Sunday, November 11, 2007


(an annual post)

Have you forgotten yet ?
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz – The nights you watched and wired and dug...?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again ?’ . . .
Have you forgotten yet ?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

Siegfried Sassoon “Aftermath, March 1919.”

Today is Veterans Day in the US. Because the calendar is crowded with holidays, Veterans Day replaced an older holiday, known as Armistice Day, which commemorated the end of the First World War, surely the most needless, tragic, but consequential war of modern times.Canada, Australia and the other British Commonwealth nations, very appropriately, call today “Remembrance Day” which is how I prefer to think of it. World War I is ancient history to most of us, yet it is with us, always. Pause, friend, for a moment, wherever you are, and remember.
At ten minutes past 5 a.m., on the morning of 11 November, the German armistice delegation, meeting with their allied counterparts in a railway car near the French city of Compiegné, accepted the Allied terms for an armistice. The Germans found the terms harsh (although they were no harder than those they had forced on the Russians in 1917, and they signed under protest.
Although the Germans had agreed to quit, the fighting did not stop until 11 a.m. that morning: the dying that went on that morning as pointless and futile as the whole war. Soldiers fought and died all that morning. In the Argonne, future President Harry Truman's artillery battery was in action, firing until it had no more ammunition at 10:45 a.m. Just east of Mons, a Canadian soldier, Private George Price, was fatally shot by a sniper at 10:58 a.m., two minutes before the cease-fire.
The cease-fire came, but the dying did not stop. The Allied naval blockade of the defeated Central Powers remained in place -- and it was rendered more effective by Allied access to the Baltic Sea. With agriculture and transport disrupted by the war and the political chaos in Central Europe, thousands died of malnutrition, mostly the aged and children. Meanwhile, bankrupted and bereaved survivors, particularly in the defeated countries, now demanded an accounting from their leaders, and tried to understand what it had all been for, and why this had happened.
When historians look back upon our times, they will probably agree that the 21st Century really began on 11 September 2001. Similarly, Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year old Serbian revolutionary bandit, member of a terrorist organization called the Black Hand, the al Qaeda of its time, effectively began the 20th Century about 11:15 a.m. on 28 June 1914 when he murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, and his wife, Archduchess Sophie, by a bridge in Sarajevo, in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Ninety years later, Sarajevo was the scene of more violence, this time between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, quarreling over the make-up of the post-Cold War Balkans. The 20th Century thus ended where and as it begin, in Sarajevo, in blood, with another war that nobody would win.
The 1990’s violence in the former Yugoslavia, like almost everything else in modern times, stemmed from the war that Princip helped begin, and which people tried to begin ending today in 1918. Over 10 million dead bodies later, the war he and a baker’s dozen of incompetents started ended today, in 1918.
Officially ended, anyway. How can an atrocity like the First World War ever truly end ? Fought over nothing, ending in no victory for anyone, except political cranks, left wing and right wing radicals, demagogic ideologues and other fanatics. The First World War, besides murdering millions, destroyed ancient Christian kingdoms, and killed the faith of the peoples in their civilization, in their leaders, in progress, parliamentary institutions, science and religion, and left us instead the poison fruits of Communism, Nazism, and Socialism.
The road to Auschwitz, Hitler and Stalin runs straight from the murder scene in Sarajevo, through the railroad siding in Compiegné where the armistice was signed. The Second World War killed more, in raw numbers, than the First – but the later war was only a continuation made possible by the poisons unleashed in the first war.
Satan had a good day of it in Sarajevo in June 1914. If not for the murderer Princip, and the clumsy diplomats and generals who blundered Europe and the world into a war everyone but the crazies lost, whoever would have heard of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler or Mussolini ? Lenin would have rotted away in exile with his books and scribblings; Hitler no doubt would have died in deserved obscurity in some Vienna doss-house. Stalin would have met the inevitable fate of a bank robber; and Mussolini perhaps never left journalism. No collapse of the British Empire forcing America onto the world stage to redress the great-power balance. No Great Depression, no Nazis, no World War II or Holocaust, no Cold War. Maybe no collapse of the Ottoman Empire giving us, ultimately, Bin-Laden, Zarqawi, Hamas and suicide bombers.
But Gavrilo Princip fired his fatal bullets, and the whole edifice of civilization crumpled before them. The shots of Sarajevo echo still. Gentle reader, think today of his crime, and of all whom, unknowing, ultimately paid. Because of the shots in Sarajevo, men who had no reason to hate each other fought and murdered each other all over the world in job lots -- in the fields of Champagne, on the roads of Poland and in the snows of Russia, in Iraq and in China. Children died in the cold Atlantic and starved by the million in Russia, the mountains of Armenia, and the Balkans. Sleepy eastern Europe, so long a quiet agricultural backwater, twice in fifty years was turned into an abattoir.
Beyond the seas, America lost its isolation. Americans died in the Argonne and, thirty years later, in the Pacific and in the deserts of Africa; later in the jungles of Vietnam. Today US Marines are dying in Anbar, Baghdad and in the hills of Afghanistan, all in some way because of, or related to the acres of warehouses of cans of worms opened by Princip.
Besides killing, maiming and wounding millions, the war had other, more insidious effects. Most fatally, Europe lost confidence in its leaders, in science, in the Christian religion – in itself -- at some level even in its right to exist as a culture. Germany and Russia, gravely wounded in both body and soul, led the turn away from God, progress, law and civilization, and burned books and millions of their own citizens. Britain, mother of Parliaments and the law, crippled and bankrupted by that war and its continuation, abandoned its Empire, is ashamed of its past, and its political class today quivers in fear of criticism by modernity's ascendant barbarians.
Today in 1918 -- on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh month, of the eleventh day – the first war ended, and the pace of the killing slackened for a time. Think of all war dead today, dear reader. But, almost 100 years on, spare a thought for a moment or two for all the dead of the Great War, so pointless, so long ago, but so horribly, tragically important.
ADDENDUM: (13 Nov.) For some good thinking on the outbreak of the Great War, in the context of the present crisis with Iran, see Spengler's excellent piece at the Asia Times website, here.
ADDENDUM No. 2 (13 Nov.) Of related interest, here is a link to the Constitution of the Black Hand.The "Black Hand" was the organization that kicked off the Great War, in 1914, by murdering Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. Students of al Qaeda and other modern terrorist organizations will find the concepts and general tone therein quite familiar.


