Long Elegiac Shadows Oliver Hadingham

January 25, 2017

One hundred years on, how are we commemorating the First World War? At this mid-point in the war’s centenary, Oliver Hadingham of Waseda University, Japan, examines the political, economical and social implications of the 1914-1918 conflict and questions whether the rituals of mass remembrance have a future.

We are now midway through the centenary of the First World War, a conflict that devastated and scarred a continent. No matter how the centenary is observed – as a series of rich and resonant commemorations in some countries, or in more muted, smaller ceremonies in others – each year brings its own focal point, usually a battle producing six- or seven-figure casualties, the memory of which made a generation shudder. The centenary has focused naturally enough on the need to honour the dead. Because of this, the wider ramifications of the war have been underplayed. The 1914-1918 war was a cataclysm that left Europe in ruins, destroyed old certainties and beliefs, and created a new world just as imperfect in its own way as the one that was shattered. Its shockwaves reverberate even now.

Belle Époque turns ugly

That such a long and bloody war happened at all would have amazed most in the early 1900s. Europe appeared supremely confident. The likely path of progress stretched far into the future, symbolized in the stream of scientific and technological advances of the era: X-ray, aspirin, radio, talking film, diesel engines, telephony, automobiles and aircraft. More would surely come. Europe continued to produce the music, art, literature and intellectual ideas that mattered, as well as chemistry and engineering of astounding ingenuity. European civilization (at the time a word without ambiguity) was a template for the world.

Yet this picture obscures how much unease pervaded Europe. The furious pace of change was exhilarating, but produced a giddiness that was disorienting, even worrying. Much of Europe remained rural and largely untouched by modernity. Yet in towns and cities, as traditional social ties weakened and a society of strangers emerged, life appeared more tense and jostling. As Count Harry Kessler noted in his diary in 1903, the key question was “how to reconcile with the soul the enormous mass of the new”. Many grappled with this issue, or gave artistic expression to it. The Vienna of the early 1900s, for example, was home to Mahler, Schoenberg, Klimt, Schiele, Wittgenstein, Freud and Jung. Vienna was also the centre of the Austro-Hungarian empire, “an experimental station for the apocalypse”, according to Karl Kraus, a multi-ethnic city, highly stratified and riven with contempt and resentment. A fertile place in which to experience and articulate the tensions and fragmentation within modernity.

Relations between nations seemed more fraught too. The system of mutual assurances built into the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, and the various alliances between France, Russia, and Britain, whether binding or not, meant a diplomatic crisis could quite easily escalate into an armed conflict. The belief that war was coming sooner or later was fairly widespread in the period leading up to 1914. A useful incident might happen that would provide an excuse for war, or make it very difficult to avoid one for those less willing. That it would not jeopardize the ascendancy of Europe was widely assumed. Some even viewed war as a much-needed cathartic purging. As Abel Bonnard declared in 1912, “We must embrace it in all its wild poetry…It is in war that all is made new.”

“The belief that war was coming sooner or later was fairly widespread in the period leading up to 1914.”

The great reckoning came soon enough. Once the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated by Serbian separatists in Sarajevo in June 1914, levels of distrust between the five great powers in Europe grew more intense, and a localized issue in the Balkans escalated out of proportion to its importance. War started. “Over by Christmas,” most thought.

Barbed wire and barbarism

Early mobility and thoughts of a swift victory soon gave way to a war of attrition. Trenches were dug; millions of shells rained down on them; millions of men were mowed down emerging from them. A bloody stalemate endured until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 handed Germany a golden opportunity. With Russia gone and peace in the east declared, Germany could move troops to the Western Front and deliver a knockout blow. The Ludendorff Offensive of March–July made great inroads into enemy positions thanks to mobile assault units of “storm-troops” scampering swiftly under a creeping artillery barrage and piercing British and French lines where they were weakest. Germany had broken the stalemate; victory would surely follow.

Yet by the late summer of 1918 the German gains had been reversed by an effective allied counter-offensive. Germany might have limped on into 1919, but morale at home had been broken by the British naval blockade, leaving people starving and desperate. The end came on November 11. When the armistice was declared wild jubilation quickly turned to relief. Tallied up, the butcher’s bill read 10 million troops dead and 15–20 million permanently blinded, crippled or maimed, not to mention the millions of families left to the anguish of a world without a son, brother, father or husband.

Peace in 440 clauses

President Wilson arrived at the Paris Peace Conference clutching his “Fourteen Points” outlining the basis of an enduring peace: the principle of national self-determination and an inter-national body that would ensure cooperation, peace and security. Judging by Sir William Orpen’s painting “The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919”, the peacemakers, dignified looking and immaculately tailored, were proud of their work. The signing of the treaty brought a formal end to the Great War. Thanks to the 200-page treaty, a hefty document of 440 clauses, the result of six months of discussions, drafting and redrafting, a lasting peace would reign.

