Archive for the ‘World War I’ Category

America’s Great War…

The marvelous British historian David Reynolds argues in his latest book – The Long Shadow – which explores the lasting legacies of World War I, that every country has a national narrative about its “great war.”

Photo - The Telegraph

David Reynolds author of The Long Shadow. Photo, The Telegraph

For Great Britain the “great war” remains World War I, which is being commemorated right now with solemn ceremonies, television documentaries, a raft of new books and even government financed field trips by school children to France to witness first hand the trenches and cemeteries where many of a generation fought, fell and remain.

War deaths from Great Britain, including those who died from disease and injury, were more than 700,000 from 1914 to 1918. The total reaches nearly a million when the soldiers of the empire are counted. The Great War, more even that World War II, remains a searing event in modern British history and memory.

America’s Great War…

In the United States, by contrast, the Great War remains, in Reynolds’ phrase, “on the margins of American cultural memory.” Our “great war” Reynolds correctly contends – the war that never ends for Americans – is the Civil War. More than three-quarter of a million Americans died. “More than the combined American death toll in all its other conflicts from the Revolution to Korea, including both world wars.” Our great war re-wrote the Constitution, ended slavery, realigned American politics and touched, often profoundly, every family and institution in the re-united nation. It also caused the death of our greatest president and cemented decades of resentment and hatred in a sizable chunk of the population.

Confederate troops under their flag

Confederate troops under their flag

“Both the Union and the Confederacy,” the British historian writes, “claimed to be fighting for ‘freedom’ – defining it in fundamentally different ways…in retrospect the dominant American narrative has represented 1861-1865 as a crusade to free the slaves, yet the unresolved legacies of slavery rumbled through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, and the ‘Southern strategy’ – not even settled by the election of the country’s first black president in 2008.” That pretty well sums it up.

Yet the legacies of our “great war,” engaged afresh in the wake of the recent horrible events in South Carolina, never seem to be completely acknowledged by our political leaders. The war, many seem to believe, can be rightly treated as a cultural artifact, a historic aberration or a mere blip on the national path to the perfect Union. But the war remains with us in big ways and small, including in the rebel flag.

South Carolina Capitol

South Carolina Capitol

As symbolically and practically important as are the call by the Republican governor of South Carolina to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds and the moves by Walmart, Amazon and others to quit selling Confederate-themed merchandize, the war over our great war, including its meaning and importance, will continue. The battle goes on, in part, because even a century and a half after the war ended our national conflicts about race, civil rights and national and state politics are fueled by two great and hard to combat realities – myth and ignorance.

Losing the War and Winning the Legacy…

Scarlett and her "boys of the Lost Cause..."

Scarlett and her “boys of the Lost Cause…”

The South lost the Civil War, but in very important ways won the war to define the conflict. The still greatest Civil War film, for example, is Gone With the Wind, a glorious piece of Hollywood myth making that helped ensure that Scarlett O’Hara’s love for her southern home, Tara, and her determination to survive evil Yankee depredations would frame our great war as a noble “lost cause” fought to maintain a genteel Southern culture. It’s all hooey done up in hoop skirts. Myth with a southern twang.

The noble Ashley Wilkes, a cinematic stand in for Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, was a traitor who took up arms against his country. Scarlett, the determined southern belle, aided and abetted the rebellion in order to maintain her piece of the South’s slave dependent economy. One commentator described Scarlett as the “founding Mother of the Me Generation,” unwilling to bother her pretty little head about anything beyond her own self-interest. An enduring line from the film, the Best Picture of 1939, is Scarlett’s dismissive line: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” So it goes with our great war and its meaning.

As laudable as her actions are in calling for the flag to come down in South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley still seems to embrace another great myth about the war. She said this week that some troubled souls, like the alleged killer of nine black Americans at a prayer service in Charleston, have “a sick and twisted view of the flag” and that those who simply respect southern “heritage” by displaying the flag are effectively victimized by those who embrace the banner as the ultimate racist emblem. This distinction is another myth.

The American Civil War was fought to maintain a way of life all right, but that “heritage,” that way of life, was all about maintaining slavery and white supremacy. While we’re taking down the Stars and Bars perhaps we ought to petition Turner Classic Movies to send Rhett and Scarlett off to a museum, too.

Myth + Ignorance = Politics…

The myths about our great war also feed directly into a shocking degree of ignorance about the seminal event in American history. Numerous studies have shown that many students have trouble placing the Civil War in the right decade of the 19th Century and some, even at very  good public universities, don’t know who won the war or why it was fought.

The 1948 Dixiecrat ticket

The 1948 Dixiecrat ticket

As ignorance intersected with mythology over the decades the Civil War became about “heritage” and “culture” rather than violent opposition to African-American civil rights. Meanwhile, politicians from Pitchfork Ben Tillman to Strom Thurmond to Richard Nixon invoked “states rights” as a cause as pure as Jefferson Davis’ motives.

