The Fracturing World of Streaming

An Editorial

I suspect Hulu’s days are numbered. Here’s why.

Hulu was founded as a joint venture between multiple big media companies as an answer to the rise of Netflix, the independent DVD rental-by-mail service that quickly transformed itself into an innovator in the new market of videos streamed online, offering movies and TV shows for subscribers to watch anywhere at anytime. Hulu, being owned by the likes of NBC Universal, Fox, and the Walt Disney Company, had an advantage in securing the streaming rights to a vast library of television programming, as it was owned by the very companies that produced those shows. Netflix, in contrast, has to continually negotiate the streaming rights to the films and TV shows it offers, apart from their own original programming that they make in-house.

Then, Disney bought 21st Century Fox, and as a consequence of that merger, they now own a 67% share of Hulu, with NBC Universal’s parent, Comcast, agreeing to basically let Disney run Hulu outright and promising to sell its remaining 33% share in five years. So, okay, Disney owns Hulu now, what does that matter?

Disney is planning to launch its own streaming service on November 12. Disney+ is a service that will take advantage of the massive size the company has grown to in recent years, to offer not only Disney films, but also movies and TV shows from Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Fox, and even National Geographic. At the same time, Comcast is going to slowly pull NBC Universal’s content off of Hulu to start their own streaming service that is expected to launch next year. Basically, Hulu is going to be made redundant, and from Disney’s point of view, if it merges Hulu with Disney+, it is guaranteed a massive subscriber base from all the former Hulu subscribers, and will inherit all of Hulu’s own original programming as well. It just makes sense to me that Disney would want to do this.

Disney and NBC aren’t the only big media companies seeking to claim a piece of the hot, new streaming market. WarnerMedia is also launching their own streaming service, HBO Max, also arriving next year. CBS already has its own service, CBS All Access, offering the channel’s TV lineup and some original shows, most notably the latest versions of Star Trek. In a way, I am starting to feel sorry for Netflix, the innovator that started this rush, now constantly losing programming to its competitors as the big media companies pull their libraries off Netflix to put them on their own, rival streaming services. No wonder Netflix has made a huge push to increase its in-house library.

In fact, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, and other streaming services have another crutch they have to overcome. The FCC has repealed net neutrality in the United States, and so far attempts to have Congress reinstate it have stalled, in spite of wide, bipartisan support for net neutrality among the American people. I have written about net neutrality on this blog before, but to summarize, it is the principle that internet providers have to treat all data that users want to access equally. Without it, ISP’s can legally throttle streaming speeds and charge higher premiums for access to certain internet services.

Well, AT&T owns WarnerMedia, and Comcast owns NBC Universal. Is it any wonder these companies want to get into the streaming business? Think about it – they can force people who want to stream movies and TV shows on Netflix or Amazon or Disney+ to pay higher prices for a “premium internet package”, but allow people who use their own in-house streaming service to use it at no extra charge. So long as they are up-front about it and not deceptive, that’s perfectly legal now.

Speaking of cost…

In general, streaming services are not free. Netflix runs up to $15.99 a month. CBS All Access will run you up to $9.99 a month. Hulu’s ad-free version costs $11.99 a month. CuriosityStream, a niche streaming service offering documentaries about science, nature, and history costs $19.99 per year. Amazon Prime Video requires an Amazon Prime subscription, which currently costs $119 per year. At least Crunchyroll, a streaming service for anime, actually is free – though if you want to remove ads you have to pay $7.99 a month. The more streaming services you sign up for, the more expensive it gets. Many Americans, myself included, have gotten rid of cable and now mainly use streaming for entertainment, but it is really easy to end up paying enough in your monthly streaming service bills to equal a cable bill.

And it’s not like Disney+, HBO Max, or the new NBC streaming service will be free, either.

