Archive for the ‘World War I’ Category

The Day the World Changed Forever

Gavrilo_Princip_croppedSeventh in a series from Europe…

[Paris] – We are not always able to precisely identify the exact moment when some overarching event changed the world. History is rarely so tidy. December 7, 1941 was, at least for Americans of a certain age, a defining date when a world war came to U.S. soil. September 11th has defined a new world in which western modernity seems destined to confront perpetual conflict with radical Islam.

Still, there can be little debate that the most certain defining date in the history of the modern world occurred precisely 100 years ago – June 28, 1914 – on a street in Savajevo.

Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian – that’s him in the photo – fired five shots at the archduke of Austria-Hungary and his pregnant consort, while they traveled in an automobile on the streets of Sarajevo. Princip, armed with a Browning semiautomatic pistol, may or may not have intended to, but by murdering Franz Ferdinand and Sophie he lit the sparks that ignited The Great War. The world has never been the same.

By the time the fighting ended more than four years later as many as 37 million were dead – historians still debate the numbers – the map of Europe was re-drawn and three great empires – the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman – had ceased to exist. The borders that to this day vex the Middle East – Syria and Iraq, for example – were drawn, often with little regard to ethnic and tribal history, in the immediate wake of the war. Bolsheviks took power in Russia and the treaty at the end of the fighting that Woodrow Wilson hoped would make the world “safe for democracy” sowed the seeds of another global war barely 20 years later. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Churchill, de Gaulle, Franklin Roosevelt and a cast of millions came of age between 1914 and 1918.

Most every significant conflict since The Great War had its origins, both large and small, in the assassination in Savajevo. Yet one of the great fascinations about The Great War is that there remains fundamental disagreement about what really caused Germany and Austria to wage war against the British Empire, France, Russia, Italy and eventually the United States. Who precisely was responsible for the war is still broadly debated, as is the imponderable of whether all the death and destruction might have been avoided had Europe been governed by better, more realistic leaders. Hundreds of new books are being published on the war as its anniversary arrives – one bookstore here in Paris featured more than a dozen new books just from France – and much of the new historical work is assessing the failure of statesmanship during Europe’s last summer of peace.

British historian Christopher Clark’s superb book – The Sleepwalkers – How Europe Went to War in 1914 – makes the case, as the New York Times noted, that immediately after the events in Savajevo “there was a failure to realize that the murder of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by a young terrorist trained in expansionist Serbia might be the ‘some damned foolish thing in the Balkans” that [German Chancellor] Otto von Bismarck in 1888 had predicted would one day trigger a great European war.”

I generally subscribe to the most accepted theory that inept statesmanship – “the sleepwalkers” – in Berlin, Vienna, London, Paris and Moscow contributed to the political atmosphere that enabled the war, but that even more importantly the militant political and military leadership of Germany ultimately made war impossible to avoid. It’s complicated, but there is plenty of blame to go around, including for Serbia, although there is far from universal agreement on that point either.

For example, a recent scholarly conference in Savajevo broke down around disagreement over Serbian responsibility for the war’s origins. “Some Serb political leaders have accused the conference of bias against Serbia,” Paul Hockenos reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “and say that a revisionist history of World War I is laying the blame for the war, which claimed 37 million lives, at their feet.”

Hockenos quoted one participant as saying, “Serbia will neither allow a revision of history, nor will it forget who are the main culprits in World War I.” Presumably he meant the Germans and their Austro-Hungarian allies. Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, called the conference “a new propaganda attack against the Serbs.”

Moreover, one hundred years after killing the archduke, in many places in Serbia Gavrilo Princip is seen not as a murdering terrorist who helped precipitate The Great War, but as a national hero who helped liberate his country from foreign domination. The debate goes on.

Fields of Battle Display in Paris

In France and across Europe the anniversary of the war is being marked in many impressive and important ways.

Fence Display

Along the Rue de Medicis and attached to the long iron fence that encloses the Jardin Du Luxembourg are 50 or so enormous contemporary color photographs of various sites that still show the marks of The Great War. Developed by a British non-profit, the exhibit – Fields of Battle – Lands of Peace – will tour from now until 2018. The photos, by photo-journalist Michael St Maur Sheil, are stunning in their simplicity and shocking in the manner that they capture, better than words often can, the scope of death, destruction and deprivation that spread across Europe, the Middle East and Africa 100 years ago.