Thurmond, a South Carolina Democrat who eventually became a Republican, denounced civil rights and espoused states rights when he ran for the presidency in 1948 on the Dixiecrat ticket. Thurmond’s campaign wrapped itself in the Confederate flag and won four Southern states and an electoral vote in Tennessee.

Even the great liberal Franklin Roosevelt kept his distance from race and civil rights while in the White House even when pestered to take action by his more liberal wife. FDR had no desire to upset the delicate balance of white political power below the Mason-Dixon line that kept southern Democratic segregationists in his party and in position of great power until the last half of the 20th Century.

The sainted Ronald Reagan, the modern GOP’s answer to Roosevelt, skillfully played the myth card when seeking the presidency in 1980. Reagan launched his campaign that year in Philadelphia, Mississippi at the Neshoba County fair. Sixteen years earlier, as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recalled in a 2007 column, a young New Yorker Andrew Goodman and two fellow civil rights activists Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, a young black man, disappeared in Neshoba County. Their bodies wouldn’t be found for weeks.

Reagan in Philadelphia, MS to launch his 1980 campaign

Reagan in Philadelphia, Mississippi  to launch his 1980 presidential campaign

“All had been murdered, shot to death by whites enraged at the very idea of people trying to secure the rights of African-Americans.

“The murders were among the most notorious in American history. They constituted Neshoba County’s primary claim to fame when Reagan won the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1980. The case was still a festering sore at that time. Some of the conspirators were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day.”

States Rights…

Reagan used his Philadelphia, Mississippi speech – he was the first national candidate to ever speak there – to explicitly endorse “states rights” and blow the dog whistle of racial politics. Reagan made absolutely no mention of the still white-hot struggle in Mississippi for civil rights, while appealing to conservative white voters. Read the speech today with Reagan’s folksy references to “welfare” and “personal responsibility” and it is easy to see why his Republican Party cemented what appears, twenty-five years later, to be a permanent political deal with white southerners.

1964 FBI poster seeking information of missing civil rights workers.

1964 FBI poster seeking information of missing civil rights workers.

“I believe in state’s rights,” Reagan said in Mississippi in 1980. “I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I’m looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.”

The crowd of 10,000 voters – those who were there recall seeing no black faces in the crowd – knew what the candidate was promising and the “re-ordering” myth, at its heart a plea to return to – or maintain – a culture where the Confederate flag flaps in every southern breeze. It’s a small leap from Neshoba County in 1980 to the leader of the nation’s largest white supremacy group lavishing campaign money on Republican presidential candidates and members of Congress in 2015.

It is a moment to pause and praise the South Carolina governor for taking a decent and important step regarding that old and hateful flag. It would be easy to say the action is about 150 years late, but perhaps as symbols finally fall, even slowly, it will help to both destroy the myths and improve the knowledge about our great war. There is more to do.

Where it Began…

South Carolina in 1860

South Carolina in 1860

The next time you hear some politician proclaim fidelity to “states rights” or argue for the sanctity of the Constitution, remember that South Carolina, where our own great war began, rather skillfully and with no apparent irony invoked the Constitution in 1860 in an attempt to destroy the Constitution and leave the Union.

“A geographical line has been drawn across the Union,” South Carolina declared in seceding from the Union just weeks after Abraham Lincoln was elected, “and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.”

Our great war really was about ending human bondage and not merely Scarlett’s “heritage.” Both sides knew it then and we should know it now. It should be obvious that the flag hoisted by the rebels represents, even today, the bloody battle to perpetuate black Americans in slavery. The Confederate flag is simply a symbol of racism, bigotry and hatred and having it fly over a state capitol or adorn a license plate is deeply offensive and historically wrong.

A century and a half removed from our seminal event our great war remains shrouded in myth and buried in ignorance, but one need only read Lincoln’s greatest speech to better understand our true history and why we must – finally – come to terms with our great national catastrophe and its roots in white supremacy.

“All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war…”

“One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves,” Lincoln said in 1865, “not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.”

Taking down the flag is important, but hardly the full answer to our troubled racial past and still troubled present. “The Confederate flag should not come down because it is offensive to African Americans,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American, writes in The Atlantic. “The Confederate flag should come down because it is embarrassing to all Americans. The embarrassment is not limited to the flag, itself. The fact that it still flies, that one must debate its meaning in 2015, reflects an incredible ignorance. A century and a half after Lincoln was killed, after 750,000 of our ancestors died, Americans still aren’t quite sure why.”

Some Americans are still willing to “rend the Union” by perpetuating myths and playing on ignorance often while pursuing votes. That awful war never ends. Taking down the flag is a small step, but a correct one. Myths are dismantled and ignorance overcome, too slowly perhaps, but it must happen.

 

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.