Monday, 11 November 2013

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 – in the West, anyway, if not in the Bolshevised East.  Yet while the guns went silent, the results of the war would stay with us, like a bacillus, for decades to come.

They are with us still.

The world that emerged from World War I was vastly different to the benevolent, cultural milieu that entered it so optimistically four-and-a-half years before. The war into which American President Woodrow Wilson sent American troops, on the basis “the world must be made safe for democracy,” succeeded instead in impoverishing democracies and delivering misery to millions.

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 – whose eventual partial liberation only came decades later.

The “state socialism” adopted by all the west’s Great Powers in the war would come back to haunt them, every single big statist of the next generation, from Keynes to Herbert Hoover to FDR, learning their interventionism in the corridors of power they so loved so far behind the front lines—learning those corridors lessons they would never unlearn about the “power” of the state and how they could heft it. Those lessons are still being inflicted upon us by their students and admirers who, when they hear that “war is the health of the state,” begin beating the drums.

Meanwhile, 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 first bewailed by the men who fought there; and there too was born the myth of Der Dolchstoß so exploited by the Nazis – that the “good Germans” who were fighting at the front remained undefeated, but were “stabbed in the back” by a surrender forced upon them by a coterie of Jews and other traitors in their rear echelons.

This myth, so poisonous and and so wrong, fanned the flames of nationalistic racial hatred into the next even larger conflagration. 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 “stab in back” 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 not be a negotiated surrender allowing the losers to rewrite history, but it must bring home the true horror of war to those who promote it; it must be crushing, and must be seen to be crushing—as it finally was in World War II. (Of the Axis powers, at least.)

This is the lesson offered by historian John David Lewis in “Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History,” which argues that for lasting peace, the goal of a war must be not just wearing out your enemy, but utterly defeating his will to fight.

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.]


  1. Armistice Day Charles Causley

    I stood with three comrades in Parliament Square
    November her freight of grey fire unloading
    No sound from the city upon the pale air
    Above us the sea-bell eleven exploding
    Down by the bands and the burning memorial
    Beats all the brass in a royal array
    But, at the end, we are not so sartorial
    Out of, as usual, the rig of the day

    Starry is wearing a split pusser’s flannel
    Rubbed, as he is, by the regular tide
    Oxo, the ducks that he ditched in the Channel
    In June, 1940, when he was inside
    Kitty recalls his abandon-ship station
    Running below at the Old Man’s salute
    And, with a deck-watch, going down for duration
    Wearing his oppo’s pneumonia suit

    Comrades, for you the black captain of carracks
    Writes, in Whitehall, his appalling decisions
    But, as was often the case in the barracks
    Several ratings are not at Divisions
    Into my eyes the stiff sea-horses stare
    Over my head sweeps the sun, like a swan
    As I stand alone here in Parliament Square
    A cold bugle calls and the city moves on

  2. @Judge, you have always been a liar, but you've sometimes been amusing, and occasionally been challenging. Now, all you are is vicious. And still wrong.
    Time to get lost. Permanently, this time..

  3. Yes the aftermath of WW1 - with socialism and lunacy - has left nearly a century of disasters economically, socially, culturally.

    A conventional wisdom of free enterprise, self reliance, sound money, behaving yourself has been cast aside for a socialist conventional wisdom where nothing is sinking too low, where everyone is entitled to what the other fellow has, and where lies become the order of the day.

    People did not realise how well off they were in 1914 and I can certainly understand why it was when Downton Abbey first aired in Britain there was a great deal of "let's bring all that back" from a surprisingly large number of people, and rightly so.

    Anything has got to be better than what we have today.

  4. Surely you are not promoting the idea that the aftermath of WW1 was anything other than utter defeat for the Central Powers. There was no will to fight on. The leaders and the populations all knew it. They experienced it. There was not a negotiated peace settlement either. It was one imposed by the victors. Look at what they imposed on Europe. The Double-Monarchy was eliminated and in its place a collection of rump and "nation" states was jerry-mandered into existence (which on its own guaranteed future political disputes and given the petty chauvanism of European politicians and nationalistic sentiments/bigotry, violence at some point). Also the German Empire was eliminated with Germany eviscerated economically, militarily and territorially. Hardly a negotiated settlement.

    The British Naval Blockade of Germany continued well after the cessation of hostilities. It did not cease until 1919 long after the end of the war. What occurred was that the blockade was kept in force, guaranteeing the mass starvation of hundreds of thousands German civilians, until shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Even after that close control was kept on German shipping for some time. It is a myth to pretend that Versailles was anything other than imposed.

    What led inevitably to WW2 was that the old civilised order of Central Europe had been eliminated, replaced by a ruthless socialist system of squabbling nation states. Within these rat traps brewed a cocktail of poisonous ideologies unopposed by civilisation or morality. The loss of opposition to them allowed them to spread far and gain acceptance.

    The major causal agent for WW2 was ruination and destruction of the productive middle classes along with the moderating effect of their self-interest and culture. They were destroyed by forces unleashed through central banks. Central banking, crony credit and currency inflation ran hard, assassinating the possibility of a peaceful and productive trading future. With the destruction of the economy the conditions were ideal for the rise of the violent ideologies based on ignorant mythologies, toxic lies, the lustful bigotry of revenge and the like.

    English scientists liked to state that nature abhors a vacuum. And in this time it sure did. Into the vacuum caused by the economic destruction of central banking inflation and the political machinations of the 20s and 30s thundered some ready to use socialism. Socialism is violence. it is just a matter of how much of it you are going to receive. So the European WW2 was guaranteed not by the stabbing myth but by a far more powerful force entirely, not a myth but a real occurance- a process we call currency inflation.

    The stab in the back story is interesting though merely incidental. It was made up by the very same folk who started Germany on its ride to economic ruin. They had failed militarily, managing Germany into a terrible war and to defeat in that war. They'd destroyed much productive wealth along the way. What is not often considered is how the German government paid for its WW1 war effort. The British borrowed from the US bankers and they also increased tax on their citizens. The German rulers debased their own currency by inflation. The end of the war sure did not cure them of that habit.


  5. The German army didn't consider itself to been defeated on a military basis in 1918 & afterwards, hence the sense of betrayal.
    Perception can overruled the reality that they probably couldn't have lasted much longer.

    B Whitehead

  6. B Whitehead

    The German army had collapsed. It was militarily defunct. There was no longer an organised entity which could be considered an army, let alone function as one.

    The myth of the stab-in-the-back and the notion that the Imperial German Army had not been defeated were not developed and spread until during the years AFTER the war had ended. These ideas were created by the very same senior military people who had managed Germany into ruination and chaos. They sought excuse to escape from even thinking about (let alone admitting to) responsibility. So, just as Hitler would do years later, they pinned blame upon the civilian population.



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