Saturday, March 10, 2018

World War I On My Mind (Again)

A medal for "The Great War for Civilisation" 

I have been thinking a lot about World War I recently. It's the historical event that I probably have the most sustained interest in. It is so immense in scope and importance that I am always finding a new wrinkle or side to do a deep dive into.

I am usually most preoccupied with thinking about that event as a moment of breakage and turning. Most historical changes come slowly, but the Great War was a cataclysm that smashed old empires, spurred revolutions, and redrew the map of Europe. There has yet to be an event quite like that in my lifetime, even the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11.

I've been thinking especially about what the war meant to those who participated in it. Despite having read about it for years, I only recently (while reading Dos Passos USA trilogy) realized that the full name used at the time in Britain and the United States was "The Great War For Civilization." Civilization was, of course, an incredibly loaded concept in the English-speaking world in the early 20th century. It tended to be invoked to justify imperialism and colonization, treating the violent subjugation of other people against their will as a benevolent act.

While the war was viewed as a monstrous waste of human life and devoid of meaning in famous works by Sassoon and Remarque, that point of view was not shared by millions in the Allied nations who felt that they had helped make the world a better place. The positive view of that conflict has all but perished. There's a reason that the Wonder Woman movie was set in the first world war rather than the second: if she is opposed to war itself, few wars are as unsympathetic as the Great War.

I guess this has me thinking that we can interpret earth-shattering events in real time in ways that will seem alien or silly with the passage of time. After World War I there really was a sense that a better, less violent world was going to be brought into being. The Great Depression, of course, helped shatter that feeling.

I feel similarly when it comes to the collapse of the USSR. Even though the Cold War had, like the Great War, involved a great deal of government deception and needless slaughter (Vietnam, Pinochet, etc.) there was a general consensus in 1991 America that it was "worth it." There was also a general notion that "tyranny" had been defeated, and that the postwar order would be one of peace and democracy.

There was indeed a general increase in democratic nations around the world, but the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia were a clear sign that nationalism had not been tamed in the New World Order. In recent years the nationalist wave has been cresting, and the post-Cold War order (which was more an attempt to extend the life of the post-WWII order in the West and project it around the world) has been shaken to its core. Populist nationalism with an authoritarian streak dominates Poland and Hungary, two countries whose fledgling democracies had also failed to survive the post-World War I wave of nationalism. In Britain Brexit, in India the BJP, in China Xi an authoritarian populist for life, in American, Trump. The latter's shredding of trade agreements and attacks on NATO might well be part of a tectonic shift in world politics.

Nowadays the notion that the Cold War was somehow a great victory against tyranny ensuring a long-standing peaceful world order should be starting to sound as ridiculous as people saying that kind of thing about World War I. I think the events of 1989 have made a lot of us (myself included) complacent about the fragility of democratic forms of government. We are like the sturdy middle class Brits who thought that the sacrifice on the Somme somehow meant a blow for civilization. Now I look about, and think of Sir Edward Grey's famous comment after Britain opted for war: "The lamps are going out all across Europe, we will not see them lit again in our lifetime."

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