There are no people in these scenes, only the memory on the land of what the war created, or more often destroyed. As I walked from panel to panel yesterday reading the excellent notes that accompany the photographs, I tried to gauge the reaction of people young and old who stopped to look and, perhaps like me, ponder how such senseless human behavior was and still is possible.

Memorial tablets at Saint-Suplice for those lost in The Great War

Church display

One need not look long or hard in Paris to find quiet and moving remembrances of The Great War.

In the old church of Saint-Sulpice, second only to Notre-Dame in size in Paris and not far from where the haunting images of the old battlefields are displayed, an entire chapel of the church is given over to a series of large marble panels that list the dead of The Great War, and just the dead from this one Paris church.

The collective French reaction to the second Great War remains a jumble of conflicting stories, including to what degree the nation and its people collaborated with their Nazi occupiers, but The Great War is generally seen, as The Economist recently noted, as not so much a matter “of wasted lives and tragic loss as national heroism and glorious victory: the last time the country was unambiguously united on the right side of history.”

One million four-hundred thousand French soldiers perished in The Great War, more deaths than any of the Western powers, and considering the overall population of France in 1918 it was a truly staggering lost. That loss of the talent of a generation, 100 years on, remains a fact of life here. Another great anniversary, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Paris in 1944, will be celebrated here with enthusiasm in August, but that date is marked more as a happy milestone than as a cultural and political turning point. The Great War simply turned the world upside down and that cannot be forgotten.

Some debate has raged in Britain this year over whether too much attention is being paid to the centenary of the war. “Schoolchildren are being turned off the First World War because of the ‘barrage’ of TV programmes devoted to the conflict, according to academics.” It was alleged by some that the “sheer scale of attention given to the Great War…risks leaving pupils feeling bored.”

I have many reactions to the anniversary, but boredom is certainly not one of them. Here’s hoping the attention devoted in Europe and in the United States to the “defining event of the 20th Century” will help all of us – and perhaps particularly young people – understand a little better its muddled and contentious history and remember a little more fervently its awful and enduring impact.

One hundred years ago this weekend the world changed – forever.

To End All Wars

No Beach Reading Here

Douglas Haig – that’s him done up to his bemedalled best – has become the most controversial general of the Great War. His career, including command of the British Army in France during much of the First World War, earned him a state funeral upon his death in 1928. But history has a way of re-evaluating reputations and Haig has now become a subject of much scholarship and critical analysis.

On his orders 60,000 British troops became casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. That is a sentence difficult to write let alone begin to comprehend. With the British and French facing the Germans across a no man’s land of barbed wire and muddy trenches, the war became a contest in mass murder. To some critics, Haig, a self-assured, duplicitous Scotsman – his family name still marks the bottles of a brand of Scotch whiskey – was the Murderer-in-Chief, or at the time simply “Butcher Haig.”

Haig replaced his one-time boss, Field Marshall John French, as commander of British forces in France early in the war. French was inept and out of his depth in thinking a new type of war featuring the machine gun could be won with heroic cavalry charges. Haig and French playing starring roles in a marvelous new book – To End All Wars - that is both a history of the defining event of the 20th Century and a chilling reminder that those who opposed the war may really have history on their side.

The book by Adam Hochschild is gripping history that captures the many absurdities of the war that did not end all wars, while focusing on those dissenters, like Bertrand Russell, who, at considerable risk to position and reputation, stood against the madness. Hochschild, as reviewer Jonathan F. Vance notes, also has a telling eye for the story within the story.

“One such story concerns Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton,” Vance wrote in the Globe and Mail, “who was beginning his epic journey to the South Pole when the war broke out. He offered to return to England and put his men and ship at the service of King and Empire, but the British government urged him to carry on. In 1916, Shackleton emerged from the polar wastes after a harrowing 18-month journey that saw his ship crushed by pack ice. His first question upon arriving at a Norwegian whaling station was, ‘When was the war over?’ The startled response: ‘The War is not over. Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.'”

