The first World War never stopped. A cen­tury af­ter the Armistice, we still live in the world it cre­ated

100 years ago this week­end, the last shots of the ‘Great War’ were fired, and Eu­rope fell silent

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Fin­tan O’Toole

Even in the midst of the im­mense re­lief of Novem­ber 11th, there was a sense of not know­ing what to do with this new his­tory We are still strug­gling with the con­se­quences of the last great epic blun­der and ev­ery­thing it led to. We are in no fit state to deal with an­other one

It was the great­est si­lence in all of his­tory. On the west­ern front, the British and Amer­i­cans were us­ing sound waves trans­ferred on to film to give vis­ual sig­nals of where the Ger­man guns were lo­cated. A strip of such film sur­vives in the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum in Lon­don, recorded on the morn­ing of Novem­ber 11th, 1918. It shows the waves of sound ris­ing like moun­tains right up to 11 o’clock as gun­ners lined up in a grim cer­e­mony to fire one fi­nal shell, to have, as it were, the last word on this ter­ri­ble war. In some bat­ter­ies, all the of­fi­cers got to­gether to pull the lan­yard that trig­gered the fir­ing of their great gun.

In one case, as many as 800 men tugged a spe­cially ex­tended rope so each would be able to claim to have fired the last shot from the bat­tery.

And then, at 11, the recorded sound waves flat­line, as if a di­vine hand had sud­denly smoothed a rag­ing sea. Or as if a pa­tient had died, the vi­tal signs of the great death ma­chine all sud­denly ceas­ing.

The si­lence, to those who ex­pe­ri­enced it, was much weirder and more un­canny than the ter­ri­ble, thun­der­ous noise to which they had grown ac­cus­tomed. In­deed, one of the stranger phe­nom­ena of the alien realm of the front line was that at times the noise was so great it over­whelmed the brain and sol­diers could not hear it all.

And, in a sense, this un­heard roar con­tin­ues. The in­flu­ence of the first World War has never stopped. A cen­tury af­ter the Armistice that brought its ac­tive phase to a close, we still live in the world it made.

It is the orig­i­nal sin of moder­nity, and one for which there is no for­give­ness. Its din re­mains so over­whelm­ingly present that we can­not yet find the sig­nal in the noise. We strug­gle to ex­tract a clear mean­ing from its im­men­sity be­cause there is no ex­ter­nal van­tage point, no place for us to stand out­side it. We are still in the war.

The very word “Armistice” is telling. An armistice is not peace, merely a ces­sa­tion of fight­ing, a short truce. The breach of the peace that hap­pened in 1914 could not be un­done by a mere ab­sence of war.

The great his­to­rian Eric Hob­s­bawm noted that in his cen­tral Eu­ro­pean fam­ily, “‘Peace’ meant ‘be­fore 1914’: af­ter that came some­thing that no longer de­served the name”.

Be­fore 1914, there had been no con­flict in­volv­ing all the great pow­ers since the end of the Napoleonic wars a cen­tury ear­lier and since 1871 there had been no war in Eu­rope in which the army of any ma­jor power crossed a hos­tile fron­tier. “Peace” of a kind seemed to be the norm – no west­ern Eu­ro­pean coun­try even re­quired pass­ports for trav­ellers from any of its neigh­bours.

Great di­vide

In 1912, the Ger­man in­dus­tri­al­ist and politi­cian Walther Ra­thenau ob­served that never be­fore had the Eu­ro­pean peo­ples been so close to each other or known each other so well. But by 1918, this world had re­ceded be­hind a great di­vide. It is strik­ing that the term “first World War” was ac­tu­ally coined in Septem­ber 1918 be­fore the war had even ended – the idea that it would not be the last was al­ready present.

Even in the midst of the im­mense re­lief of Novem­ber 11th, there was a sense of not know­ing what to do with this new his­tory, or how to ex­ist in the world that the great cat­a­clysm had cre­ated.

On the day of the Armistice, Vir­ginia Woolf noted in her di­ary the strange aim­less­ness of the crowds cel­e­brat­ing in Lon­don: “No­body had any no­tion where to go or what to do.” She sensed a “rest­less­ness & in­abil­ity to set­tle down, & yet dis­con­tent with what­ever it was pos­si­ble to do… Taxi­cabs were crowded with whole fam­i­lies, grand­moth­ers & ba­bies, show­ing off; & yet there was no cen­tre, no form for this wan­der­ing emo­tion to take.”

