November 11 marks the armistice that was supposed to bring an end to the Great War in 1918. In fact, it was little more than a temporary and partial truce in a war that has continued, in one form or another, until the present. Hitler’s War and the various Cold War conflicts were direct continuations of the first Great War, and we are even now dealing with the consequences of the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot agreement.
The Great War was at the root of most of the catastrophes that befell the human race in the 20th century. Communism, Nazism and various forms of virulent nationalism all derived their justification from the ten million dead of 1914-18. Even the apparently hopeful projects that emerged from the war, from the League of Nations to the creation of new states like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia ended in failure or worse. And along with war, conquest and famine came the pestilence of the Spanish Flu, which killed many more millions.
And yet this catastrophe was brought about under the leadership of politicians remarkable for their ordinariness. Nothing about Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Bethmann Holllweg or the other leaders on both sides marks them out for the company of Attila or Tamerlane or Stalin. How could men like these continue grinding their populations through years of pointless slaughter, and what led people to follow them? In retrospect, it is surely clear that both sides would have been better if peace had been made on the basis of any of the proposals put up in 1917 on the general basis of of “no annexations or indemnities”. The same was true, in reality, at any time from the outbreak of war in 1914 until the final collapse of the Central Powers, and even then the terms of 1917 would have been better for all than those of Versailles. We should think about this every time we are called to war with sweet-sounding slogans.
War is among the greatest of crimes. It may be the lesser evil on rare occasions, but it is always a crime. On Remembrance Day and always, this is what we should remember.
fn1. It’s not clear whether the War exacerbated the pandemic, for example through massive movements of people and widespread privation. But it seems right to consider them together when we remember the War.