A time to end all times
When the armistice to end the First World War was signed a century ago, the moment of the signing – on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – was frozen in time, even as time marched on, with no army or signature on Earth able to stop it.
So many lives lost in a conflict that brought industrialization to the battlefield with horrific results. We remember the 16 million deaths, the sacrifices, the bravery, the dates, the places, as we must.
Sadly, we also forget that about three times as many people died in the Spanish flu epidemic that infected the entire world in 1918 and 1919. Their deaths were as tragic and senseless as those who died in the trenches.
The flu and the war changed how people saw the world. For the first time, both war and sickness were seen in a global context, rather than problems confined to regions or continents, where oceans could offer safety from contagious viruses.
Yet the aftermath of the First World War didn’t just make the planet smaller, it literally transformed humanity’s view of space and time.
Albert Einstein had already provided the scientific underpinnings for that change years earlier, when he published his Theory of Special Relativity in 1905, with work by him and others over the next 10 years towards an understanding of general relativity.
Isaac Newton had portrayed time in absolute terms, untouchable and unchanging, but Einstein provided the formulas to show Newton was wrong, confirming what the Industrial Revolution, culminating in the Great War, had already shown – time is relative.
Trains and telegraphs shrunk the world over the course of the 19th century, demanding inventions like time zones and standard times that (mostly) everyone could agree on.
As James Gleick shows in his book Time Travel: A History, Germany imposed Sommerzeit (Summer Time) during the First World War in an effort to save coal. Daylight Savings Time spread around the world after the war. Time was seen for the first time as another device that could be shaped and controlled for human purposes.
“When the Nazis occupied France,” Gleick writes, “they ordered all the clocks moved an hour forward, to Berlin time.”
Agreeing to a global concept of time was no simple task. France was hardly thrilled to bend a knee to Greenwich Time. In the wake of the First World War, one of the challenges for the League of Nations was to impose the Gregorian Calendar as the worldwide standard, forcing those countries still using the Julian Calendar to fall in line.
“Bulgarians and Russians complained that their citizens could not be made suddenly to age by thirteen days,” Gleick writes, “to surrender thirteen days of their lives in the name of globalization.”
The Great War showed that not just space but even time could be taken away from people.
The philosophical implications of relative time, the war and the flu shattered previously held beliefs in the absolute, from faith in the divine to the certainty of truth, justice and morality.
Yet great thinkers had already arrived at this place centuries earlier.
More than 300 years earlier, long before E=mc2, In Flanders Field, poison gas and a fateful meeting aboard a train car to silence the guns, William Shakespeare had already deconstructed time, ripping it to shreds in the wake of war, death and tragedy.
Upon the news of his wife’s death, Macbeth fully comprehends the fragility of life and the weight of time.
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury Signifying nothing.
We remember, we forget. Time, death and war always our companions.
The clown recognizes the absurdity.
In his book, Gleick quotes the perpetually glum comedian Steven Wright: “Right now, I’m having amnesia and deja vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.”