Sunday, November 11, 2007

The other eleventh day

It's still not over - World War One, that is. On the western front, the fighting ended with the armistice that took effect this morning, 89 years ago, at 11 o'clock. The fighting that touched Russia and Turkey did not end until 1922. In some respects - the Balkans, the Middle East, remains of overseas European empires - it's never stopped. Treaties - Versailles, Triannon, and Brest-Litovsk for western, central, and eastern Europe, Sèvres and Lausanne for the Middle East - were supposed to formally settle the conflict. In fact, they settled much less than that.

Europe is - or at least, once was - quite conscious of the war's significance, while it has never sunk as deeply into American awareness. The US lost a somewhat more than a hundred thousand dead. But the 20th century was simply a consequence: understand it, and the century following becomes crystal-clear. The British empire lost almost a million; the continental powers many more: Italy, half a million; France, almost two million; Germany, over two million; Austria-Hungary, a million and a half; Russia and Ottoman Turkey, several million - no exact number was ever determined in the postwar chaos.

Earlier in 1917 saw the March revolution in Russia, the April entry of the US into the war, and the May "strike" of the French army. This month in 1917 saw the Bolshevik coup in Saint Petersburg, the arrival of the first American units in France, and the Balfour Declaration regarding a Jewish national home in Palestine. December 1917 saw the capture of Jerusalem by the British, Australians, and New Zealanders under Allenby. October 1917 saw the Italians' catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Austrians and Germans at Caporetto. Even this late in the war, things were not going well for the Allies, at least in Europe: Russia had dropped out, and France and Italy were effectively finished as great powers.

The 1914-18 conflict saw not only the emergence of the US as a world power; it saw the beginning of the end of Europe's four-century domination of the world, its status as the center of civilization, and its mastery of its own fate. Today, Europe is in long-term economic and demographic decline relative to the rest of the world, and neither master of its own destiny nor the center of civilization. Those facts have far more to do with post-Cold War developments there than anything the Bush-obsessed here would have you believe.

It also saw the end of empires. The British and American colonial systems began their "soft landing" toward self-liquidation; the French faced slow but inexorable withdrawal; others - like the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman - ended with a sudden bang. The rise of Hitler, and more generally of fascism - including the Islamic kind - was a direct result of World War One and the poisonous residue of resentment in nations that felt cheated by its outcome. The spread of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and terror dates from that time. America and Britain, technically victors, faced disillusionment followed by intense isolationism in one case and appeasement in the other.

But how did it happen in the first place? The conflict between Austria and Serbia was clear enough, and Russia got into it as a matter of course, to defend its little Slavic cousin. But the real linchpin was Germany - how did that happen? It wasn't the Kaiser, who, in spite of his sometimes bellicose rhetoric and fixation on the British Navy, nervously attempted to diffuse the crisis and coax Austria into getting war against Serbia over with quickly. What converted a Balkans war into a world war was Austria's dithering and the determination of the German General Staff to use the Sarajevo crisis to provoke a larger war with Russia and France - they saw it as their last opportunity to do so, lest Russia become too strong. And the temptation to finish their humiliation of the French was just too overpowering to resist.

And how did the combatant countries endure it? A few years ago, on a trip to Germany, I flew into Hamburg directly over the trench lines of Flanders, which are still visible from the air, marked out by the British garden cemeteries. I thought about them, 90-odd years ago, hunkered down in trenches with their packs, their gas masks and rifles, rats scurrying about. Many more years ago, I flew over the remains of the Verdun battlefield, now marked by a giant ossuary and cemetery containing the bodies and fragments of a quarter million French and German soldiers: death industrial. How did they endure four years of that? It was world's first total war: whole nations and empires were emptied of manpower and treasure, and many did not survive; others came out badly mauled. In spite of well-intentioned efforts to stimulate economic recovery in the 1920s, the Great Depression hit as the ultimate bill for the destruction and loss of life. Governments stupidly compounded that crisis with misguided trade and monetary policies.

The loveliest Great War cemeteries of are those constructed by the British War Graves Commission and maintained all over the world, but concentrated mainly in France and Flanders. Other nations have not done as much or so lovingly - while there are many local monuments scattered around the country and an "Unknown Solider" is buried at Arlington, the United States lacks a national World War One memorial. Especially in eastern Europe and in the Middle East, many of the dead were never properly counted or buried. Even on the western front, too many were blown to bits by the innovation of exploding artillery shells, or buried in collapsing trenches and foxholes, to ever be recovered or identified. In all, about ten million soldiers perished, by far the largest conflict in history until that time. Around a million Ottoman Armenian civilians died, while the Spanish flu epidemic that started near the end of the war killed more than 20 million.

The Great War, or the World War, as it was once called, was old-fashioned in this respect: it was still a war in which it was generally safer to be a civilian than a soldier. The next war changed all that, and the killing found new pools of life for the taking. These are the sorts of events that make you wonder whether humanity will survive, or even deserves to. The dead don't have to contemplate that question. Historians and the rest of us can ponder the mystery of a civilizational suicide that began on a warm June day, 93 summers ago, at a street corner in Sarajevo.

Και την ποθεινην πατριδα παρασχου αυτοις,
Παραδεισου παλιν ποιων πολιτας αυτους.

And grant them the Fatherland of their desire,
make them again citizens of Paradise.

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