When the streaming market was new, everyone had Netflix and Hulu and that was about all anyone needed. Now, streamers have to pick and choose which streaming services they want to subscribe to, and so these companies have to compete with each other on what their service offers viewers to watch. There are literally websites that exist to track which movies and shows are on which services, and these have to be updated regularly as contracts expire and new ones are negotiated.

Hence, the push for more streaming-only original content that is linked to a specific service. Do you want to watch the upcoming Star Trek: Picard? Better sign up for CBS All Access, then, as you can’t watch it anywhere else.

Legally, anyway

This forces people to pick and choose what programming is worth paying an extra $10-$20 a month for, and many will miss out on films and shows they my have otherwise enjoyed because the price tag is too high. People will end up segregating themselves by preferred streaming service, only seeing shows available on other services when visiting a friend’s or relative’s house. The streaming market is fracturing as we speak, and at least for the foreseeable future, will continue to do so. What impact will this have on what films and TV shows get made, or on how audiences respond to them? Only time will tell. However, it will have an impact, and a big one. Of that, I can be sure.

Why Democrats and Republicans?

An Editorial

It’s April of 2019, so naturally, everyone is gearing up for the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Already. I’ve discussed before why our presidential election cycle here in the U.S. takes forever, but today, I wanted to look a little deeper at an often-overlooked aspect of American politics that we often don’t appreciate, until something happens that reminds us about it.

See, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is currently looking at the possibility of running for president, but not as a Democrat or as a Republican. He is looking at pursuing an independent run for office in 2020. This got me thinking about the fact that America has been politically dominated by the same two political parties since the mid-19th century. The Democratic Party is the oldest continuously-existing political party in the world, and the Republicans are also among the world’s oldest. Why those two parties? What has kept them in power for so long?

Well, I think there are a couple of factors at play. The first one being:

How Americans Vote

Most elections in the United States are decided by the oldest, simplest, and easiest to understand election system in the world, known to political scientists who study these things as “First-Past-the-Post” or FPTP. Under this rule, whoever gets the most votes, wins. Simple, right? That sounds fair.

Or it does, until you consider this scenario:

  • You have three candidates running: Jill, Jane, and John. Jill is liked by faction “A”, Jane is liked by some people from faction “B”, and John is liked by other people from faction “B”.
  • When the votes come in, Jill wins 40% of the vote, Jane wins 30%, and John wins 30%. Under FPTP, Jill wins.
  • Notice, though, that 60% of the votes cast were for candidates supported by faction “B”. This means that even though the majority of people support “B”, they are now going to be ruled by “A”. In essence, the minority won.

This is called the spoiler effect, and it is a major factor in the logic of voters when they go to the polls in countries, like the U.S., that use FPTP. Voters don’t want to “waste their vote” on the candidate that they actually support if he or she has no chance of winning, so they will instead vote for the candidate who is most likely to win that lines up most closely to their political beliefs.

Now, I personally think that the spoiler effect is a bit overstated. Clear-cut scenarios like the one I presented are rare. People are complicated, politics is complicated, and voters’ political agendas are very personalized and not likely to overlap neatly. A more realistic scenario is that of Ross Perot, who ran for president in 1992 and 1996, both times as neither a Democrat nor a Republican. His message was popular with a wide swath of Americans, and he pulled in liberal, moderate, and conservative voters. I have heard people argue that he “swung the election” to Bill Clinton in each of those races, but that is a really hard claim to prove. If he hadn’t run, who knows how many people who ended up voting for him would have instead voted Democrat or Republican? Perhaps Clinton would have won regardless, perhaps not.

Still, the spoiler effect does matter, as it matters in the minds of voters as they decide for whom they should cast their ballots. In this way, FPTP creates an environment that favors a two-party system: one big party on the political left, and one big party on the political right. Third-party and independent candidates in an FPTP system like Perot (and perhaps Schultz) have a much more daunting challenge, as they have to break voters out of the mindset of worrying about the spoiler effect.

