The Great War shaped to­day’s bro­ken world

National Post (National Edition) - - ISSUES & IDEAS - Fr. ray­mond de Souza

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.

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