Four years of total war turned large parts of the European continent into a series of muddy graves. It also altered the lives of Europeans in ways no one could have predicted. The war's ability to transform a failed Austrian art student, Adolf Hitler, into a German national hero is only one among many examples of how the war changed the course of lives and entire societies. Indeed, the manner in which Europe slid from the horrors of one world war into another further adds to the continued interest in the experience of 1914 to 1918. The sense of innocence lost remains attached to the outbreak of the First World War, but the dominant sense of the outbreak of the Second World War is much closer to resignation than innocence. As Canadian poet Milton Acorn noted in 1939, “This is where we came in; this has happened before / Only the last time there was cheering.”
Even today parts of the World War I battlefields continue to kill, almost as if the spirits created on those fields had intentionally left behind reminders to future generations of the ways in which they had once killed one another.1 Unexploded ordnance remains a danger to farmers living near former depots and battlegrounds. France and Belgium maintain weapons disposal units to assist locals who uncover rusted caches of unexploded munitions. Even well-maintained battlefield sites like Verdun and the Somme contain signs warning visitors to stay off certain paths that remain unsafe almost nine decades later. There are still places where plant life has not returned to normal. In at least one case, a large underground mine that failed to detonate in 1917 still sits somewhere under the soil of Belgium.
But these are silent and largely unobservable reminders of the war. The numerous cemeteries along the western front provide a vivid and painfully evocative reminder of the war's cost in human lives.2 Driving through Belgium and eastern France, one comes across cemeteries dotting the now peaceful countryside. One can also find markers in every community in France commemorating the dead. Even towns too small to have their own post office often have markers with twenty or more names. Several major battle sites include much larger memorials to the dead and the missing. The high number of the latter testifies to the power of modern weaponry, most notably heavy artillery, to obliterate the human body.
Given these enormous sacrifices, it is hard to imagine even the victors going to war in 1914 if they had known the consequences. Britain and France emerged from the war victorious, but badly shaken, deeply in debt, and unable fully to deal with the social consequences of “victory.” Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, of course, dealt with those same traumas on top of the ignominy of losing and the need