“When the Second World War was declared the League of Nations was busy debating the standardization of railway crossings.”

It seemed that way initially. Through the 1920s the League of Nations settled disputes and prevented or swiftly ended conflict in Europe and South America. Yet without the Americans, whose Congress refused to commit the country to the global responsibilities its membership would entail (staying true to a long tradition of isolationism that continues into today), the League struggled to sustain its early success. It appeared increasingly powerless in the 1930s, as Japan entered northern China, and Mussolini sent 400,000 troops to Ethiopia, in brazen defiance of the League and its sanctions. When the Second World War was declared the League of Nations was busy debating the standardization of railway crossings.

Defeat in 1918 was particularly difficult to bear. Germany, while it endured dreadful losses, had fairly successfully held off the combined efforts of the allies – on two fronts simultaneously. Outright victory had been tantalizingly close. As returning German troops marched through Berlin in December, Friedrich Ebert, the new chancellor, greeted them with a distillation of what many Germans thought: “I salute you who returned unvanquished from the field of battle.” A dangerous myth begun to circulate that Germany had not really lost.

The Versailles Treaty merely deepened the sense of grievance. The French selected the Hall of Mirrors for the treaty signing, where exactly 50 years before the modern united Germany was proclaimed. Was this not a callous humiliation of the great German nation, many wondered. Article 231 of the treaty declared where the war guilt lay. Reparations would be gathered by the allies for damages “as a consequence of the war imposed on them by the aggression of Germany and her allies”. Burdening the postwar German economy with reparations of 132,000,000,000 gold marks would cripple economic recovery, imposing a level of interference that ensured the principle of national self-determination sweeping through postwar Europe would not reach Germany, a nation surrounded by small states with substantial German minority populations. The “Versailles Diktat” was a 200-page betrayal.

“With the 1929 Wall Street Crash, foreign investors withdrew, unemployment rocketed and the currency nose dived.”

The Weimar Republic staggered and stumbled through the 1920s. Reparations were paid thanks to American loans and Germany was gradually reintroduced into international politics. But with the 1929 Wall Street Crash, foreign investors withdrew, unemployment rocketed and the currency nose dived. The Weimar system, tolerated as the economy was recovering, was increasingly viewed as an ill-functioning imposition, an orgy of elections and proportional representation unsuited to such a difficult, debilitating period. The liberal postwar order started to unravel. Having no real tradition of democracy, there was little protest as authoritarian, markedly anti-liberal regimes established themselves across Central Europe.

That defeat and humiliation was something to be avenged spread in Germany. The Fatherland had been “stabbed in the back” and denied victory and postwar dignity by Jews, Leftists, a vengeful France, and harebrained schemes imposed by naive Americans. It was just as Lloyd George had prophesied back in 1918 as the armistice neared: “If peace was made now, in twenty years’ time the Germans would say what Carthage had said about the First Punic War, namely that they had made this mistake and that mistake, and by better preparation and organization they would be able to bring about victory next time.”

The smouldering resentment evident in Germany fed into the cult of the fallen German soldier, the everyman who had not died in vain. When an ex-corporal, alleged recipient of two Iron Crosses on the Eastern front, announced himself on the national political scene in the early 1930s, it seemed to many that the fallen soldier had been resurrected, and with it the hopes of a once proud German nation. Hitler represented a useful idiot to the old conservative establishment, unnerved by democracy and the power it gave the populace. Surely Hitler’s popular appeal (his party secured 17 million votes in the 1933 federal election) could be channelled and tamed within the existing constitutional framework. The hope was that constitutionalism would blunt Nazism, or, after Hitler suspended the Weimar constitution, it would prove a mere temporary measure.

Europe downsizes

The First World War signalled the beginning of the end of European hegemony. There were signs before the war that European power would not go unchallenged. In 1898 the United States enjoyed “a splendid little war” in defeating the Spanish in Manila, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Plucky little Japan had even defeated the Russians in 1905. With the 1919 Treaty, the Habsburg, Romanov, Ottoman empires, and the Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty were consigned to history. The principle of national self-determination enshrined at Versailles meant new states like Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Czechoslovakia came into existence. Minority populations within these new successor states felt aggrieved at being stranded in a “foreign” state among a generally unfriendly majority population. Minorities became a thorny political problem; mass movements of refugees across borders would not be long coming. Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan were swallowed up by the Soviet Union in 1922, although the Baltic States and Finland were left untouched, for a few more decades.