So, that’s part of the answer. However, FPTP does NOT guarantee that the same two political parties will remain the “big two” indefinitely. In the FPTP-using United Kingdom, the Labour Party overtook the Liberals as the main party of the left in the 1920s. More recently, Canada, which also uses FPTP, saw their main party of the right, the Progressive Conservatives, completely collapse in the 1990s, eventually replaced by the Conservative Party of Canada. Even here in the United States, there were a number of political parties that rose and fell before we Americans settled on the Democrats and Republicans. So, how did those two manage to solidify and entrench their power so completely?

The Civil War

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln, the first-ever president from the new, antislavery Republican Party, was elected. Almost immediately, the country broke apart into a war between the states, north vs. south. When the war ended in a Union victory, the Republicans claimed credit for abolishing slavery for good and reunifying the nation. That’s why their nickname is “the Grand Old Party”. Many Union veterans, freed slaves, and former abolitionists remained faithful Republican voters for the rest of their lives, as were many early feminists, as Republicans led the way in winning the right to vote for women.

Meanwhile, Reconstruction in the south was, to say the least, controversial. The more radical faction in the Republican party wanted to protect the rights of African-Americans while punishing white southerners for daring to rebel. Democrats, on the other hand, argued for reconciliation with white southerners and turning a blind eye to discrimination and violent attacks against the African-American community. As for why America didn’t try reconciling with white southerners while also protecting African-Americans, well, the only man who advocated for such a plan had been shot in Ford’s Theater by John Wilkes Booth.

White southern voters remembered the Republicans as the party of the Union, the party of the war, the party of Reconstruction. So, they became the most reliable Democratic voters in America for generations. The southern states were known as the “Solid South”, as it was said the Democrats could nominate a dog or a lamppost and the south would vote for it. In many parts of the south, the local Republican Party organization simply ceased to exist. For generations, the divide set by the Civil War became the main divide in American politics, as the Republicans and Democrats coasted off of the feelings towards their respective parties by those who had been most directly impacted by it.

That’s why, in 2016, 89% of African-American voters supported Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump… wait, what?

Hang on. Left me look at the 2016 election map by state:

Looks like someone has some explaining to do.

The New Deal and the Southern Strategy

One of the side-effects of the divide between the Democrats and Republicans being based on the Civil War, was that both parties had liberal, moderate, and conservative wings. The divide between the parties was NOT based on ideology, at least at first.

Then, the generation that had lived through the Civil War started to grow old and pass away, and their children started to grow old and pass away as well. Over time, as the memory of the Civil War faded, people just weren’t as married to the political parties of their parents and grandparents anymore.

The first sign of a major shift came during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many of his New Deal policies brought economic aid and benefits to impoverished African-American communities. This brought hope to a large section of the population that had been denied it for generations. FDR also appointed African-American leaders such as Mary McLeod Bethune to important political positions. Gradually, the younger generation of African-American voters were pulled toward the Democrats.

This caused some tension within the Democratic Party, which was still the party of Jim Crow segregation in the South. Yet President Lyndon B. Johnson, himself a white southern Democrat, pulled together a cross-party coalition that passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many conservative white southern Democrats were so upset by what they saw as a betrayal by their own party, that they formed a new political party, the American Independent Party, that ran the outspokenly pro-segregation Alabama Governor George Wallace as their candidate in 1968.

Many see this as the tipping point, the final break between the former Solid South and the Democrats. But that’s not entirely true. Many white southern Democrats from that generation stayed lifelong Democrats. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) has the distinction of having fought against both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Iraq War. In fact, in 1972, George Wallace ran for president again, but this time as a Democrat, with one of his opponents in the Democratic primary being none other than Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to serve in Congress.

Still, as the Democratic Party grew more and more openly liberal, the Republicans grew more and more openly conservative. The Republican leadership recognized that this was creating an opening to attract southern conservative ex-Democrat voters, so they pursued “the Southern Strategy” to get these voters to switch to the Republican Party.

