This week, November 11, to be precise, marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the war that created our modern world. The war that was known first as The Great War, also as the War to End All Wars (we see how that went) and the War to Make the World Safe for Democracy—and finally, World War I.
The Great War lasted from August 1914 until the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, when the Central Powers (The German Empire, Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire; and the Allies (the United States, France, Great Britain, and Italy, among many other’s) stopped shooting at each other across the trenches that were stretched across more than a thousand miles from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean. At least 16 million soldiers died on both sides, and if you include civilians, 37 million perished.
The Great War traumatized Western Civilization to a degree not seen since the Black Death of the Middle Ages. Before the war, much of the West had an optimistic, forward-looking view. After the war an entire generation became “lost” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s memorable phrase. The writings, songs and even movies of the next 20 years reflected a jaded, cynical view that painted the sacrifices made in the war as having been for nothing.
Before the Great War, the inevitability of progress, the unvarnished desirability of the reign of science and the view that technology would continue ever forward, ever upward, raising mankind on wings of eagles to the heights of manmade paradise, seemed the evitable birthright of all peoples. Well, to be honest, not all. The browns, yellows and black races probably would have gotten, at best, coach seats on that 747 flight to glory.
But all that crashed into shards with the bullets that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and sent Europe into a death spiral that it didn’t fully recover from until the 1960s or later.
Because Britain and France lost the flower of their youth in the war, neither country was in a mood to provide resistance when Adolf Hitler rose to power until it was nearly too late to stop him.
The world before the Great War seems as alien: as innocent and as naïve as an episode of Mr. Rogers would appear to the members of the Hellfire Club.
Today’s world is the product of that war and its aftermath. So, on November 11, which was known at first as Armistice Day, and is now known in this country as Veterans Day, pause for a moment and think about what we lost a hundred years ago.