A Misguided History Lesson from a Fundamentalist Christian Pastor

In a strange sort of anti-war, “Don’t be friends with other nations” sermon, Pastor Steven Anderson explained the history of World War I in a way that was supposed to show how the number of allied countries on both sides made things even worse (and, therefore, the U.S. should not make promises to defend its allies even if invaded).

What’s striking about the short sermon isn’t the rhetoric, but the mishandling of the WWI facts.

@VeritasKnight on Twitter was kind enough to listen to the sermon clip and provide analysis on where Anderson got things wrong. Turns out there’s a lot of misinformation, so I’ll just quote Anderson, then quote @VeritasKnight.

Anderson: “So you have these two little tiny nations — Are you listening? Here’s your history lesson — Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Now does anybody think those are two major world superpowers? Austria-Hungary and Serbia? No. These are two small nations.”

Anderson constantly refers to Austria-Hungary incorrectly. First, he calls Austria-Hungary “tiny.” Austria-Hungary was a major player in the world. Perhaps he looked at today’s map, but in 1914 this was the map of Europe.

He later compares Austria-Hungary to Germany in a negative way. Austria-Hungary was actually larger in terms of area (676,615 km2 compared to 540,857 km2). And while Germany’s population was larger (approximately 65,000,000) Austria-Hungary still had an empire containing 53,000,000 people. Austria-Hungary was considered a European power on par with Germany in many aspects. While the First World War would expose many weaknesses of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when it began its fight with Serbia, it was considered a major nation — in modern terms, it would be somewhere around an India or a Brazil — a regional if not a global power (in a world where global powers were nowhere near as powerful as they are today).

Anderson: “[Those two countries] had a dispute because the guy who was supposed to ascend the throne of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by a Serbian group. So the Serbian group assassinated the Hungarian.”

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was Austrian, not Hungarian. He was assassinated not by a “Serbian” group but by a young extremist Serb named Gavrilo Princip. Princip was linked to several extremist groups. Austria-Hungary’s insistence on linking Princip to the genuine powers-that-be in Serbia is still debated to this day, though most scholars think he had, at best, a tenuous link to the Serbian military through the secretive society The Black Hand. Regardless, it is unlikely that Serbia was trying to orchestrate the assassination.

Anderson: “So, basically, the Austrio-Hungarians, they made all these demands on the Serbians: Give us all this land, give us all this money, you know, to make up for the fact that you killed our guy.”

Austria-Hungary’s demands of Serbia following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand were tenfold — none of which included land concessions, though it was, of course, designed to humble, humiliate, and lead to war.

Anderson: “So you just have a battle between two tiny countries! But here’s the problem: Serbia was allied with Russia — huge country. Germany is allied with Austria — huge country. Right? So now, if there’s a beef between Serbia and Austria, well, guess what? Now, it’s gonna be between Russia and Germany, which are two major powers.”

The pre-First World War alliance system is significantly more complex than stated by Anderson. The world was divided into two major camps: the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) and the Triple Entente (France, Russia, and the United Kingdom). Russia had agreements of protection with Serbia that engaged the alliance systems; Germany, the UK, and France were all party to a treaty that protected Belgium’s neutrality. The alliance system didn’t entirely work, mind you — England refused to declare war immediately on Germany and Austria-Hungary, and Italy didn’t join at all (choosing in 1915 to join the Entente Powers, rather than the Central Powers). England’s use of the 1839 Treaty of London was considered a way to try to end the war by warning Germany that their battle plan would cause greater, wider war. This warning did not work.

Anderson: “But not only that, Russia is allied with France. So Germany says, well, if we back up Austria against Serbia, then Russia’s gonna get involved. And then Germany says, well, if we’re gonna fight against Russia, then France is gonna get involved. So then the Germans said, well, here’s what we’re gonna do: Since France is way more dangerous than Russia, we just need to attack France.”

Anderson declared that Germany was more afraid of France, which is why they attacked through Belgium, making it sound like this was an off-the-cuff decision. In fact, Germany had been preparing this attack (the Schlieffen Plan) since their previous war with France, in 1870. During that war, the Prussians attacked exactly as one might expect — straight toward Paris. The need to do things differently is part of the deception of war. When Paris allied with Moscow, the need became even more intense to defeat France quickly. The Schlieffen Plan was intended to knock France out of any future war so that Germany could handle Russia one-on-one, Russia being considered the greater, harder-to-defeat threat.

Germany, in other words, knew for 40 years that they’d be confronted with a two-front war and made a plan to deal with it. Once war with Russia was ascertained, an invasion of France was assumed — and enacted.

Anderson: “… but here’s the problem. When you go through Belgium, England has a treaty with Belgium, that if anybody goes through Belgium, we’re gonna defend you. So it all starts by Germany going into France through Belgium. Now England’s involved. Russia’s involved. France. I mean, the biggest powers in the world! And then they have allies all over the world! And then Turkey’s involved. And then pretty soon it’s a World War.”

The next thoughts tossed out involved the addition of two of the three further powers to the war that occurred after the initial commencement of hostilities. Unlike the beginning stages, the way that the Ottoman Empire (not Turkey) and the United States entered World War I were not through activation of the various alliance systems. In fact, the USA had desperately avoided European entanglements for over 140 years, following the advice of George Washington, while the Ottoman Empire was hated by pretty much every other European country after hundreds of years of opposition.

The Ottomans were enticed to enter the war by Germany, though the British and French had been their more recent allies in the Crimean War. The Ottoman Empire was considered “the Sick Man of Europe” at the time and England and France wanted out. Germany used the tried, tested and true method of getting a country into the war by promising them war concessions (the same way the Allies got Italy on their side).

The suggestion that it was a series of alliances that caused World War I to be a “World War” needs to be addressed, too. What really happened was fighting between the various colonies of the European powers. British dominions (Australia, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand) sent soldiers to Europe, while fighting occurred in German overseas territories in Asia and Africa. Unlike World War II, however, World War I was primarily fought in Europe and the Middle East — the home territories of most belligerent nations.

Anderson: “Eventually, even at the very end, in the final year, got the United States involved, in 1918.”

The USA, of course, did not enter because of enticements. The USA’s policy of neutrality was violated by the Germans several times, primarily when they sank the Lusitania and when they resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917. The USA declared war in 1917, not 1918 as Anderson said. Germany’s infamous Zimmerman Telegram was also intercepted by the USA — Germany attempting to get Mexico to declare war on the USA. This allowed public pressure in America to turn from neutrality to anti-German, and Congress declared war.

All this misinformation, courtesy of a man who promotes homeschooling. For shame…

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.