World-renowned scholar George Weigel addressed a large gathering at Washington’s elegant Mayflower Hotel last night. The biographer of Pope John Paul II spoke on the approaching Centenary of the outbreak of World War I. That struggle consumed some twenty million combatants’ lives and even more, twenty-one million, of non-combatants. Think of any of the mass movements—especially violent mass movements—of the past century, and we can see their origins in the 1914-1918 catastrophe. Winston Churchill had prophesied that the wars of peoples would be far more terrible than the wars of kings. So this one proved to be. Describing bombing cities from the air, shelling cathedrals and universities from railroad cars, using poison gas against defenseless troops huddled in fetid, rat-ridden trenches, strangling enemies with naval blockades, or sending women and children to the bottom of the ocean with torpedoes, Churchill said the only depths of savagery not plumbed by the rulers of  “civilized” Europeans were cannibalism and torture. And these, Churchill ruefully wrote, were not employed only because they were not found useful.

Weigel, a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, delivered the William B. Simon annual lecture in a polished style and with a thorough mastery of the literature. And there will be a Lusitania hold of new books on the Great War, as evidence of Europeans’ keen interest. They follow World War I with the same avidity and intensity that Americans show for the Civil War.

From the unresolved issues of this war, and from its most uneasy Armistice and dispiriting Paris Peace Conference, we can see the origins of Communism, Nazism, pan-Arabism, Islamism. The attempts to counter or contain these “isms” can be seen in the League of Nations and its successor body, the UN.

Zionism and the British Balfour Declaration of 1917 that promised a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine were given a great boost by the exigencies of this vast struggle. Britain needed the help of Jewish troops in the Mideast and Jewish supporters at home and in the U.S.

George Weigel is strongest where the conventional historians are weakest: He shows how the collapse of religious authority contributed to the breakdown of comity among nations, neighbors not loving, but deeply hating neighbors. He described a sorrowful scene where the College of Cardinals assembled in Rome in September 1914. A German Cardinal said to his brothers, “I hope no one will talk of war.” His Belgian counterpart shot back: “I hope no one will talk of peace.”

Neutral Belgium had been that summer overrun by the Kaiser Wilhelm II’s troops and the world was shocked by the atrocities German soldiers committed. The mercurial Kaiser  had once urged his soldiers to play the Hun, and the Hun they soon became in Western eyes. “The Rape of Belgium” was said to be the inevitable result of the Germans’ avowed policy of shrechlichheit (frightfulness).

Weigel described the previous century’s philosophies that had taken the place of religious commitment in a Europe once known as Christendom.

Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” evolutionary doctrine was translated into Social Darwinism. Germans adopted this view of nature “red in tooth and claw” as they demanded their own “place in the sun.”

Not content with colonial expansion, Germany’s Kaiser soon began to view the Japanese as a racial threat. He coined the term “the Yellow peril.” Even fellow Europeans were seen in racial terms as Slavs and Latins began to be described by pseudo science and eugenics as lower orders of humans. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche notoriously said “God is dead” and substituted for Him the “will to power” of the Super Man, or Ubermensch. A great blond beast, remorseless and irresistible, was the ideal. Again, Germany’s famous institutions of higher education promoted the idea of Weltmacht oder niedergang (a stark choice of world power or decline).

These same universities had given rise to German Higher Criticism, which immersed words of Holy Writ in an acid bath of skepticism.

So, why? We will see oceans of ink on the Who, What, Where, When, and How of the Great War. We will all go a long way to Tipperary for answers. But George Weigel firmly locates the WHY of the First World War in the 1983 Templeton Address by a Russian Nobel Prize Laureate. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn told us why this Cataclysm of Western Civilization happened. It happened because “Men have forgotten God.”

This writer was led to faith by the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.