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World War One and the Decline of European Civilization
I have just watched several DVDs with documentary film, lightly colorized and with added sound, but otherwise authentic historical footage, about World War One. It is a French-Canadian co-production, written and directed by Daniel Costelle and Isabelle Clarke. The version I watched was retold in English as “World War One: The Apocalypse.” I did not agree with every single narrative comment, but overall, the series was fair and relevant.
The original footage is amazing. While books may be great for historical analysis, there is something very powerful about images, especially moving images. It brings people and events to life in a way that no text can ever match. In the Alps, in mountainous battles against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italians used the basic WW1 tactics of trench warfare even in the snow. I vaguely knew that, but I had never seen it illustrated before.
What struck me the most when watching this footage is how much Europe has changed in the past century. Some of this change consists of technological advances. In the early twentieth century, airplanes were a very recent innovation. Indeed, the First World War was arguably the first major war where airplanes were used in combat to any significant extent.
A few visionaries such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky were already dreaming of space exploration in those days. Yet in the early 1900s, this was more or less science fiction. A person transported from Europe in 1914 to 2014 would have been amazed to see a European space probe orbit a comet and land a robotic science probe on its surface. This was achieved in 2014 by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft.
However, while technological advances have been huge, they cannot fully mask the cultural decline that has arguably affected the continent during the same interval. Europe in 1914 was optimistic and confident. It was so strong that even great cataclysms such as the First and Second World War didn’t fully destroy it, at least not immediately. Europeans in 1914 still ruled much of the world. A century later, Europeans don’t even rule many of their own suburbs.
The European percentage of the global population had reached a peak in the early twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, it is dropping to levels never before seen in historical times. Meanwhile, other regions such as Africa and parts of the Muslim world are undergoing an unprecedented population explosion. The global South is dumping some of its excess population in Europe, in effect colonizing the continent. They are not just trying to do so. They are being allowed to do so by European authorities. Natives who object to this development are stigmatized, marginalized, ridiculed and sometimes legally prosecuted.
A European transported from 1914 to the present day would marvel at some of our technology — for example, our mobile phones, satellites and electronic computers connected by a giant web through the Internet. However, he would probably have been shocked and horrified to witness how large sections of the continent are being given away to alien and often hostile tribes. Many of Europe’s politicians and intellectuals outright celebrate this process.
A time traveler from 1914 would most likely have concluded that something went horribly wrong with Europe’s dynamism, self-confidence and moral compass in the intervening century. He would also have been right.
World War One set in motion a chain of events that Europe still has not entirely recovered from, a full century later. Without WW1, there would have been no Soviet Union and no Nazi Germany. There would probably have been no European Union, either.
This does not mean that all of Europe’s dangerous ideas were developed because of WW1. Marxism and The Communist Manifesto existed decades before this. So did Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, alias Lenin. However, Lenin was not able to gain power and implement his version of Marxist thought until the power vacuum and chaos in Russia triggered by the war (plus cynical German aid) provided him with the opportunity. The brutal Marxist dictatorship of the Soviet Union, created by Lenin and his murderous thugs, was a direct result of WW1. It survived until 1991. People groomed by the Soviet Union and the KGB still hold prominent positions in Eastern and Western Europe today.
WW1 was not the sole reason for Europe’s decline. That would be too simplistic. But it was clearly a turning point for the worse. While Marxist theory was a product of the nineteenth century, it was implemented as a state ideology in certain countries only in the twentieth century. Both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were more or less direct byproducts of WW1. Generations after his death, Europe still cowers in the shadow of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. This implies that we have still not fully recovered from World War One.
Stefan Zweig’s Vienna was very different from Adolf Hitler’s Vienna. Today, entire sections of the city of Vienna are dominated by Turkish, Arab or other Muslim immigrants. Even Stefan Zweig did not anticipate this in his book The World of Yesterday, written shortly before he committed suicide in February 1942.
All people have mood swings. Yet those who suffer from manic-depressive illness (bipolar disorder) have this to an extreme and unhealthy degree. Europe has been a manic-depressive continent since World War One, going from one extreme to the next. One fears that this pattern will continue.
World War One is one part of the story. It is not the whole story. Nevertheless, there is good reason to suspect that when future historians write about the current decline of European culture and civilization, they will devote significant space to WW1.
It was unquestionably a great cataclysm. It did not entirely create the ideas that were to dominate European societies in the following generations. However, it destroyed the old order and radicalized the continent, making Europe more receptive to all kinds of radical and dangerous ideologies.
World War One helped establish the myth that all wars are pointless. I don’t believe that this is true. All wars may be unpleasant, but some of them may be necessary, or at least the lesser of several evils. However, many of the things that took place during WW1 really were pointless. The senseless mass slaughter of Verdun, Somme and other places undermined the belief in old truths. In the long run it opened the continent up for moral relativism and cultural pessimism.
It’s likely that none of Europe’s military and political leaders in the summer of 1914 wanted a protracted and extremely bloody war lasting more than four years. Not in France, Britain, Italy, the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire or any of the other state combatants. Yet a protracted and extremely bloody war is what they got. Europe’s senior leaders made many foolish and erroneous decisions. Even though the Germans received the major part of the blame, these mistakes were not exclusive to one country.
Globalization was a major issue in the years before WW1, just as it is today. It was believed that trade, travel and international connections would make war impossible. That prediction was wrong then. It may well be wrong now.
In the early 1900s, nationalism was used to fuel the passions of the masses. A century later, Western elites are suppressing nationalism and dismantling European nation-states. Instead of creating empires by colonizing other peoples, they are now trying to create an empire, the EU, by allowing other peoples to colonize Europe. Their policies have not yet led to bloodletting similar to what took place in the trenches between 1914 and 1918. Yet the conflicts due to Multiculturalism and mass immigration are still in their infancy. Their long-term result is hard to predict, but likely to be very destructive.
In Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris, a rising number of people live in fear of violence from immigrant gangs in the streets. A few generations ago, Great Britain was the heart of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known. Now, Muslim immigrant gangs rape and abuse girls and children on a nearly industrial scale in cities across Britain. The ruling elites seem to react to this with the same casual indifference as they did to men rotting in the trenches during the First World War. They feel sure of their grasp of power.
Tsar Nicholas II of Russia probably felt sure of his grasp of power in the spring of 1914. A few years later he was gone, and his regime swept away. One can only hope that once the EU finally collapses, those who pick up the pieces are better men than those who exploited the power vacuum left behind after Tsar Nicholas.
Europe may or may not need another Charles Martel. But the continent does not need another Lenin.
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