Here’s a long, must-read essay by Oxford historian Margaret MacMillan, who looks at the world of 1914 — the start of the Great War — in comparison to our own time. It’s annoyingly formatted, but well worth your time. Excerpts:

Though the era just before World War I, with its gas lighting and its horse-drawn carriages, seems very far off and quaint, it is similar in many ways—often unsettlingly so—to ours, as a look below the surface reveals. The decades leading up to 1914 were, like our own time, a period of dramatic shifts and upheavals, which those who experienced them thought of as unprecedented in speed and scale. The use of electricity to light streets and homes had become widespread; Einstein was developing his general theory of relativity; radical new ideas like psychoanalysis were finding a following; and the roots of the predatory ideologies of fascism and Soviet communism were taking hold.

MacMillan says that immense progress in economic globalization and technology lulled people into a false sense of optimism. More:

Taken together, all these changes were widely seen, particularly in Europe and America, as clear evidence of humanity’s progress, suggesting to many that Europeans, at least, were becoming too interconnected and too civilized to resort to war as a means of settling disputes. The growth of international law, the Hague disarmament conferences of 1899 and 1907, and the increasing use of arbitration between nations (of the 300 arbitrations between 1794 and 1914 more than half occurred after 1890) lulled Europeans into the comforting belief that they had moved beyond savagery.

The fact that there had been an extraordinary period of general peace since 1815, when the Napoleonic wars ended, further reinforced this illusion, as did the idea that the interdependence of the countries of the world was so great that they could never afford to go to war again. This was the argument made by Norman Angell, a small, frail, and intense Englishman who had knocked around the world as everything from a pig farmer to a cowboy in the American West before he found his calling as a popular journalist. National economies were bound so tightly together, he maintained in his book, The Great Illusion, that war, far from profiting anyone, would ruin everyone. Moreover, in a view widely shared by bankers and economists at the time, a large-scale war could not last very long because there would be no way of paying for it (though we now know that societies have, when they choose, huge resources they can tap for destructive purposes). A sensational best-seller after it was published in Britain in 1909 and in the United States the following year, its title—meant to make the point that it was an illusion to believe there was anything to be gained by taking up arms—took on a cruel and unintended irony only a few short years later.

Part of the problem was that elites didn’t grasp the down side of globalization, and lacked the imagination to think about how things might go wrong. MacMillan’s essay barely scratches the surface — how could it, given the immensity and complexity of the topic? — but it’s still worth talking about. Read the whole thing.

[H/T: The Browser]