I thought this would be fitting for the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, seeing that we’re in the eleventh year.
Almost every major event in the second half of the twentieth century—most of the ones that had major, life-changing impacts—stem from World War II: the Cold War from Potsdam and the political land-rush by the victorious US and USSR; the Space Race from the Cold War; the numerous Arab-Israeli, African, and Southeast Asian conflicts from the staggering blows the colonial powers took in finances and manpower; the European Union and its precursor, the European Economic Community; hell, if it wasn’t for World War II, the United States would have spent the 1940s wallowing in a great depressing, instead of becoming an industrial workhorse to fill the hole left by declining colonial empires.
But the seeds of the Second World War were sown at Versailles, an armistice so demanding after a war so brutal that many perceived an end the hundreds of years of European infighting, a heritage that catalyzed into the powerblocks which marched off to war in 1914. The importance of World War One is muted and diminished today; there are frequent blockbusters filmed about the Second World War nowadays, but few people want to look back to the slaughter of trench warfare and poison gas. Yet it was the event that formed the bridge between the European politics of the Industrial Revolution and the globalizing post-war world in the Atomic Age.
The Great War is often overshadowed in history by its brutish progeny, but without the Great War the face of the twentieth century would be a far different place. Germany wouldn’t have undergone the financial and psychological hardships that left it crippled and bitter in the wake of Versailles; England and France wouldn’t have lost an entire generation of young men. No “Rape of Belgium” would mean no Holocaust. It is well worth remembering the symbolic value of France signing its terms of surrender in 1940 in the same train car in which the Germans had surrendered in 1918; Hitler spent decades preying on the frustration and ennui of the German people, constructing the “stab in the back” legacy to harness nationalistic grievances. The Great War poisoned its own well at Versailles. Defeat bred German resentment; victory spelled future ruin for the victors.
The Allied Powers which dictated the Treaty of Versailles found themselves in precarious positions two decades later; England and France wanted an old-fashioned “to the victors go the spoils” style of war reparations, and to expand their colonial empires with German holdings, which is precisely what they got. The Great War left France rightfully war-averse from staggering casualty rates, as emphasized by the Maginot Line—a wall against the future German invasions, a fully defensive line signalling an unwillingness to send further millions of men to die in foreign fields, as well as an expectation and preparation against future aggression . Britain found itself under-manned and under-equipped on the eve of war in the 1930s, forced to flail about diplomatically in attempts to encircle Germany with treaties as its military trained and re-armed. While England bravely soldiered on alone, two World Wars were enough to bankrupt an empire upon which the sun never set. The small countries of Europe were wary of choosing Chamberlain’s diplomatic carrot to Hitler’s stick; after all, many of them were created from the great treaty-bound empires which had collapsed in 1917 and 1918.
Armistice Day is a bitter irony, a sober holiday marking the conclusion of the bloodiest, most gruesome war in history, a war which many proclaimed would be the last war in history due to its wholesale slaughter. Yet the Great War’s main accomplishment was setting the stage for a repeat performance.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.