The Southern Strategy involved keeping northern Republicans who were taking advantage of a more mobile society to move to states with less snow in the winter loyal to the GOP, while also attracting socially conservative voters in the south to the Republican cause. It was started, in earnest, by Richard Nixon, through specific policy initiatives and careful messaging-management (sometimes referred to by his opponents as “dog-whistling”) and was continued by Ronald Reagan’s outspoken support for evangelical Christian voters in the Bible Belt. Today, the transformation is complete: the Republicans are the party of America’s conservatives, and the Democrats are the party of America’s liberals.

There are a few lessons to take away from this. First, that the reason that the Democrats and the Republicans have remained in power in the United States for so long is largely due to their flexibility, adaptability, and tactical thinking. The Democrats and Republicans of today are nothing like their mid-19th-century ancestors at all, and they have survived by being willing to win no matter what the cost.

That leads to the second lesson, though. Ultimately, neither political party actually cares about you. They only care about winning your vote if it will win them the election, and as we have seen, they are more than happy to just dump one demographic of voters to attract another if they think it will win them power. So, my advice is not to vote for any particular political party because you are “supposed” to because of your race, religion, gender, class, age, orientation, career choice, region of the country, or anything else. Vote based on which political party or candidate will actually bring YOU the most benefits or bring about the changes YOU want to see in America. Because at the end of the day, your own conscience is all that should matter to you when you fill out that ballot.

California’s Late Voter Blues

An Editorial

The Flag of California

Today is primary election day in my home state of California. It’s time to go to the polls to decide who will be the candidates we have to pick from in the actual election in November. There are plenty of important contests I will be casting my ballot in this year. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) will be retiring this year, and there are 34 people trying to claim her seat. Nine candidates are trying to claim the seat currently held by outgoing Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.). There are also contests for the state legislature that I will be paying attention to, and a ballot initiative regarding whether state legislators suspended for misconduct should keep getting their pay while suspended.

Republicans in California, however, have one less reason to show up to the polls today. Arguably the most important primary election contest, who will be the GOP’s presidential candidate, has already been decided. Donald Trump has already won the party’s nomination. What point is there for California Republicans to cast ballots for president now?

Indeed, in spite of Bernie Sanders’s insistence on contesting the election to the very last, the media keeps reporting that the Democratic nomination is almost certainly going to go to Hillary Clinton, as she has such a commanding lead that all she has to do to win is get enough primary votes to secure just 26 more delegates at the Democratic National Convention.

In short, the 39 million Americans who live in California have been cheated out of a decent say in our presidential election because our state is one of the last to vote.

As we have previously mentioned here on Cat Flag, primary elections are a fairly recent invention. Up until the early 20th century, party leaders chose the candidates that voters would be able to pick from. To help reduce corruption, reformers convinced America’s political parties to let ordinary party members pick the candidate. However, elections in the United States are mostly handled by state governments. The federal government sets the date of the general election as the Tuesday after the first Monday in November and protects the civil rights of voters, but otherwise generally leaves the states to do their thing. Also, political parties are essentially private clubs, and can set many of their own rules.

Thus, instead of having a single, national primary contest to complement the single, national general election, primaries are held at different times in different states, and in a few cases the same state will hold the primaries for different parties on different days.

The first primary contest in 2016 was held on February 1. So why is California’s primary vote so late this year? Well, in the 1990s, California moved its primary all the way up to March. Then in 2004, our state government decided that all we had done by voting so early was encourage dozens of other states to vote even earlier than us, in a mad scramble to vote first and have the most say in who becomes the presidential nominee. After all, nobody wants to go to the polls after the candidate has been selected, and such a huge state voting so early just made other, less populous states want to vote before us.

The closest we get to a “national primary” is Super Tuesday, a day when several states manage to agree to all hold their primaries on the same date. However, which states participate varies from year to year, and there is little co-ordination between them.

