The First World War Continues
A course I took as an undergraduate surveyed the history of Europe from the turn of the century to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The professor contended at the beginning of the semester that the First World War had, in fact, never truly ended, or at least not until the USSR fell apart, a contention he asked us to keep in mind as we studied, discussed, and discovered the major events that shaped the era. In hindsight, I can’t say whether his thesis held water, not because of its grand claim but because of my genuine and continued ignorance. That’s not to say I’m completely in the dark about Europe’s recent history—far from it—but it would take an incredible amount of hubris to decide one way or the other whether his statement had merit, especially if one was going to try and support their argument with source material. It’s easy to imagine spending a lifetime studying the most documented event in human history, World War II—its genesis, happening, and aftermath; the turning points for major participants; volumes of biographies, oral histories, and surveys of daily life; tomes on sociological and psychological effects for both combatants and civilians; detailed accounts of individual battles and skirmishes; picture books of planes, tanks, and artillery used—and still come out with a wildly hazy and incomplete picture. This makes World War I more difficult to understand, because despite its immensity, it is far less documented than its other half. Add to it that World War II has the added benefit (if that’s the right word) of being better understood because of at least a cursory agreement that its participants’ motives were a bit more black and white due to its stalwart bogeyman, Adolph Hitler, and accompanying atrocities like the Holocaust. And while the Allies had their fair share of war crimes, Hitler’s aggression and annexation, Japan’s rape of China, Italy’s invasion of northern Africa, and the Allied Powers’ initial attempted peacekeeping keep things in a certain perspective. This is not the case for World War I, whose mired miles of no man’s land and tattered trenches left soldiers wondering just what they were fighting for beyond vague notions of the homeland and leave us present-day students scratching our heads as to why so many millions perished.
In fact, no matter how many times World War I was covered in my public school years, I never got any sense of why it actually started, or for what purpose it was fought. The only explanation given was that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked a chain of international alliances to mobilize, and soon enough all of Europe found itself engulfed in a colossal quagmire. There were brief mentions of nationalism, militarism, and imperialism, but these elements never coagulated in the classroom to form a decent reason as to why the continent would willingly gut itself. It wasn’t until that lecture in university that I had any real clue.
That was in the spring of 2010, my final semester, four years ago and now a hundred years off from the beginning of the Great War. While in 2014 we are privy (again, if that’s the right word) to witnessing the possible restructuring of the Middle East amongst invasions, wars, and revolutions, it is hard to imagine that between 1914 and 1918, over 16 million people were killed and four empires dismantled or destroyed, with the death toll enormously higher if you include victims of the Spanish flu. What’s more baffling is to imagine that anything substantive came out of it—there were plenty of lessons to be learned, but there’s little evidence in the actions of powerful people to demonstrate those lessons were heeded. I’m no historian, and my knowledge of the war and its aftermath is scattershot at best, but anyone with a decent set of eyes should be able to understand the role of underlying factors that allowed this explosion of violence to ripple across the world. And anyone should be able to see that these factors have a pesky habit of resurfacing again and again in the midst of economic crises. I won’t draw the analogy too far, but there are enough similarities in America’s (and many sectors of Europe’s) pompous attitude towards the rest of the world and the pomposity with which the economic powers a hundred years ago acted to be more than a little unsettling.
The briefest of overviews would have to admit that the Industrial Revolution helped European powers expedite their growth in virtually every aspect of life, and it was easily the greatest contributor to the rapid mechanical expansion of their respective militaries. To be sure that their rivals did not outgun them, the powers engaged in a massive arms race under the guise of protecting their populations—though it’s hard to find cases of weapons being developed for anything else other than use on other humans. In turn, this allowed for greater colonial expansion, with the British Empire so vast that they were able to coin the phrase that “the sun never set on the British Empire.” And while wars and skirmishes did occur between countries, nothing could compare to the oncoming fiasco, and the powerhouses did their best (once more, if that’s the right word) to keep things civil between the militaries that could cause serious chaos were they to butt heads. (This is, of course, to say nothing of the atrocities these countries committed in other parts of the world. Whether it be the British in India or the Belgians in the Congo, the pure predatory nature of their invasion, decimation, and enslavement of differing societies was often dressed in the clothes of the “White man’s burden,” namely “taming the savages” and “spreading Christianity.”) These excuses helped deify the homeland, with officials and intellectuals purporting their respective cultures to be superior to others, leading to the bizarre phenomenon of nationalism. Add to this that the depictions of war with which the youth of the time were familiar glorified and romanticized combat: paintings of men on horseback, swords drawn, charging fearlessly into battle, dying with dignity and in service of the motherland. This idealization of war led many young men and women to believe active military service was honorable and right (and it still does). This deadly trifecta (militarism, imperialism, nationalism) hurdled the world powers headlong into a conflict they could not possibly have imagined.
