The Great War Revisited

By Weigel, George | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, May 2014 | Go to article overview

The Great War Revisited


Weigel, George, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


In 1936, the British writer Rebecca West stood on the balcony of Sarajevo's town hall and said to her husband, "I shall never be able to understand how it happened." It was World War I: the civilizational cataclysm that began, according to conventional chronology, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was assassinated in the Bosnian capital on June 28,1914, by Gavrilo Princip, a twenty-year-old Bosnian Serb.

World War I was known for decades as the "Great War." It seems an apt title. For if we think of a century not as an aggregation of one hundred years but as an epoch, what we know as "the twentieth century" began with the guns of August 1914 and ended when one of the Great War's more consequential by-products, the Soviet Union, disintegrated in August 1991. World War 1 set in motion virtually all the dynamics that were responsible for shaping world history and culture in those seventyseven years: the collapse of dynastic power in the fall of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires; the end of the Caliphate; new nation-states, new tensions in colonial competition, and new passions for decolonization; the mid-twentieth-century totalitarianisms; efforts to achieve global governance; the next two world wars (World War Il and the Cold War); the emergence of the United States as leader of the West; serious alterations in the basic structures of domestic and international finance; and throughout Western culture, a vast jettisoning of traditional restraints in virtually every field, from personal and social behavior to women's roles to the arts.

It was the "Great War" in other ways, too. Human history had never seen such effusive bloodletting: twenty million dead, military and civilian, with another twenty-one million wounded and maimed. Beyond that, the Great War created the conditions for the influenza pandemic that began in the war's final year and eventually claimed more than twice as many lives as were lost in combat.

Sixty-five million soldiers, sailors, and airmen were called to their respective national colors in a struggle that evoked great acts of valor. Between 1914 and 1918, more than six hundred Victoria Crosses were awarded to British and Dominion troops. In Australia, Anzac gallantry during the 1915 Gallipoli campaign is still remembered as the formative experience of Australian nationhood. Names like Sergeant York and Eddie Rickenbacker continue to inspire courage among Americans.

The Great War also raised profound ethical questions about war, about nationalism, and about moral judgment in political and military affairs. It was the war during which the idea that "the great and the good" governed society by natural birthright was interred; the war in which the British poet Wilfred Owen, awarded the Military Cross for heroism in combat, wrote that those who had experienced a gas attack "would not tell with such zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory/The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria morir Owen and the other British antiwar poets were not alone in thinking that something had gone badly awry between 1914 and 1918. No less enthusiastic a warrior than Winston Churchill could write, in the war's aftermath, that "all the horrors of all the ages were brought together, and not only armies but whole populations were thrust into the midst of them. . . . Neither peoples nor rulers drew the line at any deed which they thought could help them to win. . . . Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran."

These jarring juxtapositions-between a young fanatic's terrorist act in provincial Sarajevo and the continental carnage that followed; between inspiring episodes of extraordinary heroism and a debilitating sense of civilizational guilt that things had ever come to such a pass-have shaped interpretations of the Great War over the past century. …

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