I just don’t understand why we all vote on one day nationwide in the general election but each state votes on a different day in the primaries. When each state jockeys to vote first, the election cycle grows longer and longer, and that causes campaigns to become more and more expensive, and that makes candidates even more and more dependent on super PACs and on campaign contributions from wealthy donors, interest groups, and lobbyists. Not to mention how exhausting it must be to be on the campaign trail for months on end, especially since many presidential candidates tend to be state governors or members of Congress who have to neglect their duties during this time to campaign. It also guarantees that some states will be voting last, because someone has to vote last, and the odds of the presidential primaries still being a contest at that point are slim.

It’s not like it’s such a great thing to be in an early-voting state, either. Just ask anyone from Iowa, the state that has written into its laws that it will always vote before any other state. Candidates flock there for months on end, getting photo op after photo op and dragging ordinary Iowans away from their daily lives to be little more than props. Also, don’t be surprised in an election year if your friends and family in Iowa stop answering their calls, they are simply ignoring the deluge of calls they are getting to urge them to vote for this or that candidate.

So, as far as I can tell, nobody benefits from the current system. Why do we keep doing it, then? Why don’t we have a national primary, just as we have a national general election?

I think it’s just inertia. We’ve been voting this way for years, we’re used to it, and we only have to deal with it every fourth year so we don’t bother complaining about it or demanding that it be changed when there isn’t an election on. Well, I say it’s time we started demanding a change. I say we keep up the pressure to reform our primary elections after the polls close.

If we really want every vote to matter, if we want to reduce the power and influence of money on our elections, and we want to give all Americans a fair shake when it comes to choosing our presidential candidates, we need a single, national election day. No, it won’t fix all the problems with our elections, but it’s a step in the right direction, and one that just doesn’t seem that hard. The current state-by-state system isn’t working for anyone, so let’s stop accepting the unacceptable. Let’s all tell our state governments and political parties that we want a single, national primary election day.

Please Calm Down About Ebola

An Editorial

Ebola image from the CDC and Cynthia Goldsmith

Earlier this week, a blogger I follow discovered a fake news story that was being passed around on Facebook, claiming the new Ebola vaccine (there is no such vaccine yet) was being used to implant microchips into unsuspecting victims (there is no way such a microchip could fit in a vaccine needle). It just goes to show how easy it is for somebody to make a fake news website that looks legitimate in order to spread misinformation. I will never understand why some of these people do that. Is it some kind of prank? Do they just want attention? I don’t know.

What I do know is that legitimate, mainstream media sites have been obsessively reporting on the Ebola outbreak in west Africa for weeks, with coverage recently shifting to “An American got the virus! Everybody panic and freak out!” Even the candidates in the upcoming midterm elections have started talking about the disease. The U.S. government has taken to rerouting planes from west African countries to keep the disease at bay.

This mystery disease with a strange name has caused a nationwide panic. It doesn’t help that the list of symptoms – “fever, severe headache, muscle pain, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain” – sounds exactly the same as a bad case of food poisoning. Is it any wonder, then, that fake news stories about Ebola might go viral?

The truth is that all of this panic is unproductive. We are not about to be hit by a new incarnation of the Black Death. The odds of you personally falling sick from Ebola are so minuscule, you might as well be afraid of being eaten by a shark while struck by lightning in a golf course water trap. Even if you are in the same room as a person who has the disease, you would not get sick unless you somehow mix body fluids. So I guess, just don’t play with his or her IV?

"That had better be a clean needle!"

“That had better be a clean needle!”

Seriously, Ebola is one of those diseases that will not spread through the air or water. The only people in the United States who have been exposed to the disease were in direct contact with a single Ebola patient who had just returned from Liberia, and he only got the disease because he was helping to treat a pregnant woman who happened to be an Ebola patient. Only three people in the entire world have died from Ebola without having been to Africa: one person in the United Kingdom, and two in Russia. All three of them got the disease due to a laboratory mishap.

Yet the massive, media-driven Ebola panic has forced the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to take time out of their busy schedule monitoring for actual public health threats to talk about the risk of my cats getting infected with Ebola!

