One hundred years ago this morning, in a railway carriage parked on a siding in the Forest of Compiègne in France, an armistice was signed between the Allies and Germany, officially ending the Great War. The signing took place at 11am French time, so that the occasion is commonly identified as the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918. The signatories of the agreement were Marshal Ferdinand Foch (representing France), Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss (representing Britain), and Matthias Erzberger (representing the new republican government of formerly Imperial Germany).
By the time these men gathered to sign the document, four great empires had ceased to exist: the Russian, the Austrian, the Ottoman, and the German. The sole remaining empire, that of the British, hung on for another thirty years or so before its piecemeal dissolution.
More than a year passed after the Armistice before a permanent peace treaty was signed at Versailles in January 1920. Its draconian terms all but guaranteed that the Great War would eventually resume, which it did less than twenty years later. Just think how brief the period “between the wars” was — looking back the same amount of time (7,599 days) from today, we see January 1998, when Paula Jones had just accused President Bill Clinton of sexual harassment and the Monica Lewinsky scandal was waiting in the wings, poised to dominate America’s television screens for the next year or two. As a matter of interest, earlier that month Ramzi Yousef was sentenced to life in prison for his part in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Remember all that? Not very long ago, was it?
The time between the wars was so short that any number of men served in both wars. A soldier born in 1900 and conscripted in 1918 had not yet turned forty when Hitler invaded Poland. By military standards he was a bit long in the tooth, but not too old to serve in the new war, especially if he was a career soldier.
So we could say that in a way the Great War lasted 31 years, from 1914 to 1945, with a twenty-year ceasefire in the middle. A ceasefire that gave the continent of Europe two precious decades of peace. During those twenty years of peace — despite the assertion that the Great War had been “the war to end wars” — there was a widespread feeling, especially after 1933, that another war was on the way. Looking back at the literature of the time, one detects a sense of impending doom. And, despite all the efforts of the great statesmen of the day to stave it off, doom eventually came.
The conflict of 1914-1918 stands as the Great Divide of our time. Looking back from the twenties, the period before 1914 seemed a golden idyll in retrospect. Not that all the signs of cultural rot weren’t already in place before the war — one has only to look at French literature from the fin de siècle or the antics of the British aristocracy during the Edwardian period to realize that decadence and ennui were rife among the literate classes long before Gavrilo Princip fired his pistol at Archduke Franz Ferdinand and blew the old world away.
But all those forces of cultural destruction were given a power assist by the Great War. Lytic processes that had been in their infancy in 1914 were fully mature by 1920. Consider this partial list, beginning with the most important:
Bolshevism. Communism and other forms of revolutionary socialism were already a concern for the intelligence services of Russia and the West in 1914, but the Great War gave them such a boost that they became unstoppable. Assisted by the German general staff, Lenin was able to return to Russia and seize the moment, taking advantage of a society and state that had been severely debilitated by three years of trench warfare.
Once they had consolidated their hold on power, the Bolsheviks and the Soviet Union became the vanguard of International Socialism, attempting to export the revolution to the entire world. In the process they spawned their evil twin, National Socialism, through their violent conflict with various other socialist sects. By funding and infiltrating activist groups in the West, they undermined and discredited traditional societal structures — nations, churches, schools, families — to further the destruction of bourgeois values and hasten the revolution.
The forces unleashed by the Bolsheviks survived the death of the USSR and are currently regnant throughout the major institutions of the Western world — the most fateful legacy of the Great War.
Women’s Lib. Female suffrage was already trending in 1914, but the Great War guaranteed that the suffragettes would prevail. The war broke up traditional arrangements between men and women, sending women to work in the factories while men were blown to pieces on the Western Front. Women who had been apolitical became activists and agitators as a result. It’s no coincidence that major Western countries granted women the vote in 1918 and shortly afterwards.
Bobbed hair, short skirts, female employment, sexual emancipation. The “free love” movement existed long before the war — think of the Fabians or the Bloomsbury Group — but after 1918 it spread from the upper and upper middle classes to the rest of society, ushering in the licentious hedonism of pop culture that has become the norm throughout the West.
Women’s suffrage enabled the feminization of our culture. The resulting emasculation has left our political institutions unprotected against the arrival of the legions of Mohammed.
World government. The horrific slaughter of the Great War gave birth to the idea that nations and nationalism were to blame for the conflict. Communist agents in the West shrewdly enhanced and promoted this notion, funding and infiltrating organizations that advocated for an end to national sovereignty and one form or another of world governance.
The process that began between the wars and accelerated after 1945 is now approaching its endgame. The Great Migration Crisis in Europe and “caravan” approaching the southern border of the USA are designed to be the death knell of the nation state in what was formerly known as Western Civilization.
Pacifism. In understandable reaction to the charnel house on the Western Front (and once again encouraged by communist agents), a large number of people began to oppose all forms of warfare. Pacifist movements gained ground, and their increased political clout during the 1930s is one of the reasons why the Great Powers in the West were unable to muster the will to stop Hitler while he was still stoppable.
The pacifist ideal is with us today, as strong as ever. Notice the apparent contradiction seen in the glorification of violence by the “anti-fascists” and their ilk, who arise from the same political milieu that opposes any form of war. There is no real contradiction, however: what is being opposed is any attempt by the nation state to defend and preserve itself by military means. This is what is meant by “war”. Violence to end the patriarchal oppression imposed by the national state is an entirely separate matter.
Modernity — not to mention post-modernity — began in the trenches of the Western Front, sometime after 1914 and before 1918, at Verdun or Passchendaele. An estimated nine million soldiers, sailors, and airmen were killed during the war. An entire generation of “war spinsters” came to maturity without any hope of finding a husband.
The general understanding of what happened was recorded and propagated by literate people of the middle and upper classes. Well-educated men from the best families became officers and were among those slaughtered in No-Man’s Land. The survivors and families of the slain preserved and passed on accounts of the Great War in memoirs and letters.
Rapid cultural changes after the war thus began among the litterateurs and seeped into the governing classes. The nihilism and anti-patriotism that now dominate our culture became endemic, and have spread through the whole of society.
When nihilism takes hold of a culture, is there any way it can be reversed without a complete societal collapse? The fall of the Roman Empire is the only model easily available to us, and it doesn’t inspire great optimism.
For a general discussion of the impact of the Great War on Western culture, I recommend a book entitled The Great War and Modern Memory by the late Paul Fussell. Further reading is suggested by Algis Valiunis in an essay written for the Claremont Review of Books, “On the Slaughter Bench of History”, which was written in the summer of 2014 for the centennial of the outbreak of the war. I’ve read both books by Barbara Tuchman that are mentioned in the essay, and they are definitely worth your time.
The memory of the Great War — and of the influenza epidemic that was a direct consequence of it — remains embedded in the collective psyche of the West. It doesn’t have to be conscious to influence the course of events, to inform our worldview, our way of thinking, our understanding of ourselves as a culture and people.
For better or worse, it is how we ceased to be who we were and became what we are.
I’ll close with one of the many poems that were written during the Great War. The poet who wrote it did two tours of duty on the Western Front and was killed on November 4, 1918, just one week before the Armistice:
Parable of the Old Man and the Young
by Wilfred Owen
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Hat tip for the CRB essay: WRSA.