It was the bloodiest war in history, causing a new world order to emerge. We’re still feeling the fallout



s the Western world celebrates the centennial of Armistice Day, marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago this week, shall we too join in the festivities? Perhaps we should take another look at that horrific war of wars, which left its bloody footprints on the world for decades after an official truce was called.

Even today, the historical accounts of how World War I broke out are baffling. How did all the nations of civilized Europe and beyond get dragged into it? Who even wanted to go to war? Yet it happened, leaving nine million soldiers dead on the battlefields, and causing the deaths of another seven million civilians, all dying miserable deaths. Chemical warfare, too — specifically mustard gas — was used freely by all sides, killing and maiming. After the smoke cleared, the entire continent of Europe was in shock. What exactly happened, and why?

True, the immediate trigger was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A young Serbian revolutionary shot the Archduke and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, as part of a regional political conspiracy — never thinking that the bullets he shot would change the whole map of Europe. The assassin was captured and imprisoned, and meanwhile, an ultimatum issued by Austro-Hungary resulted in a declaration of war. The question of why remains a mystery fathomed only in Shamayim, but soon all of Europe took sides, and four years of slaughter on an unprecedented scale ensued. By the end of the war, the Austro-Hungarian dynasty had collapsed, the Czar of Russia had lost control of his empire, and the Ottoman Empire of the Turks had disappeared. A new world order emerged, foreseen by none but a few visionaries.

Two monstrous new political movements arose as well: in the East, Communist Russia, and in the West, Nazi Germany. As the power of those two regimes peaked, World War II broke out, and there is no need to describe here the suffering and atrocities those years brought upon the whole world — and to the Jewish People in particular. Yet in the interim between these world-changing wars came the British Mandate in Eretz Yisrael, and the Balfour Declaration that eventually gave rise to the State of Israel. No matter what position we take regarding Israel as a secular political entity, the historical fact remains that the foundations of the modern State of Israel were actually laid during World War I. Of course, the Kaisers and emperors of Europe had no idea when they went to war what the consequences would be for them, their regimes, and their countries.

We know that behind the screen of worldly events, the Hand of Hashem guides history toward its ultimate purpose. The words of the Swedish historian Harald Hjärne, who died in 1922, still ring true. He wrote:

The natural laws governing humanity’s development trace their path undisturbed through many generations, whether or not they accord with the will of men and nations at the time… Sometimes the way events come about, or the interconnection between them, almost seem to have a human face, with a smile that is both ironic and gentle toward the nations and the individuals who imagine that they are the ones who are conducting affairs according to the agenda they have set, when in fact they always end up somewhere they never intended. Even if this is just an idle fancy, nonetheless one suspects that history is not governed merely by a set of dry laws, but rather that its laws are the revelation of a Supreme Will, against which nothing can stand.

Or, in the more succinct words of the Maharal, “His will is done in any event.”

Interestingly enough, this matter of war is something that HaKadosh Baruch Hu explicitly attributes to Himself. We find in Maseches Avodah Zarah (2b), “HaKadosh Baruch Hu asked [the nations of the world], ‘With what did you occupy yourselves?’ They answer, ‘We built many bridges, conquered many cities, and made many wars, and we did all this only so that Yisrael could devote itself to Torah study.’ HaKadosh Baruch Hu tells them, ‘All that you did, you did for your own purposes….’ And as for wars? I make the wars,’ as it is said, ‘Hashem Ish milchamah.’ ”

Without claiming any deep understanding of this concept that it is HaKadosh Baruch Hu Who makes wars, we need look no further than World War I. When the nations of Europe went to war, they were in fact acting entirely against their own will. It was wholly against their interests, even their basic survival instincts. Yet they found themselves in the middle of a protracted, brutal war that left the world scarred and completely changed — in accordance with the plan of the Supreme Will. The great thinker Rav Dr. Yitzchak Breuer aptly called the two world wars “the First and Second Messianic Wars.” To anyone who truly puts his faith in our Torah sources, it is clear that all that happens in this world is part of a process leading to the establishment of the Mashiach’s kingdom at the End of Days.

But after World War I, the nations of Europe, reeling from the shock, were anxious to prevent such destruction in the future, and with that noble purpose in mind they founded the League of Nations, the precursor to today’s UN.

And while the United States and Europe were engaged in furthering their plans for an organization that would stand on guard for world peace, a little-known Jew, in an obscure Polish village called Radin, sat and wept. “That was child’s play,” the Chofetz Chaim said of the destruction wrought by World War I, “compared to what is yet to come.”

On another occasion, during Kiddush on a Friday night in the early 1920s, the Chofetz Chaim suddenly burst out, “I’m not talking about the parnassah of Yidden, I’m talking about the lives of women and children!”

But who wanted to hear such painful words in those days? The world thought it had put war behind and was marching forward in a new era of peace and prosperity. And after all, they had the League of Nations now! Nobody wanted to listen to the warnings of this elderly Jew, a prophet of their times, that this well-meaning gathering of the nations was worthless….

Until Hitler took power — and the Second Messianic War descended upon the world.

Even — and especially — today, we must stay focused, and keep reminding ourselves that “HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s will is done — in any event.” —

 (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 735)