes; the idea of Freud that we are driven by subliminal impulses; the ugly thought of Nietzsche of a “master-morality” of an übermensche, a superman.

Those toxic ideas got us into the mess of a century ago. Thank God our Popes have been fearless in proposing an alternate, life-affirming, noble idea: that war is useless; that it only leads to another war; that it’s the weak and poor who suffer most; that war is never inevitable; that real heroes opt for dialogue, diplomacy, trust, patience, and cooperation; that war comes from Satan, while peace comes from God; and that, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”