For perspective, no one referred to World War One as “World War One” until 1939 – just as World War Two was looming. There’s some interesting debate as to when the term first appears in print (I’ll go into some detail below), but the world’s news media seemed to agree with Time Magazine when they described what had just broken out on the Polish border this way: “World War II began last week at 5:20 a. m. (Polish time) Friday, September 1, when a German bombing plane dropped a projectile on Puck, fishing village and air base in the armpit of the Hel Peninsula.” The fact that what Germany had started what was already number two gave the automatic nod to what been called “The Great War” until then as the obvious “World War One”. And World War Two was significantly bigger than World War One.
World War One wasn’t actually the first “world war”, but it was the first mechanized world war. The mechanization included a kind of coordination not just across one battlefield but across all battlefields. There’s some consensus among historians that the first armed conflict that actually took place on a global scale was the Seven Years War that began in 1756. That war was a struggle for global pre-eminence between Great Britain and France. But then, Great Britain (even when it was just “England”) and France have been waging the very same “war” since at least 1337 when the Hundred Years War began (the war didn’t end – from History’s perspective) until 1453 making it the “Hundred-Fourteen-Years-War” but that doesn’t roll so trippingly off the tongue. That war, too, pitted England against France for if not all of the European marbles than most of them. By the time 1753 rolled around, the nations of Europe had gone exploring the rest of the world – and claiming it (all native populations be damned) as their own.
Colonization was an offramp for all of Europe’s old feuds into the New World where they all landed with a terrible thud. Colonization wiped out North American natives mostly via pathogens. Their obscenely depopulated nations couldn’t withstand the onrush of immigration from Europe. European culture didn’t overwhelm the Americas because it was culturally superior – despite what white America tells itself – it did it through sheer biological brute force – plus a little “guns and steel” to finish the job. The English, the French – and the Spanish – just as they had all been “Duking” it out in Europe – began waging war against each other in North America for primacy.
The truth is, “world wars” don’t necessarily start when hostilities break out and don’t necessarily stop when armistice agreements are signed. And, if we really look closely at what we now call the two “World Wars”, considering that the first was acknowledged as an outgrowth of the second and the first literally pitted the ruling families of Europe (they were all related by blood, mind you!) against each other in one, final death rattle. Historian Barbara Tuchman opens “The Guns Of August”, her excellent, Pulitzer Prize-winning history of World War One’s first month, at the May 1910 funeral of British king Edward VII – Queen Victoria’s eldest son; Queen Victoria is referred to as one of the “Grandmother[s] of Europe“. Tuchman describes a fascinating scene: nine European kings including Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany gather for a genuine family funeral. The royal houses of Europe have all intermarried – those houses having used marriage as diplomacy. As they look around at each other, they don’t see “kings and queens”, they see richer relations and poor relations. Relatives most of them like and a few relatives – like Cousin Willi of Germany – who most of them frankly can’t stand.
The cousins, incidentally, all lamented what had befallen poor cousin Nikki – Nicholas II of Russia. Five years before, Nikki had survived The Russian Revolution but those disruptive forces – though defeated then were still very much alive now which was one reason why he dared not leave Russia at the moment. The Great War that lay head – when all these families and their intermarriages and intertwined, conflicting alliances – would finish Nicholas, his family and “royalty” as a concept in Russian governance.
While Russia historically presented as Europe’s “poor relation” this “inferiority complex” has morphed into something else. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a more lethal version of Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on his desk at the United Nations. Putin has Russia capering on the world stage, performing an angry, desperate-for-respect, graceless kabuki as Europe’s thug neighbor (no longer a blood relation).
Modern Europe is not ruled in any way, shape or form by its royalty. England may still embed their royal family into the way government presents itself, but it’s the British government that keeps the royal family afloat and not the other way around. Strangely, the attitudes represented over the course of a thousand years of evolving tribal and then national governance reflect something of a national character. We do see German behavior through the lens of its history. Same goes for all the nations of Europe (who all became nations via a coming together and forging of their various national tribal groups). Russian “fear of encirclement” is not new. It didn’t start with Putin. Putin, as a wildly over-reaching Russian nationalist, is trying to make encirclement of Russia impossible or too expensive to even consider.
If World War One was an unwanted but unstoppable sequel to The Seven Years War (and that was a ripple effect of the Hundred Years War), and World War Two was the sequel to World War One then, clearly, the Cold War was a War Zombie not dying as expected when Germany and Japan surrendered. Though communism replaced royalty as its government’s organizing principle, Russia still behaved – still behaves – like poor Nikki.
Hey, even crazy Cousin Willi eventually got his shit together – experienced contrition – and returned to the World Community. Only now is Germany finally reconsidering its possible role as Europe’s military alpha dog. Putin’s war on Ukraine is a Thanksgiving meal ruined by Crazy Uncle Ivan who everyone feared could go off just like that but believed he wouldn’t. Oh well…
Is this World War Three we’re experiencing? Does the nomenclature really matter to the Ukrainians being murdered? Does it matter to the spiking price of petroleum? Will it matter to terrified Russian conscripts as they abandon their fuel-free vehicles and run for cover, wondering why in hell’s name they were sent to attack Ukraine?
For starters, President Biden has assembled a truly international coalition of nations to oppose Putin. Tick off that “Is It World War Three Yet?” box. Russia has China on its side but, if I were Russia, I wouldn’t bet my future on China always being there. China is entirely self-interested and remarkably long-sighted. They never think in terms of “quarters” or even “years”. They think in terms of decades. Centuries. America – the birthplace of self-government in the modern world – still can’t get democracy right. A third of our country can’t abide democracy because democracy means power sharing with Black, brown, Asian, LGBTQ people amid a rapidly diversifying America. You know, “E Pluribus Unum”.
This war on Russia really is a case of “E Pluribus Unum” – out of many, one. The world (minus China where truth in media is a foreign concept) is finally standing up to Putin. If we never launch a bomb or bullet in his direction, the economic warfare being waged on Russia’s economy will be more impactful and long-lasting than a neutron bomb. Like a neutron bomb, economic warfare will leave physical structures standing but no way to heat them, feed the people inside of them or resupply them as they run out of necessities. Russia is headed toward an economic stone age from which return will be possible – but hard and very far off.
Hey, Russia, if you’re listening, Google “Versailles Treaty” to remind yourselves how Europeans treat other Europeans when “Great Wars” finally come to an end.
Is what Putin’s doing “World War Three”? Regardless of what anyone calls it, inside Russia, it’s going to feel like it – just as it feels like World War Three to every single Ukrainian. Is it “World War Three” yet? Yeah, it’s soup all right…