Yes, I did say media-driven panic. This panic was created by the news media, albeit unintentionally, and I will stand by those words. The news media of today has been forced to adopt a completely different business model in response to our new, digital age, and I watched it happen as a journalism student. Where it used to be that most Americans got their news from newspapers or television, today 66% of people who own smartphones or tablets get their news from a news app on their device of choice, according to the Pew Research Center. This means that news organizations depend on online and mobile advertising to help pay their expenses. Those online and mobile advertisers base how much they are willing to pay for ad space on how many people click on the headline and read the story.

This means news outlets have a direct, financial incentive to follow whatever news trend is getting the most clicks on Facebook, Twitter, or Google News. This leads to a race to “follow-the-leader” as soon as somebody’s story starts getting a spike in attention. Somebody, somewhere, wrote a story on Ebola that got tons of clicks, and so now everybody is reporting on every new development and every detail about the disease in the hopes their own Ebola stories will also get tons of clicks. Thus, it seems to the average, uninformed reader that this disease they had never heard of had appeared out of nowhere and was creating headlines. The news media never meant to start a panic, but that is what has happened.

It’s not like journalists like this pressure to “report the Facebook trend.” Earlier this month, an editor from the Wall Street Journal spoke at Cal Poly about journalism ethics, saying “The truth is still number one. Don’t publish anything until you know it to be true…It’s not fair or right to publish rumors… As we embrace new technology, we must be guided by core standards.”

News Reporter image by Jonut

In any case, the real tragedy is that worrying about whether or not you (or your pet) will fall victim to Ebola distracts us all from the real problem: Why Ebola has become such a big problem in Africa in the first place. Ebola has spread through west Africa and infected thousands because of poor infrastructure and poor sanitation.

Many people in the rural African back-country (where the outbreak probably began) depend, in part, on hunting wild animals to survive. This puts these people at a higher risk of contracting Ebola than anyone else in the world. Indeed, Ebola has appeared several times in Africa before, though this year’s outbreak is the largest by far.

So, what do you do if you are sick in rural Africa? You have to go to a poorly-funded, understaffed health clinic that does not have access to such basic necessities as bleach and rubber gloves. The doctors and other patients then contract the disease, and it starts to spread. People in these rural villages have no soap or running water to wash their hands. Thus, it is far easier for the disease to spread from person to person than in the United States, where we take basic sanitation for granted. More people get sick, then go to those same health clinics.

Repeat over and over again, and you have an epidemic that starts to attract attention from national governments and international health organizations. Doctors try to keep the disease from spreading by taking patients to isolated treatment centers where they can get treated more effectively, but this unintentionally spreads panic in the rural villages that are affected by the outbreak. All these locals know is “Men in white coats are taking sick people away and they don’t come back! Everybody run and hide!”

One reporter for PBS who went to Sierra Leone reported that “It felt like being in a war zone where the enemy is invisible.” He described overcrowded hospitals, a lack of qualified doctors and nurses due to so many falling victim to the very disease they were trying to treat, and even undertakers who were overwhelmed with work. The survival rate in these conditions for Ebola patients is only 30%. That’s not beginning to include people who are sick from other diseases or conditions that are dying because they can’t get the treatments they need because of the Ebola outbreak.

Even so, there is hope. The World Health Organization reports that Nigeria is now “free of Ebola”. Though there is no Ebola vaccine yet, there are reports that one might be ready for testing by January. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a huge donation to help those who have been affected by the disease.

Then again, a bridal shop in Ohio that a woman just happened to visit before being diagnosed with Ebola had to undergo a (completely unnecessary) UV sterilization to convince customers it was safe to shop there again.

