Lest we forget
And on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, in the year 1918 the guns of the Western Front finally went silent and the human carnage of the First World War came to a close – yet results of the war would stay with us, like a bacillus, for decades to come.
Far from being the War to End All Wars, it instead set the world up for decades of pain to come.
Britain and Germany were bankrupted, and the war debts of all combatants would infect western economies for years to come, until their final annihilation in German hyperinflation, the collapse of the classical gold standard, and the maw of the worldwide Great Depression.
The Bolshevik takeover of Russia was still in place at the Armistice, a wartime piece of German treachery that eventually enslaved around 300 million people – and whose eventual collapse we celebrated just two days ago.
The “state socialism” adopted by all the Great Powers in the war would come back to haunt them. Every big statist of the next generation, from Keynes to Herbert Hoover to FDR, learned their interventionism in the corridors of power they so loved so far behind the front lines.
And in the men in the German trenches were born the seeds of World War II: the march of the Nietzschean call to arms in defence of the Fatherland and its “blood and soil” began there; what Clemenceau called the “twenty-year ceasefire” that was the Versaille Treaty was bewailed there; and there too was the myth of Der Dolchstoß so exploited by the Nazis – that “good Germans” who were at the front still undefeated were stabbed in back by a surrender forced upon them by a coterie of Jews and other traitors in their rear echelons. It took the utter defeat of Germany twenty-seven years and 100 million lost souls later to finally lay these myths and tragedies to rest.
This last, the myth that the German surrender of November 1918 allowed to take hold, offers a lesson that needs to be learned and relearned: that to be lasting a defeat must be crushing, and must be seen to be crushing, as it finally was in World War II.
Lest we forget indeed. If truth is the first casualty of war, then the the memory of its lessons and of its unintended consequences must surely be the second.
[Image, by the way, is from Charles Sargeant Jagger's Artillery Monument at Hyde Park Corner, London.]