Tuesday, November 9, 2010

World War I -- History, Significance, and Lasting Lessons

      Of course, the title of this post is pretentious.  All that I am going to do is touch a tiny bit of history, a tiny bit of significance, and one or two lessons that may or may not be lasting.  But that was as short as I could make the title, and still have it say where I want to go with this post.

       Surely tens of thousands of books, at the very least, have been published about the Great War of 1914-1918.  Surely not one person in one hundred has read even the hundredth part of what has been written.  But that is hardly sufficient to properly memorialize the more than 15 million persons who died as a direct result of that conflict, or the experiences of the 50 millions of combatants, and the hundreds of millions of their families, who survived.  World history is a river that flows exceedingly broad and deep, and the vast load it carries of death, life, and experience, overwhelms my imagination.  Wise men have said you can never step into the same river twice, and I partly believe it.   I trust that The Lord of All Worlds, and the holy Saints and Angels, keep track of it all.

       World War I, it is said, was caused by the assassination of an Archduke;  which is roughly equivalent to saying that the Civil War was caused by the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter.  Perhaps that is good enough, in both cases, for the official histories, or for people who must negotiate treaties to end wars and who feel the need to assign "full responsibility" to specific somebodies and their successors.  This happens in most of our modern large-scale wars where indemnities are contemplated and there are occupation rules to establish, justify, and enforce; certainly, it happened in each of these two wars I have named.

       The Great War which began in August, 1914, was already ghastly, and known to be so by the men in the field (on all sides, on all fronts) by that first Christmas, when trench warfare was just settling in.  Four years later, when the war concluded in the inconclusive Armistice, the atrocious knowledge was vivid in all men's minds -- all the foot-soldiers' minds.   All knew it had been horrible, and many thought it had been pointless.  What importantly remained was to fix the enormous guilt right where it belonged: on the Germans.  And that is what the Versailles Treaty proceeded to do.  The noble victors told you that the Kaiser had been ambitious; if it were so, it were a grievous fault, and grievously he was made to answer for it.  In much of Central Europe, where the guilt was supposed to lie, the Old Order was swept away -- its monarchies, its aristocracies, its pieties.  And in Russia, a state allied with the victors (if we should call them that), the old regime was swept away with exceptional brutality.    Only in the West did the same national constitutions and governments that had begun the war survive its concluding phases.  Perhaps they, too, feared for their survival.

       At any rate, they took firm action to preserve their power, and they succeeded.  During the latter years of the war, certain police-state methods appeared, especially in the United States.  People who opposed the war, and older people who opposed the drafting of the young people, and young draft resisters themselves, were forcefully dealt with (if you think long sentences in federal prisons are forceful, as I do).  Christian Mennonites and Quakers were in trouble because of their pacifist traditions, and so were individualists, moralists, freethinkers, socialists, and . . . communists.  The Espionage Act was passed in 1917, and prohibited not only such things as passing secrets, but also, opposing military recruitment.  What was the legal punishment?  "Death, or 30 years imprisonment, or both."  (Both?)   The US Supreme Court, with its usual constitutional insight, agreed with the government in 1919 (a year after the war ended) that imprisoning these opponents of "recruitment" (read: involuntary draft) did not violate any freedom of speech rights that they might have thought they possessed.  And by 1918, the law had become even more strict with the Sedition Act, which prohibited, among other things, "any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States . . . or the flag . . . or the uniform of the Army or Navy."  

       The Department of Justice, and the newly formed FBI, swung into action.  Among hundreds who were imprisoned under these laws can be found such persons as the socialist candidate for president, Eugene Debs; the publisher of a periodical, The Jeffersonian, who opposed the war and the draft; and the future poet e. e. cummings, who, while serving in the Ambulance Corps on the Western Front, "had spoken openly of his lack of hatred for the Germans."  

       Actual sentences ranged from a few months to 10 years imprisonment.  While I truly regret the treatment of these notable and honorable citizens, I save more of my sympathy for the hundreds of unnamed, unknown citizens who were rounded up and locked up, and had no one, and no historian, to be their champion.  Their mistake, if they had made any, was in believing that the Bill of Rights offered them any protection; or that this was any more a nation of people that seriously valued freedom of conscience, freedom of choice, and freedom of action.

       It was convenient that a few communists were found. You know the logic:  Some communists commit acts of violence; some communists oppose the draft; some communists have been very publicly captured; X opposes the draft; and therefore, obviously, X is a dangerous violent communist threat to our freedoms, which the government is trying so hard to protect by "making the world safe for democracy," as our courageous president has so nobly said.  And don't you dare say otherwise . . . you seditious spy, or we'll get you, too.   They called it "The Red Scare;" but who was doing the scaring of whom? 

       In future years, certain historians would step forward to rehabilitate the memories of the war.  It hadn't been as bad as all that.  And the influenza epidemic was also bad. And after all, the good guys had won, and that can't be bad.

