If you find human behavior discouraging today, consider what happened a century ago. A Martian might have gazed down upon Europe in 1914 and seen a peaceful, prosperous continent with a shared culture. Pretty much everyone had enough to eat. The English listened to Wagner, Germans savored Shakespeare, Russian aristocrats mimicked the French, Mozart and Italian opera were loved by all. Then, Europe imploded.
Ten days before Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, prompting the descent into the Great War, “people everywhere were working, resting, eating, sleeping, dreaming of nothing less than of war,” a British political scientist wrote in The Atlantic the following year. “War came upon them like a thunderclap.”
Philosophers, pundits, and poets spent the four-plus years of the war flailing around for explanations. They scoffed at the notion that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was much more than a pretext. A web of entangling alliances and the maneuverings of diplomats and generals dragged ambivalent nations into an unnecessary war.
But the deeper causes? It was the greed of rich belligerents trying to get richer. W.E.B. Du Bois, the black writer and activist, said it was the competition over resource-rich colonies in Africa. It was a struggle between liberty and autocracy (although czarist Russia’s alliance with France and England undercut that argument). It was because mankind’s moral instincts—this was philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell’s view—lagged behind its material wealth. It was Germany’s psychological insecurity, triggered by Britain’s naval supremacy and the fear of Russia’s rising might. It was, simply, the insanity of the only carnivorous species that kills its own kind for no good reason.
Or, all of the above.