In Memoriam: 86 Years Ago the Guns Fell Silent, But the Legacy Lives On

Almost none of them are left now – the men and women who fought the First World War. Even those who lived through it are few. But the effects of what the French call La Grande Guerre – the “Great War “- are still with us. The lives of every person in the world was affected by the conflict that ended 86 years ago today – at the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th month of the year 1918.

Today, if people remember that war at all, the images are mostly grainy newsreels with jerky figures, archaic trucks, horse drawn gun carriages and the weary, bearded faces of the soldiers doomed to fight and die. For what? Many believed they fought for “King and Country,” or because God was on their side. Others fought because they were told to, and would have been shot if they didn’t. The artists’ (as opposed to the propagandists’) works dealing with the war attest to this. Try rereading “A Farewell to Arms,” or “All Quiet on the Western Front,” or rent a cassette or DVD of Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” or Jean Renoir’s “The Grand Illusion.”

When the U.S. finally entered the war in 1917 on the side of an exhausted Britain and France, President Woodrow Wilson called it a “war to end war.” His 14 points were more than his allies had bargained for, however. All they wanted to do at that point was defeat the equally exhausted Germans and Austrians. Wilson wanted to reshape the world.

The First World War certainly didn’t end war – on the contrary. But in other ways Wilson got his wish, but, as is frequently the case, not quite in the way he had sought. The war did change the world. It broke the economic peace that had enabled global prosperity to flourish throughout most of the 19th century. It began the end of empires and the colonial era, which that peace had also spawned. Its ravages enabled a small group of fanatics, the Bolsheviks, to seize control of Russia and to loose upon the world a seemingly endless cycle of revolution, war, terror and dictatorship, which plagues global civilization to this day.

21 years later, Adolph Hitler, a war veteran, steeped in its most virulent nationalism, unleashed another German onslaught across Europe. His racist hatred and genocidal mania were so violent and maniacal that they threatened the very fabric of civilization. Again the U.S. hesitated before facing reality. Only after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor did it enter the war against the Nazis, but when it did, its presence proved decisive. As of 1942 the U.S. has been the unquestioned leader of the free world. Since the demise of Bolshevism/Communism, its power remains unchallenged.

Would any of this have happened, had the Great War not occurred? It seems unlikely. The war tore apart the fabric of society, and put poverty, disillusion and hatred in its place. …
“…..Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity….
In 1921 Ireland’s William Butler Yeats wrote those words in his poem “The Second Coming.” Whether he was inspired by World War I, the Russian revolution, Ireland’s own spiral into violence, or all three, is unclear, but surely the words are appropriate in their description of the carnage and desolation loosed upon the world by the conflict that began 90 years ago, in August 1914.

Every French village, even the smallest, has a memorial to those who died in that war. Every Armistice Day, as it also used to be called in the U.S., flowers adorn those monuments, as well as many of the cemeteries where the war’s dead lie. The few remaining veterans totter out, accompanied by politicians, to honor dead comrades and to receive homage from the populace for their sacrifices.

Given what followed in the 20th Century, one should wonder if those sacrifices were worth the cost. Most estimates put the number of known dead in the conflict in excess of 10 million. Many more bore lifelong wounds, both mental and physical. It was fought – at least as far as the U.S. and its allies were concerned – to ensure freedom’s continued existence; just as World War II was fought to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.” Did it do so? To some extent, it did. The world is freer today, and there are more democracies. All forms of commerce are again reestablishing a global dimension.

In other ways the war broke something that can never be fixed. Tolerance and moderation are often the first victims of any war; they remain threatened to this day by the forces unleashed in 1914 – excessive armaments, revenge, mercilessness, extremism, xenophobia, class war, and other inhuman behavior. Faith too has suffered. One asks how a supposedly benevolent deity could tolerate such slaughter? Some – the Existentialists and others – deny any divinity, while others, fearing the loss of their spiritual and moral anchor, embrace fundamentalist ideologies that are basically regressive and deny 500 years of scientific progress.

This malaise, this uncertainty, this search for a better way, may be the ultimate legacy of World War I. If it leads to a brighter future for all mankind, not just the winners, then yes, maybe all those who lost their lives did not die in vain. Today, however, we honor the dead; they at least are at peace.

Editor’s note: Charles E. Boyle is the International Editor for Insurance Journal.