It is not for noth­ing that the form it even­tu­ally took was si­lence. The idea of keep­ing a two-minute si­lence on Armistice Day was taken up very quickly and seem­ingly or­gan­i­cally from the first an­niver­sary in 1919. It was the first war for which this form of com­mem­o­ra­tion – stand­ing still in a great hush like the one that had de­scended on the front – seemed ap­pro­pri­ate.

The right words

This mute­ness was felt even by one of the most lo­qua­cious men alive, the Ir­ish play­wright Bernard Shaw. He imag­ined that even Wil­liam Shake­speare would have been un­able to find the right words for what had hap­pened: “What would he have said if he had seen Ypres as it is now, or re­turned to Strat­ford as French peas­ants are re­turn­ing to their homes to­day, to find the old fa­mil­iar sign­post in­scribed ‘to Strat­ford 1 mile’ and at the end of the mile noth­ing but some holes in the ground and a frag­ment of bro­ken churn here and there? Would not the spec­ta­cle of the an­gry ape en­dowed with pow­ers of de­struc­tion that Jove never pre­tended to, have beg­gared even his com­mand of words?”

The great Ger­man philoso­pher Wal­ter Ben­jamin asked rhetor­i­cally: “Was it not no­table at the end of the war that men re­turned from the bat­tle­field grown silent – not richer but poorer in com­mu­ni­ca­ble ex­pe­ri­ence?”

For all the po­ems and nov­els and paint­ings and mem­oirs that came out of it, there is still a sense that the ex­pe­ri­ence of the war re­mained in­com­mu­ni­ca­ble – and not just be­cause no in­di­vid­ual could see more than a tiny shard of its in­fin­itely ex­plod­ing shrap­nel. It is in­com­mu­ni­ca­ble be­cause (un­like with the sec­ond World War’s mo­ral of the de­feat of fas­cism), it de­fies all ef­forts to give it a clear mean­ing.

Did it, to ask the most ba­sic ques­tion, even end? If you were in Rus­sia, the Ukraine, Fin­land, the Baltic states, Poland, Aus­tria, Hun­gary, Ger­many, Italy, Ana­to­lia, the Cau­ca­sus or Ire­land, all of which had ei­ther pogroms, wars of in­de­pen­dence, eth­nic con­flicts, civil wars or rev­o­lu­tions and counter-rev­o­lu­tions in the im­me­di­ate post­war years, it prob­a­bly didn’t feel like it.

Th­ese con­flicts, in turn, fed the growth of fas­cism and led to the re­sump­tion of world war. Hob­s­bawm coined the phrase “the thirty years war” to em­pha­sise the con­ti­nu­ity of vi­o­lence.

And one could go much fur­ther: did the first World War only re­ally end when Ger­many was re­uni­fied in 1990? Or was it not con­tin­u­ing in the Balkan wars of the 1990s that were a re­sump­tion of the con­flicts that had helped to cre­ate the first World War it­self and that brought Sara­jevo back into Eu­ro­pean his­tory?

Is it not still go­ing on now in Syria and Iraq, coun­tries cre­ated by Bri­tain and France in their carve-up of the de­feated Ot­toman em­pire, and in the con­tin­u­ing home­less­ness of the Kurds, who were pri­mary vic­tims of that deal?

And what was it all for? The Tom­mies sang: “We’re here be­cause we’re here/ Be­cause we’re here be­cause we’re here.” There was, af­ter the war had dragged on so bru­tally for so long, no “be­cause”.

The of­fi­cial an­swers – hon­our, glory, the na­tion – were not good enough for those who had been there. As Ernest Hem­ing­way’s al­ter ego Fred­eric Henry, a young Amer­i­can vet­eran, puts it in A Farewell to Arms: “I was al­ways em­bar­rassed by the words sa­cred, glo­ri­ous and sac­ri­fice… I had seen noth­ing sa­cred, and the things that were glo­ri­ous had no glory and the sac­ri­fices were like the stock yards at Chicago” where cat­tle were butchered en masse.

Those big words re­tained their place in of­fi­cial rhetoric but even the of­fi­cials knew that the two-minute si­lence said much more.

The ti­tle of a book pub­lished in 1922 by the An­glo-Ir­ish jour­nal­ist and nov­el­ist CE Mon­tague be­came the key post-war word: dis­en­chant­ment. The in­dus­trial na­ture of the slaugh­ter – the con­stant pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing ran­domly blown to smithereens by a shell fired from miles away by an in­vis­i­ble en­emy – de­stroyed all the no­tions of in­di­vid­ual hero­ism and chivalry.

In a sense, al­most all the first World War’s sol­diers were un­known sol­diers – the war it­self had no in­ter­est in their names or char­ac­ters, their courage or cow­ardice. It killed them ab­surdly, in­dis­crim­i­nately, anony­mously.

