The Great War shaped today’s broken world
The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month is our moment to remember. The “war to end all wars” was the beginning of the world that we live in today.
Nov. 11, 1918, was the end of the folly and futility, the sheer bloody brutality of the Great War into which Europe had fallen and from which it could not get up. Even after the armistice was signed early that morning, but before it came into effect six hours later, the pointless fighting continued, literally until the last minute. The last American was killed in battle at the 10th hour and 59th minute of the 11th day of the 11th month in the year of our Lord 1918.
The Great War gave us border controls and passports, income taxes and women in the industrial labour force, daylight-saving time and blood transfusions.
It also accustomed us to governments apparently unconstrained by the moral order or common sense, which could prosecute war on a hitherto unimaginable scale for no purpose remotely proportionate to the bloodletting. That lesson was learned well, and the rise of the totalitarians — communists first and fascists soon after — would make the rest of the 20th century subject to even more far-reaching war, both hot and cold.
A century after the Great War’s end, why it was fought remains perplexing. Why, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn asked, did Europe, “bursting with health and abundance (fall into) a rage of self-mutilation that could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever?’”
Why indeed? And more to the point, once it began, why could it not be stopped? Consider Winston Churchill on the depredations of this new total war:
“All the horrors of all the ages were brought together, and not only armies but whole populations were thrust into the middle of them. Neither peoples nor rulers drew the line at any deed which they thought could help them to win. … Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran. When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific Christian states had been able to deny themselves; and they were of doubtful utility.”
The obvious answer is that “civilized, scientific and Christian” Europe was rather less civilized, scientific and Christian than it boasted it was. Nineteenth-century Europe prided itself on a march of progress in which technological advance — locomotives and telegraphs and factories — was producing societies that could do more of everything good. The Great War confirmed what we have been relearning painfully ever since, that technological mastery enables us to do more, both for good and for evil.
The monarchies of Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary were finished off by the Great War. That meant liberation for the Poles, who mark their independence day on Nov. 11. Poland had been divided up and erased from the map of Europe in the late 18th century by the same monarchies in Moscow, Berlin and Vienna. The end of those royal houses meant the resurrection of Poland.
Weak kings were replaced in short order by strong tyrants in Russia and Prussia. In 1919, Poland was invaded by Lenin’s communists, whom they miraculously defeated. Twenty years later both Hitler and Stalin invaded at the dawn of the Second World War, the war that followed what was evidently not the “war to end all wars.”
Further from the European theatre, the Great War shaped the national identities of both Canada and Australia, consecrated by the immense sacrifices at Vimy Ridge and Gallipoli.
The end of the Ottoman Empire meant a new Middle East. The British and French drew up new countries and borders, producing the failed states and fake monarchies and fierce regimes that presided over a miserable century for the Arab peoples. The British mandate in Palestine would in due course give rise to the creation of the modern state of Israel, a happier venture in stability, democracy and prosperity.
The elimination of the Ottoman Empire as the geopolitical expression of Islam, without any replacement, produced a problem long in need of a solution. Midcentury pan-Arabism did not do the trick, and late-century Islamist extremism stepped into the void. As Iran and Saudi Arabia jockey for position in a soon-to-be nuclear Middle East, that question still hangs in the balance.
The end of the Great War did not bring a comprehensive or long-lasting peace. It simply brought what followed which, at a century’s distance, shapes the challenges we face.