Every year the world commemorates November 11th as Armistice Day, Remembrance Day or Veterans Day, on a date in history that marks the ending of the First World War.
Today, with international tensions so high, this observance can help us all remember what caused that war, and consider how we can avoid another one.
Lasting just over four years, the conflict was also called the Great War, because it was greater than any previous war and involved so many countries. It conscripted 60 million men, slaughtered 8 million and permanently disabled 10 million. It caused or contributed to mass genocides and to the ensuing Spanish Influenza epidemic, which killed between 50-100 million people. The financial cost alone has been estimated at $30 billion U.S. dollars. Overthrowing the crowned heads of the German, Hapsburg, Russian and Ottoman Empires who had so recklessly committed their armies and weaponry into a war that would later be erroneously labeled “the war to end all wars,” the Great War would set the stage and provide the fuel for yet another and even more horrific conflict that would erupt 21 years later.
For many years previous to its outbreak, the Baha’i teachings warned the world about the international arms race that would lead to the coming Great War:
… the most advanced and civilized countries of the world have been turned into arsenals of explosives, that the continents of the globe have been transformed into huge camps and battlefields, that the peoples of the world have formed themselves into armed nations, and that the governments of the world are vying with each other as to who will first step into the field of carnage and bloodshed, thus subjecting mankind to the utmost degree of affliction. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 284.
In the years leading up to the outbreak of the war on 1 August 1914, the military leadership of most European states were convinced that war was inevitable—but they expected any conflict to be short-lived and winnable by their side. After all, Europe’s crowned heads were mostly members of one extended family. The Tsar of Russia, the Kaiser of Germany and the King of England were the grandchildren of Queen Victoria and therefore first cousins. An international peace movement was gaining the support of such influential persons as the Tsar. Western societies were trying to address inequities in the distribution of wealth.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, Abdu’l-Baha had warned of preliminary “rumblings” that should have alerted Europe’s leaders to the instability of the existing order: the Japanese and Russian conflicts in 1905, a narrowly averted war between France and Germany, the Italian seizure of Libya in 1911, the massive spending involved in the buildup of armies and navies, and the restlessness of subject peoples supporting conspiratorial and revolutionary movements.
Later, during his journeys through America in 1912, Abdu’l-Baha ominously foreshadowed this approaching catastrophe—and even named it, far in advance of its occurrence. While emphasizing the urgency of peaceful reconciliation, he repeatedly warned his listeners about the danger looming on the horizon—and said that his warnings were no prophecy, but simply the result of basic reasoning. Canada’s Montreal Gazette reported Abdu’l-Baha as saying:
All Europe is an armed camp. These warlike preparations will necessarily culminate in a great war. This great arsenal must go ablaze. There is nothing of the nature of prophecy about such a view. It is based on reasoning solely.
Speaking one evening in the home of a prominent Baha’i couple in Montreal, he elaborated:
Today the world of humanity is walking in darkness because it is out of touch with the world of God. That is why we do not see the signs of God in the hearts of men. The power of the Holy Spirit has no influence. When a divine spiritual illumination becomes manifest in the world of humanity, when divine instruction and guidance appear, then enlightenment follows, a new spirit is realized within, a new power descends, and a new life is given. It is like the birth from the animal kingdom into the kingdom of man. … I will pray, and you must pray, likewise, that such heavenly bounty may be realized; that strife and enmity may be banished, warfare and bloodshed taken away; that hearts may attain ideal communication and that all people may drink from the same fountain. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 305.