The war left Britain and France enfeebled. Both were heavily in debt to the Americans, and British coffers had been diminished by propping up an ailing Russia. Trade, important to all nations and the lifeblood of Britain, had all but ceased as the war escalated. France retreated into mourning and paranoia. Work on the Maginot Line began in 1929, a defensive system of fortified zones that would deter the old foe from attacking across the Rhine. (It did. In 1940 the Wehrmacht strolled over the unfortified Franco-Belgium border instead.) Globally, Britain and France made a dreadful hash of postwar mandates, contributing to many of the problems that still blight the Middle East. The loyal dominions, the “Greater Britain”, became more grudging in their support. Anzac Day commemorations reaffirm a proud nationhood forged through the imperial betrayal of Gallipoli. Imperialism was on its way out. Over the next five decades, independence movements swept through the colonies, flags were reluctantly lowered and new flags eagerly raised. The Europeans left.

The 1914-1918 war changed much. To Lloyd George the war was “a cyclone which is tearing up by the roots the ornamental plants of modern society”. It certainly hurried things along. Women’s rights, the trade union movement, the state’s powers of intervention radically altered as a direct consequence of the war. Medicine made huge strides, with only 1% of battlefield wounds resulting in death by 1918, to say nothing of early advances in plastic surgery in reconstructing the faces of those so horribly disfigured they referred to themselves as “broken gargoyles”. Technology too made great leaps. The Great War started with resplendent cavalrymen cantering off to bugle calls, but ended with mechanized “cavalry” – blacked, sweaty tank crews churning up barbed wire and trench.

An age more gloomy than gilded

The decade after the war was a time of racy fashion and bobbed hair, the Charleston dance and cascading champagne. It was also a time of mourning, of shrouds and séances. A time, too, of invalids everywhere: of amputees, whose limbs were left behind at the front, the blinded, no longer able to see the land or loved ones they fought for, and the mutilated, so horrific their injuries that many yearned for a dimly-lit life as night porters or cinema projectionists. Reticence about frontline exploits replaced tales of derring-do, true heroism shown in a willingness to get on with life. As clocks struck 11am on the first anniversary of Armistice Day – November 11, 1919 – all activity ceased. The two-minute silence, The Manchester Guardian reported, was “so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was…a silence that was almost pain…And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.”

The economy grew through the mid 1920s, as did audiences at cinemas and sporting events, but even though a semblance of normality returned after the calamity of war, it did little to mask a sense of deep foreboding. Peace movements flourished, as well they might, and paranoia and pessimism prevailed. For all its frenetic energy, there was a growing sense that their world was in decline and would fall. As Arnold Toynbee stated in 1931, perhaps Western civilization merely represented a “bubble in the stream of human history”. Explaining the last war as a means of avoiding a sequel was a natural preoccupation, whether capitalism had produced such a cataclysm, or tribalism, or a Darwinian herd-instinct, or a mass death-wish. Whatever the reason, from the mid-1930s the countdown to catastrophe began again. The next war was rooted in the conditions that emerged out of the 1914-1918 conflict, but hurried along, knowingly or not, by the statesmen who inherited them.

Goodbye to all that

Looking back, it all seems so long ago. Sepia images of soldiers scampering jerkily across a shell-scarred no-man’s land are as far removed as they could be from our super high-definition, pixelated world. The memorials, passed on the way somewhere, become less acknowledged with each year now that the last veterans have gone, a link with the past irrevocably severed. Perhaps November 2018 will be a chance to emerge from the rituals of mass remembrance and finally “move on”. Things have been heading that way for a while. Centenary commemorations in Russia, Germany, and America have been extremely muted, the Second World War proving much more powerful and symbolic – for differing reasons – than a war that was lost, that “produced” Hitler, or was entered into somewhat reluctantly. In Britain, a well-stocked myth kitty about the 1914-1918 war and the odd line of war poetry recalled from school cannot mask the fact that Remembrance Sunday is fast becoming one more momentary distraction in an age full of them. An event commemorating an event that provokes a growing sense of airy mystification. We deride the apparent stupidity and callousness of those that led the world into war in 1914 and oversaw it, statesmen and generals easier to satirise than to understand. And we wonder why on earth were so many willing to sacrifice so much. Those that did remain frozen in gallantry on granite, memorials to a conflict that cast long, elegiac shadows over much of the twentieth century.

Image | National Library of Scotland, Flickr

Select Bibliography

Clark, C. (2013) The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. Penguin.

McMillian, M. (2003) Peacemakers: Six Months that Changed the World. John Murray.

Stevenson, D. (2012) 1914-1918: The History of the First World War. Penguin.

Strachan, H. The First World War: A New History. Simon & Schuster.

Winter, J. Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. Cambridge University Press.

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About Oliver Hadingham

Oliver Hadingham works in the Department of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University, Japan. He graduated in government and sociology, and holds a higher degree in political behaviour, for which he received ESRC funding. His research interests include nineteenth-century history, elites and education policy.

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