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Diplomacy instead of attack

100 years ago, the First World War broke out with Germany declaring war on Russia. Europeans ought to remember those events and more than ever rely on diplomacy rather than weapons, writes DW's Sarah Judith Hofmann.

"Offense is the best defense" - this expression is often misunderstood as a political guideline. And - just to get it out of the way now - it's utter nonsense. That was true 100 years ago, and it is now.

On August 1st, 1914, the German Empire declared war on Russia. At the same time, in his famous "balcony speech," Emperor William II portrayed himself and the German people as victims: "If our neighbors do not give us peace, then we hope and wish that our good German sword will come victorious out of this war." Two days later, Germany declared war on France and invaded neutral Belgium. Those shots marked the beginning of the First World War.

Sarah Judith Hofmann. (Photo: DW/Per Henriksen)

DW's Sarah Judith Hofmann

The Sarajevo assassination one month earlier had led to a crisis between the big European powers. But was there really no chance for a diplomatic solution before Germany declared war on its neighbors? The tempting "what if…" question can't be answered comprehensively. But one thing is clear: the "severe battle" that William II sent his people into would last four years, kill more than 15 million people and leave more than 20 million injured. The First World War engulfed Europe in bloody battles, and it turned the entire world upside down.

War on Europe's edges: eastern Ukraine, Gaza, Syria

One hundred years on, has the international community learnt from the ‘Great War of the 20th century'? The answer is ambivalent: Europe has managed to safeguard peace for almost 70 years – through the EU, Nato and the OSCE. That's a remarkable achievement. It's the consequence of two world wars that kicked off in Europe. But Europe's edges are up in flames. Israel has been bombing the Gaza Strip for weeks, while Hamas has been firing rockets into Israel. Pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army are fighting each other in eastern Ukraine. And in Syria, estimates suggest that more than 160,000 people have been killed since the conflict broke out.

The victims everywhere tend to be mostly innocent people – like those men, women and children who were on board the Malaysia Airlines plane which was shot down recently over eastern Ukraine. Innocent like a large share of the civilian population in Gaza whom Hamas cynically abuses as human shields.

The logic of all parties involved in war is still the same as 100 years ago. We are not the aggressors. We are being attacked, and we have the right as a people to defend ourselves!

Who is to blame? That's not the point.

In this commemorative year of 2014, the question of the 1914 war guilt has been raised again – and hardly anywhere was the debate more emotional than in Germany. Christopher Clark's book ‘The Sleepwalkers' sold better here in Germany than anywhere else. In part that may have to do with the fact that Clark refrains from giving Germany sole liability for the outbreak of the First World War. But the Australian historian's prime interest is not even war guilt.

Clark's central aspect is the following: in 1914, all big powers believed themselves threatened by their neighbors. Austria-Hungary by the Serbs; Russia by Germany and Germany by all sides. Clark points out a European crisis in the run-up to the war, boosted by all big powers. And on August 1st, the German Empire gave the starting signal for battle.

So what can we learn from that fatal step on August 1st? It must never be too late to pull the ripcord and exhaust all diplomatic options. The EU should agree on a common position towards Russia regarding the Ukraine conflict – and it should not tire of searching for a solution of the conflict at the negotiating table. The same goes for the Middle East.

2014: a chance for Europe not to repeat 1914

Europe has a special responsibility for the Middle East. In 1914, Germany sought an alliance with the Turkish ruler of the Ottoman Empire, dragging the entire region into war. After their victory, England and France signed the Sykes-Pikot agreement, dividing the Middle East between themselves. New borders were drawn on the drawing board which are a cause of conflict to this day.

The First World War had lasting effects on events in the 20th century. Just a few years later, the National Socialists, or Nazis, rose to power in Germany, then came the Second World War and the Holocaust. On August 1st this year, Europeans should take a step back and try to remember events in the first half of the 20th century which led to the biggest crimes in human history. The goal must be to not make the same mistakes in the 21st century. After all, we don't want history books to contain this sentence: "In 1914, it was Sarajevo; in 2014, the starting signal was given in Crimea."

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