The centennial of the outbreak of World War I, which began a century ago this month, has excited the usual sort of checkbox-ticking media comment. Here’s some further perspective: more than 15 million people died in the conflict, including some 8.5 million soldiers and 7 million civilians. Millions of widows, orphans and single women were left behind.
Empires fell; the seeds of a later, bigger war were sown. Tanks, submarines, trenches, machine guns, and poison gas all got a thorough workout. In the words of historian Laurence Lafore, the war “assumed a scale so vast as to create a new order of magnitude.”
I’m inclined to agree with the pithy judgment of Harry Patch, the last surviving British veteran, who said it “wasn’t worth one life.” And I’m inclined to think the proper reactions on this centenary are permanent outrage – because, like Nazism, this was a debasement of all humanity – and what Bertrand Russell, who was jailed for protesting the War, called, in the famous first line of his Autobiography, “unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”
What did that generation of Britons, Australians, New Zealanders, Africans, Indians, Americans, and Canadians, among others, actually die for? Maybe for the uncanny human capacity, even in democracies, to institutionalize stupidity and immorality.
We can’t quite call it genocide; and yes, a worse holocaust would follow. But a holocaust it was; we lack a better word for wholesale, mechanized slaughter without the explicit intent of eradicating a single group or race or nationality.
Where was democracy or human dignity advanced by this holocaust? Certainly not in Russia, Germany, Austria, France, Italy, the Balkans, or anywhere else of relevance that I can think of. In the United States, it precipitated an era of jingoism, reaction, and assaults on civil liberties.
Why exactly it erupted, and consumed the Western world, remains a complex question; but one fact must be reckoned with. As Hanna Arendt related in “Truth and Politics,” a German diplomat in the 1920s asked the French leader Clemenceau how future historians would explain it. Clemenceau replied: “This I don’t know. But I know for certain that they will not say Belgium invaded Germany.”
A tidy microcosm of the War was what happened at Gallipoli, a 1915 battle designed to knock Turkey out of the fight. It didn’t work out. As summarized last week by Tim Arango in The New York Times: “After nine months of grueling warfare, and after suffering tens of thousands of casualties while gaining little ground, the Allies evacuated. More than 40,000 British military personnel were killed, along with nearly 8,000 Australians and more than 60,000 Turks.”
The principal author of this campaign, which cost over 100,000 lives, was Winston Churchill. His career wasn’t ruined, but he was temporarily demoted.
Well, mankind wasn’t ruined either – or at least most of it wasn’t – by the disgraceful chain of events that we dignify with the term ‘World War I.’ But don’t kid yourself: mankind was demoted.