Four years that re­made the world

The Irish Times - - Comment & Letters -

The armistice signed at Com­piègne near Paris 100 years ago to­mor­row marked for most com­bat­ants an end to the four-year “Great War”, a con­flict which had claimed the lives of up to 19 mil­lion mil­i­tary per­son­nel and civil­ians. The si­lenc­ing of the guns, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, left all the Eu­ro­pean war­ring par­ties, vic­tors and van­quished, ex­hausted, their eco­nomic and hu­man re­sources bled dry. For many of the sur­vivors, the abun­dant op­ti­mism about the power of rea­son and the pos­si­bil­ity of peace­ful demo­cratic progress char­ac­ter­is­tic of the pre-war years was now shat­tered.

It is un­der­stand­able that each coun­try has tended ret­ro­spec­tively to see the war in a par­tial way, in the light of its own ex­pe­ri­ence of it and the re­la­tion­ship of that ex­pe­ri­ence to “the na­tional story” as a whole. Thus in Ire­land we are chiefly aware of two the­atres of con­flict, the West­ern Front and Gal­lipoli, while much of the ink that has flowed on the sub­ject of the war has been con­sumed by con­tro­versy over the idea of re­mem­brance, in par­tic­u­lar whether com­bat­ants who fought with the British army should be ac­corded an equal place in our na­tional af­fec­tions with those who fought for Ir­ish in­de­pen­dence.

But in fact the war was fought over many fronts and in­volved many na­tions and em­pires, some of whom suf­fered losses that were pro­por­tion­ally even greater than those of the United King­dom, France or Ger­many. In north­east­ern Italy at least a mil­lion sol­diers died in a war fought in the moun­tains in ex­treme cold in trenches hacked out of the ice.

On the Eastern Front, Aus­tria-Hun­gary lost three-quar­ters of a mil­lion men and Rus­sia lost 2¼ mil­lion. In France, a shock­ing 4 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion died, but in Ro­ma­nia 8 per cent, in the Ot­toman em­pire 13 per cent and in Ser­bia 17 per cent. The po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences of the war were also more dev­as­tat­ing in the east. In Rus­sia the Tsarist regime, and sub­se­quently lib­eral democ­racy, were over­thrown.

The multi­na­tional Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian em­pire, which some see as pre­fig­ur­ing the Eu­ro­pean Union, col­lapsed into its com­po­nent parts, throw­ing up new na­tions which of­ten proved un­re­cep­tive to democ­racy.

It is hu­man – and ap­pro­pri­ate – to feel for the vic­tims of war, but “re­mem­brance” can tread a fine line be­tween pity and glo­ri­fi­ca­tion. The grandiose war memo­ri­als erected in fas­cist Italy in the 1930s were meant not to in­stil sym­pa­thy but na­tional pride. Per­haps what we should take away from this cen­te­nary is not a par­tial his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive, or one that du­bi­ously glo­ri­fies “gal­lantry” or the “sac­ri­fice” of “the fallen”. It might be bet­ter to con­cen­trate on mak­ing ef­fec­tual the widely shared but sadly un­re­alised wish of the in­ter­war pe­riod: “Never again.”

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