As we approach the end of another wild year, it came to me that in some respects we are actually living one of the best beginnings of a century in a long long time. Today, at the final post of the year, I will analyze it by the war track. So far, this century has avoided a catastrophic war – a war involving many nations, including some of the better armed and ferocious on the planet. How have the latest centuries fare in that regard? Let’s take a look. For management’s sake, I’ll focus mainly on Europe, where the most destructive powers on Earth were usually based.
The 16th Century by 1518:
The 16th century didn’t start particularly bad. There were a few wars all around. My motherland Portugal, for instance, was busy fighting the Mamluks and Ottomans and other hostiles in the Indian Ocean. But armies and navies were not numerous and in spite of some intense battles, casualties were not massive. In Europe, the Great Wars of Italy were going on, pulling in powers like France, Spain, England, the Holy Roman Empire, and many others. The first 18 years of the century saw the fighting of the Second Italian War and the War of the League of Cambrai. We can safely say this was a hell of a mess, but most of the fighting was done in Italy, so much of Europe was spared the general destruction. Still, many men of many nationalities were lost and many families suffered from it.
The 17th Century by 1618:
At the start of this century, the horrifying Japanese Civil War that brought the rise of the Shoguns was blossoming and the famous Battle of Sekigahara happened in 1600 with casualties amounting to tens of thousands (at least two or three times the casualties of WWII’s D-day). Still, in Europe no major wars were going on, even though the Dutch and the Portuguese were fighting over their colonies, and the Poles and the Swedes were at each other’s throats. There was also the end of the Long Turkish War that plagued the south of Europe until 1606, but nothing of the sort of what was about to be. By the end of 1618, though, the bloody Thirty Year War had started. A war that ended up killing more than 8 million people all over Europe, consuming most of Germany and Austria, and drawing in France, England, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, and many other nations.
The 18th Century by 1718:
Between 1701 and 1714, another major war was fought in Europe: Charles II of Spain died and his throne was left to the son of France’s Louis XIV, Le Roi Soleil – that triggered a major conflict, the War of the Spanish Succession, implicating Spain, France, England, Portugal, Prussia, the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch Empire, etc. Many hundreds of thousands are estimated to have been killed in battle, devastating large portions of many European countries.
The 19th Century by 1818:
By 1818, the 19th century was already catastrophic, seeing the worst war ever fought all over the World. I’m speaking, of course, of the Napoleonic Wars. One of Napoleon Bonaparte’s many innovations was the ability to raise immense armies. It is said that his Grande Armée reached over 1,000,000 men just before the invasion of Russia in 1812. Nothing like this had been seen before and the destructive power of this kind of army, with its modern canons and firearms, was breathtaking. Many millions were dead by 1815, including military and civilians from more than a dozen nations from North America to the Indian Ocean, and Europe was devastated from Moscow to Lisbon. In the last battle of the war, the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815, more than 50,000 casualties fell in one day.
The 20th Century by 1918:
But it became a lot worst. By 1918, the record for the worst war ever had once again been toppled. More than 30 million people died in Europe between 1914 and 1918 in World War I. In the Battle of the Somme alone more than 1.2 million fell to the ground. Once more, nothing of the sort had ever been seen. Battle after battle, campaign after campaign, each claimed hundreds of thousands at a time. It was a complete catastrophe, implicating dozens of countries and destroying half of Europe. It’s now known as the second-worst war in History, left behind only by the terrifying WWII.
So we can now safely say that the 21st Century judged by its first 18 years is probably the most successful, peaceful and progressive century in at least 500 years. Especially in Europe. If many now believe the Europeans to be pacifists, preferring diplomacy and soft power to the military and hard power, this happens because of our bloody past over the last millennia. I think that in spite of the horrible events that plagued other continents, we can risk the statement that Europe is the continent more devastated by war in History. And of course there are wars going on right now, and tragic ones for that matter, but if you analyze the record above I believe that you will agree that the wars we are facing, and have faced over the last few decades, are nothing compared with the seriousness of the ones behind us.
But why has the 21st Century been different? Why is Europe mostly at peace at the moment? I’m sure there are many factors, but four of them come to my mind:
- The European Union – A United Europe is an idea coming from the great mind of Winston Churchill himself. In his groundbreaking speech at the University of Zurich in 1946, he explained how it was essential for peace that the European powers stick together. And the fact is: treaty after treaty, what the European Union is today seemed almost unimaginable just 50 years ago. Today, 28 countries have relinquished some sovereignty to make it possible to create a powerful democratic block of 500 million people. Who could have guessed it could be this successful?
- NATO – The Western powers are the most impressive and mighty military force on the planet. And their strength protects one and all. 29 countries that are committed to each other and that will come in aid of any that is attacked. 29 countries that are allies instead of rivals.
- The UN – An organization committed to peace on Earth, in spite of all the criticism, has been a forum to discuss what divides the nations and a way to prevent grave conflict.
- The Liberal Agenda – Once more I praise the philosophy that stands for democracy, equality, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, the Rule of Law, freedom of association, freedom of sexual orientation, etc. It’s a philosophy that has gained ground in the last few decades and which seems particularly successful in opposing war or, at least, finding alternatives to it.
Nothing is assured, though, and it is really troubling that the arsenals of weapons have been growing considerably all over the planet. I’m not sure that there ever was such an arms race without the eventual use of the weapons. It is also scary how Europe itself seems unprepared for a major conflict, which can be closer than we think. Still, as we come to the end of another year in this strange and intense century I have to say: so far so good. There is still time to prevent the worst, I guess. Cross your fingers and fight for what’s right. See you next year.