       And the American church had to put a nice spin on it.  After all, they were the ones who had famously praised the Lord and passed the ammunition.  They were the ones who were deeply concerned that their Mennonite and Quaker brethren had, through want of courage and true manliness, not sufficiently condemned Prussian militarism, the real cause of the war.  We had fought the gallant fight, saving civilization from the Hun. Onward, Christian Soldiers.  The work of our missionaries could now go forward, converting the heathen to (Jesus and) our way.  In fact, it was all probably God's Will.

       Well, despite all the repression of the US government -- the President, the Bureaucracy, the Congress, and the Supreme Court, in concert assembled -- and the reassurances of the Churchmen, in congregations dissembled -- people went back and questioned the war.  Returned veterans gave their views.  Establishment and anti-establishment writers published.  Politicians of both parties weighed in to protect their reputations.  Some truth came out. But a great deal remained buried, or was ignored, or was forgotten over time. 
       Such as the fact that, early on, Woodrow Wilson had found himself in the pocket of certain persons far older, and far better connected, and far more powerful, than he.

       Such as the fact that some wealthy bankers and industrialists on both sides of the Atlantic had made sure that the war was prosecuted in such a way as to maximize their investments and protect their war loans.

       Such as the fact that several secret societies were at war with each other.  Or in collusion with each other.  (Oh, I know that today we don't have conspiracies, I know, I know.  I know it is a different day; human nature, and especially governments, have changed so much for the better.)  But as a matter of fact, in those days, those societies did exist, and they were quite extensive, and quite powerful, and quite secretive.   And they controlled whole swaths of nations.

       There were dark rumors, that only some believed, that the war was pre-planned.  That it was part of a deeper game to bankrupt governments and bring violent revolution to Europe.  There was some evidence that these rumors were true -- the governments certainly were bankrupted, and widespread violent revolution broke out.  (And in truth, no violent revolution anywhere has ever been purely spontaneous; think about it.)

       If I had lived, and had been writing, and had said any of this in 1918, I could have been, and probably would have been, locked up.  "Disloyal, scurrilous."  So I guess I'm glad I live in a country where I am free to say this -- now -- but it is under the same federal government that has said that I was not free to say anything like this then.

       My grandfather, who is of German descent, was about thirty years old when the United States declared war in 1917.  He had small children, and was not, I suppose, immediately liable to the draft.  The pastor of his church had emigrated from Germany to America about 25 years before the war.  He would later recall those times during the war years when federal agents would come to his church and silently listen to his sermons; a long time afterward, he told my father about it.  Perhaps most of his congregation never really knew about all this; but perhaps they did.  My grandfather's generation, I think, learned to shut up.

       The men who ran the Great War, I think, learned that the sheep can be managed.  Again.  In fact, they can be sheared.

       So each group learned a valuable lesson.

        *       *       *

       Well, there is some point to my telling this story, and I haven't quite gotten around to it.  The next installment will come forward a generation closer to our time.


  1. Let's not forget that the ousting of the Kaiser and the 2nd Reich left a vaccuum which would be filled by the Brown Shirts and hence the ascent of Hitler with the ensuing 2nd world war and later the western advance of the Iron Curtain. Of such small things are the events of history made

  2. Yes, Anonymous.

    And I find it further interesting that there is some evidence ( perhaps circumstantial ) that both Adolf Hitler and his brother were agents trained at Tavistock in Britain. I am told that Hitler's brother remained safe and sound in Britain throughout World War II. However, I know too little about this, and it will not be the subject of any soon-upcoming posts.

  3. It's lam rionic here. WWI, to me always comes back to the human costs. This poem hits me in the gut about WWI, and really all wars that I am aware of, as I have yet to find one that actually was "just".

    In Flanders fields the poppies blow
    Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
    Scarce heard amid the guns below.

    We are the Dead. Short days ago
    We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
    In Flanders fields.

    Take up our quarrel with the foe:
    To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders fields.

  4. Thanks, Anonymous, for posting the poem.

    It seems to me that if anyone "gets it," it is most often the poets who get it best.

    Not that it is the best or most important line in the poem, but I focus on the one that says:

    "Take up our quarrel with the foe: / To you from failing hands we throw / The torch . . ."

    What did the poet, or the dead men, think the quarrel was, or the torch, that was worth their deaths or the deaths of those who followed them?

  5. On the futility of war and the insignificant value of a soldier's life, noone sums it up better than Robert Blenheim - 'Twas a famous victory

  6. I've said it on your FB page too. Sow the reeth of the dragon and reap the hurricaine

  7. I've come across a video link in a weekly e-mail I receive on aviation that I'd like to share:


    This isn't entirely relevant to the post, but I found this interesting. I hadn't previously seen video footage of the first World War.

    I very much enjoy your posts, Robert!
    Phil Miller