Picard facepalm image from Imgur

If you want to help Ebola victims, you can donate to Doctors Without Borders, who have been actively working to help treat patients in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

World War I Didn’t Need to Happen

A Historical Editorial

World War I image from Wikipedia

Exactly 100 years ago today, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria arrived in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo with his wife to inspect the Austrian troops stationed there. As their motorcade, protected by local police, approached a bridge, a bomb was thrown. A group of terrorists was trying to assassinate the Archduke, in the hopes that doing so would lead to the end to Austrian rule in Bosnia and its unification with Serbia as part of a proposed new country called “Yugoslavia”. The bomb succeeded in injuring about 20 people, but the Archduke wasn’t one of them.

With the bomb plot a failure, one of the terrorists, a young man named Gavrilo Princip, decided to go to a nearby deli. Meanwhile, the Archduke and his wife decided to go to the local hospital to visit the wounded. In a twist of fate, the Archduke’s driver made a wrong turn, and passed right in front of Princip. Seizing the opportunity, Princip pulled his gun out and fired.

Assassination of Franz Ferdinand image by Achille Beltrame from Wikipedia

When I was in high school, I was taught that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was the spark that began World War I – the largest-scale war that had ever been fought up to that date, involving dozens of countries on every continent except Antarctica, with more than 68 million combined troops fighting each other and about 10 million people killed in action. Furthermore, the peace treaty that ended the war in 1919 was so unpopular, it led directly to World War II.

The worst part of it all, though, is that it didn’t have to be this way. There were many points on the path to World War I where the people in charge could have stopped and said, “Hey, isn’t this road we’re on kind of… dangerous?” Here are just a few.

The Tangled Web of Alliances

1914 Alliances image from Wikipedia

After defeating France in the Franco-Prussian War, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck realized that the French were so humiliated that they might come after Germany seeking revenge. To prevent this, Bismarck worked tirelessly to forge alliances with the other major European powers, in order to make a French war of retaliation virtually impossible. To this end, Bismarck forged alliances with Italy and the massive Austro-Hungarian Empire, and worked hard to court Russia as well.

Then, in 1890, Kaiser Wilhelm II took the throne of Germany, and forced Bismarck to retire. Wilhelm II was not as diplomatically careful as Bismarck, and under his watch, relations with Russia deteriorated. Soon, Russia decided to instead ally itself with France, and the UK decided to take up friendly relations with those countries. For France, this sudden shift meant that a war with Germany was a much more viable option; they could count on the largest country in Europe and the most powerful navy in the world to back them up. All of Bismarck’s carefully planned work was torn apart and undone.

If Wilhelm II had either kept Bismarck around, or at least recognized what his chancellor was trying to accomplish and worked as diligently on the diplomatic front as Bismarck had, then Europe would not have been divided into two rival camps, treaty-bound to support each other in the event of a war. Instead, bungled diplomacy led to a situation where all it took was a single assassination to pull the two alliances into war with each other.

Were they really pulled into war against their will, though?

The Blame Game

The arrest of Gavrilo Princip by Austrian authorities

The arrest of Gavrilo Princip by Austrian authorities

When the terrorists behind the assassination plot were arrested, the Austro-Hungarian government almost immediately blamed the government of Serbia for the attack. As Austria saw it, Serbia had come up with the plan, hired the assassins, and provided the weapons. While it was true that some high-ranking officers in Serbia’s military intelligence had supported the plot, scholars to this day are not sure if the Serbian government even knew about the plot, let alone if they supported it. It could very well have been that these high-ranking Serbian officers were acting on their own without orders; all of the officers who were implicated were also members of a secret conspiratorial society called “The Black Hand”.

It almost seems like the Austrian authorities were all too eager to blame Serbia. After all, in 1903 a military coup had overthrown Serbia’s pro-Austrian king and replaced him with a pro-Russian king. Since then, Serbia and Austria had clashed again and again and again, as Serbia’s dream of uniting the peoples of southeast Europe into their proposed “Yugoslavia” ran headlong into the Austro-Hungarian Empire that controlled many of the territories Serbia wanted. To Austria, Serbia was a country that needed to be put in its place. Thus, they rushed to judgement because they were itching for an excuse to do just that.

