On Sunday, Nov. 11, a delegation led by the Queen honored Great Britain’s “Glorious Dead” at the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies around the Cenotaph in Whitehall. On Friday Nov. 9 Lloyd’s held its annual remembrance service with an address by London’s Lord Mayor. French President Nicholas Sarkozy led ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. In his radio address President Bush said Veteran’s Day was ” a day to give thanks for all those who have worn the uniform of America’s armed forces.”
Even as countries around the world marked the 89th anniversary of the end of World War I, those with actual memories of that terrible conflict have largely disappeared. There are only two “poilus” in France of the 8.4 million who served in the conflict. However, the legacy of the “Great War” is still very much with us.
It was the world’s first “total war,” It opened the floodgates of darkness and violence that were to become the hallmark of the 20th century. Those gates have yet to be closed. World War I produced injury and death on a scale the world had never seen, nor even imagined. Although estimates vary, of the 65 million men and women who served, over 8.5 million died, an additional 21 million were wounded. 76.3 percent of French soldiers were killed or wounded; 65 percent for the Germans.
But the end of the war was in many ways only the beginning of the mass killings that would mark the 20th century. The war deaths shattered the 19th century’s belief in the inevitability of mankind’s progress and a benevolent deity. It initiated an era in which human life was so devalued that mass murder could become a political, social and economic goal, where before it had been mostly a military, or in some cases a religious, one.
Alan Kramer, an associate History Professor at Trinity College, Dublin examines the legacy of World War I in a new book – “Dynamic of Destruction – Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War.” He posits that the endless violence – particularly against civilians – it unleashed was not inevitable. But the atrocities led to many of the war’s participants becoming so inured to death that brutality became an acceptable, perhaps even a “normal,” way of life.
World War I unleashed the violent nationalism that resulted in mass expulsions of civilians by the Germans, the Russians, the Austrians and others. The deaths of over 1 million Armenians in 1915-16 – directly or from starvation and disease – initiated by the Ottoman Empire, is generally recognized as the first organized genocide. The mass killings and deportation of civilians by all sides in the Balkans started in 1912, continued during the First World War, and raised its ugly head again in the 1990’s.
Could the Nazis have engineered the Holocaust had the excesses of World War I not occurred? Could the Bolshevik revolution and its deadly aftermath have succeeded in Russia? We will never know, because the Great War did happen, and it left us a legacy that we are still dealing with.
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