The US pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son tried to give the war a more spe­cific mean­ing as the hor­ri­ble but nec­es­sary labour pains for the birth of a new post-im­pe­rial era of na­tional democ­ra­cies. Su­per­fi­cially, this was plau­si­ble.

Four great em­pires – the Ger­man, the Haps­burg, the Ot­toman and the Tsarist – had in­deed been swept away. And monar­chy ceased to be the de­fault mode of Eu­ro­pean state­hood: just one of the suc­ces­sor states cre­ated from the wreck­age of the Haps­burg em­pire (Yu­goslavia) was a monar­chy and in the in­ter­war years, just one fur­ther monar­chy was es­tab­lished, when an Al­ba­nian strong­man de­clared him­self King Zog. So, as Jan-Wer- ner Müller puts it, “for the first time in Eu­ro­pean his­tory, re­publics be­came the rule rather than the ex­cep­tion”.

Democ­racy did ex­pand. Women voted for the first time in Ire­land and Bri­tain just a month af­ter the Armistice and fe­male suf­frage took hold in Rus­sia, Ger­many, Poland, Bel­gium, Cze­choslo­vakia, Aus­tria and the United States. Male suf­frage, pre­vi­ously lim­ited by prop­erty qualifications, be­came uni­ver­sal in most of the post­war states. So the repub­li­can and na­tional democ­ra­cies that so many of us now in­habit did emerge from the war and in ret­ro­spect could be seen to give it mean­ing: the slaugh­ter was the bridge be­tween em­pire and democ­racy.

But it was not as sim­ple as that. The age of em­pires was over – but only for the de­feated. The British and French em­pires ex­panded and the United States ar­guably emerged as a new kind of im­pe­rial power as, over time, did the Soviet Union. Wil­son’s prom­ise that the mo­ral pur­pose of the war lay in the prin­ci­ple of na­tional self-de­ter­mi­na­tion by peo­ples with a his­toric col­lec­tive iden­tity turned out not to ap­ply to the vic­tors ei­ther.

Ire­land was the most im­me­di­ate and ob­vi­ous Eu­ro­pean ex­cep­tion: the British were not ex­pected to fol­low the rules that ap­plied to the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­ans or the Ot­tomans.

Demo­cratic mo­ment

And of course there was never the slight­est in­ten­tion of recog­nis­ing the right to self-de­ter­mi­na­tion of, for ex­am­ple, the In­dian or the Viet­namese peo­ples. In any case, the demo­cratic mo­ment would prove to be short – in the 1930s, most of the new democ­ra­cies suc­cumbed ei­ther to au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism or to in­va­sion.

If the war was sup­posed to be in the cause of democ­racy and na­tional self-de­ter­mi­na­tion, it turned out to be lit­tle more mean­ing­ful than “We’re here be­cause we’re here”.

We are left, then, with a great force that still pulses be­neath the skin of our own times but that re­mains fun­da­men­tally mys­te­ri­ous. We know the broad facts: that 20 mil­lion peo­ple were killed and 21 mil­lion wounded. We know the bat­tles and the al­liances and the weaponry and the tac­tics and the strate­gies. But, be­yond that, the dead can tell us just three things.

One is that, as Shaw put it, we are an­gry apes with god­like pow­ers of de­struc­tion: this is what hap­pens when our tech­nol­ogy has ad­vanced too far be­yond our po­lit­i­cal and mo­ral ca­pac­ity to con­trol it.

The sec­ond thing the dead have to tell us is that the slide from com­pla­cency to catas­tro­phe can be dizzy­ingly fast. We take things for granted: most ed­u­cated peo­ple in 1914 be­lieved in the in­evitabil­ity of progress and the grad­ual ad­vance of civil­i­sa­tion. They sleep­walked into an abyss, as­sum­ing that mil­i­tarists and ex­treme na­tion­al­ists and para­noid fan­ta­sists did not re­ally mat­ter. If we are not to fol­low them, we have to be con­tin­u­ally alert to the signs they missed.

Fi­nally, the dead tell us that the con­se­quences of great his­toric mis­takes can con­tinue for a very long time. We are still strug­gling with the con­se­quences of the last great epic blun­der and ev­ery­thing it led to. We are in no fit state to deal with an­other one.

This is all that the dead of the ter­ri­ble and un­speak­able con­flict that ceased but did not re­ally fin­ish a cen­tury ago have to say to us: pity our fate lest you re­peat it.

The rest is si­lence.

GETTY

Of­fi­cers cel­e­brate at cap­tured Ger­man can­teen. PHO­TO­GRAPH:

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