Still, historian Luigi Albertini argued that Serbia could have done more to assure Austria that they were not behind the assassination. He wrote, “What Serbia ought to have done to prove her innocence and render it more difficult for Austria to hold her responsible for the crime was to open a judicial inquiry into the possible complicity of Serbian subjects and take the necessary measures in that event.”

Instead, Serbia just denied everything and did nothing, confident that they had Russia’s support. Austria, meanwhile, got Germany’s support to send an ultimatum to Serbia. When Serbia wouldn’t comply with every single point on the ultimatum, war began.

Thus, the chain reaction started, as nations declared war on each other to support their allies, the inevitable result of two countries with powerful allies who just couldn’t back down from a fight.

Or was it inevitable?

The British Attempt at a Last-Minute Peace Deal

Five days before the outbreak of war, the United Kingdom offered to help negotiate a peace deal to avoid a Europe-wide conflagration. The leaders of the Great Powers of Europe weren’t stupid; they knew that this crisis between Austria and Serbia could drag them to war. The British proposed that the leaders of Austria, Serbia, Germany, Russia, Italy, France and the UK meet and try to find a peaceful, satisfactory solution.

While Russia got on board with this plan, Kaiser Wilhelm would have no part of it. He called the British plan “condescending”, scolded Austrian politicians for not being more aggressive towards Serbia and Russia, and cheered when he heard the news that the Serbian people were saddened by the precarious situation they now seemed to be stuck in. It was clear that Germany would not support the British peace plan, and by July 25, Russia backed out as well.

However, Russia still hadn’t given up on the goal of finding a peaceful settlement, and with French support, proposed instead for direct talks between Austria and Serbia. Germany countered that Russia should be the one negotiating with Austria, since they supposedly were Serbia’s main ally. What followed were three days of constant wrangling back and forth between the Great Powers. In the end, Austria finally declared war on July 28.

That’s when things get really interesting. Upon hearing the news, Kaiser Wilhelm suddenly had a change of heart. Having pushed Austria so hard to be as aggressive as possible against their adversary, now he wanted to slam on the brakes and get serious about peace. He tried to make a final peace offer, but he was sabotaged by some of the German diplomats and politicians in his service. They sent a message to the Austrians, lying to them and saying Kaiser Wilhelm fully supported their war; meanwhile, one of the top German generals warned the Kaiser that he faced being overthrown by his own army if he tried to stand in the way of war.

So, why was it that World War I broke out, in spite of all the many opportunities to put a stop to it? Scholars have been debating that question for the entire century since it began, but here is my take:

The “War is Good” Mentality

Charge of the Light Brigade image from the Daily Telegraph

This is where I am going out on a limb, but I think I have the evidence to back me up. When you read about the decisions that were made and debates that were held in the build-up to war, you find out that many of the decision-makers were actually pushing for war. They wanted to go to war. They were actively working to try to make a war happen as quickly as possible. Sure, there were other voices calling for peace, but in many cases, they were outvoted.

When we look back at the period before World War I with rose-tinted glasses, we like to imagine it as being peaceful and idyllic.

So sophisticated!

So sophisticated!

But it wasn’t. It was actually very violent. Italy and Germany were unified through the force of arms. Southeast Europe was turned into a battlefield on multiple occasions. The British, French, and others were going off to carve up the world among themselves, crushing the native peoples they encountered as they went.

War was glorified in the arts as the highest social ideal – the honor of the soldier and glory of the battlefield. A uniform and a gun were what turned a boy into a man. Many young European men used military service for their country’s overseas empire as a career booster when they got back home. When the Great War broke out in 1914, many young men volunteered enthusiastically, because they believed that the war would be a swift, glorious victory and a great adventure.

World War I image 2 from Wikipedia

One hundred years later, with recent headlines in the Ukraine and Iraq, it seems fitting to remember the biggest lesson of World War I: don’t rush headlong into something you don’t fully understand. You might not like what you get.