The madness is fully captured in the story of the British Field Marshall Jack French and his sister Charlotte Despard. She was one of the great suffrage leaders of Britain and also one of the foremost opponents of the war that her brother was prosecuting across the English Channel. Charlotte led public protests in England against the war, while her brother led a whole generation to slaughter.

Above all Hochschild’s superb new book reminds us – again – that there is no such thing as a neat, tidy, quick war. Once begun, World War I spun wildly out of control beyond the worst nightmares 0f any of those, including the German Kaiser, the Russian Czar and the leaders of the British Empire, who thought the war, sparked by a political assassination in the Balkans in the summer of 1914, could be over by Christmas. It was over by Christmas, but the year was 1918 and millions were dead, the map of Europe and the Middle East remade and the world charged forever.

To End All Wars certainly isn’t light, summer beach reading, but rather is a reminder that, when it comes to war, we seem to keep making monumental miscalculations and tragic mistakes over and over again. It is likely the best book on the Great War you will ever read.

 

The Great War

It Didn’t End Anything…

The “war to end all wars” didn’t.

In fact the case can be persuasively made that what before World War II was commonly called “the great war” really began a vicious spiral of nearly continuous war, killing and destruction that made the 20th Century the most violent century.

I got to thinking about this after reading a moving tribute in the Washington Post this week to the last American veteran of the great war, Frank Woodruff Buckles. Buckles died recently at the ripe old age of 110. What things he saw in his long life.

Paul Duggan’s Post story made the point that Buckles, a West Virginia boy, was among the nearly 5 million Americans who were in uniform in 1917 and 1918. More than 116,000 of them died. Frank was the last one; a link in a now broken chain back to a time when there was no GI Bill, virtually no health care for returning doughboys and little acknowledgment from either the government or the public.

By 1930 the war was thought by many in the United States to have been a great mistake, a fight not ours that had scarred – and scared – a generation. Isolationism dominated American foreign policy and the U.S. Senate even investigated the “merchants of death,” who many thought had profited from the wartime sale of American munitions.

Today, its the World War II “greatest generation” that gets the attention, but it was the war Frank Buckles and his generation fought that really defined the 20th Century. The war now mostly relegated to the dusty back shelf of American history still echoes down to us today in so many ways.

The modern map of Europe and the Middle East is the result of that war. We now have a modern democracy and a NATO ally in Turkey. The Ottoman Empire ended with the war. The last Russian Tsar was ushered out and Lenin and eventually Stalin ushered in as a result of that war. The war brought an end to emperors in Germany and Austria-Hungary and made France and Britain fearful of the rise of the Bolsheviks, but even more fearful of another European war.

An Austrian corporal injured in a gas attack in that war, used the defeat of Germany and its allies as a springboard to create what became the horrors of Nazism. Winston Churchill knew both glory and defeat in the great war and at its end helped invent the country where today American soldiers still try to create a democracy. Iraq, born of the great war and always an unnatural nation, has long been a violent and troubled place.

Woodrow Wilson, a prickly idealist about many things, thought the world – and his own nation – would study the horrors of the trenches, the gas attacks, the vast machine gun slaughter, and conclude that nations must band together to ensure a lasting peace. By 1920, Wilson couldn’t get the U.S. Senate to support his grand ambition of a League of Nations. By 1931, Japan had invade Manchuria, Hitler and his followers where marching in the streets of Bavaria and Mussolini was planning a “new Roman Empire” that would begin with the conquest of Ethiopia.

By 1939, barely 20 years after the war to end all wars had sputtered to a uneasy conclusion in muddy fields in France, most of the world was at war again.

World War I produced Captain Harry Truman, who served in France, and Lt. Col Dwight Eisenhower, who never got out of the country. George Patton saw action as the first U.S. tank commander in France and Ernest Hemingway and Walt Disney were both ambulance drivers. Hermann Goering learned most of what he needed to know to command the German Luftwaffe as a World War I fighter pilot.

It was Frank Buckles’s fate to be the last solider of the great war. We should remember him for what he did and remember his war for what it did, too.