One reason I feel compelled to write about the war is because of America’s current state: Still in Afghanistan, going back to Iraq, dropping by in Syria, and monitoring the Ukrainian situation while having given Israel a free go at Palestine. While other pressing issues exist, I don’t think the following can be stressed enough. We’ve been at war for thirteen years. Thirteen years. I’m twenty-six, if that gives you a reference point, and so half my life has been filled with America being in a state of perpetual conflict (even longer if you count Desert Storm or any other short-lived engagement). And yet the immediate effects of that war aren’t readily felt. Yes, there are plenty of Americans who feel the pain of war with lost love ones (to say nothing of the pain felt by our victims the world over), but for your average Joe, the death and destruction exist in a far background, in the white noise of the television, in a place far away where little can be seen. If at all.
It’s not just that we should remember the toll war takes on the world anytime some slick politician tries to talk us into conflict. It’s that we should remember what came out of the earth’s first modern war. Beyond the devastating amount of death, apart from the loss of entire generations, the Great War undermined people’s faith in democracy and created the great vacuum that allowed the flowering of fascism. Parliamentary representation went out the window, and in its place the bizarre phenomenon took hold. Charismatic leaders duped their defeated, flummoxed populations into believing in myths of national rebirth, of racial purity, of the creation of a new man. The idea of the state as everything usurped the idea of the individual. Those clinging to different political ideologies, who were members of trade unions, who dissented, were persecuted and suppressed by powerful police and paramilitary forces. Governments interfered heavily in markets to establish autarky, not in the pursuit of benefiting the people but to display national unity and strength in competition with other nations and to subvert the power of organized labor.
One should remember that Mussolini established autarky in Italy in opposition to what he termed ‘supercapitalism,’ which was the stage where corporate enterprises began to fail and threw themselves at the mercy of the state, even though those same enterprises had ignored the state before and had ruthlessly pursued profits regardless of the costs to anyone but themselves. What we faced in the recent economic crises was not dissimilar, when corporations like Goldman Sachs sought bailouts when a scheme they concocted knowingly backfired. And while I probably over-exaggerate the size and scope of conspiracy theorists, there are enough normal folks walking around in America with enough kooky ideas in their heads that could be channeled into antidemocratic sentiments. Anyone unconvinced should tune in to any rightwing radio program (and there are a lot of them) for five minutes. While the hosts purport to be supporters of freedom and liberty, their demonization of everything the government does and their general predisposition to those who are not white Americans sounds alarmingly similar to the mythical lies propagandists fed populations in Italy and Germany during the 1920s. The rise of racism and anti-Semitism in Europe—along with the explosion of groups such as Golden Dawn in Greece, Right Sector in Ukraine, the BNP in the UK, and so on—does not bode well either.
I wouldn’t go on record and say I think a reversion to fascism is imminent or even likely. But I currently live in a country where the appeal of authoritarianism has deep roots and popular support. The idea of democracy in Turkey is tenuous at best, and while the parallels between here and America are few and far between, and while I believe Americans have far more control over their government and their destinies than the average Turk, it’s not crazy to imagine for a second some of those freedoms corroding and dissipating.
Most of all, though, what we can take away from World War I was that it was tagged as “The War to End All Wars,” and anyone with a head on their shoulders that experienced for a moment its horrors would understandably hope so. But we know that didn’t happen. Not only did humanity endure the colossal World War II, but America and its allies slogged through other wars that did little than spread death and destruction to different parts of the world: the Korean War of the early 1950s, the elongated Vietnam War, the current occupation of Afghanistan and the decimation of Iraq. I guess that’s what my professor was referring to when he said the Great War never ended. If it didn’t end all wars, then it must still be raging. Let’s hope it ends soon, and in a good way.