Louis Godena said...

Wars are not the result of the actions of madmen, but often the logical consequence of the clash of interests inevitable in human society. While the actions of an individual gunman or "terrorist" (bearing in mind the proviso that one man's "terrorist" is another's "freedom fighter") can precipitate a conflaguration, its origins frequently lay in the distant past. The Great War was the logical *denouement* of the development of the european capitalism, with its concomitant colonial possessions and national aspirations. And the conditions which gave rise to Lenin's Bolsheviks existed in Czarist Russia long before 1917. Today, the stealing of the Palestinian people's land their suffering the imposition of a seemingly genocidal occupation authority can precipitate a new conflaguration in the Muslim world. Past western support for murderous islamic gangs (like those that fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and elsewhere on the rim of the former Soviet Union) has come home to roost in this environment. Future historians may bemoan the "can of worms" that lurked beneath the surface of our present unhappy times, but they, like you, will be remiss if they attribute to it the resulting and catastrophic consequences to our civilization.

El Jefe Maximo said...

The First World War was emphatically not the action of a madman, although the outcome of that war certainly empowered legions of madmen and loons. I would not even characterize Mr. Princip, much less his organization, as a madman or madmen, just as fanatic terrorists (no better than Al Qaeda) who should have been locked up. To me, Mr. Princip was a murdering bandit.

But Mr. Princip just lit the fuze, the power-train to the magazine was laid by other hands and minds in Vienna, St. Petersburg, Paris and Berlin; generals and statesmen all intent on their own agendas, and all unable to see that they had more in common, and more reason to cooperate in resolving what at first appeared to be just another Balkan Crisis – than they did in going to war. These people did not intend to destroy their own civilization, but they incompetently allowed it to happen.

In general, the diplomats and civilians, particularly in Vienna, St. Petersburg and Berlin, poorly understood the military facts: in particular the degree to which military mobilization (the calling-up of reserves) made war inevitable. The Austrians, Russians and Germans overestimated their ability to localize the crisis and the subsequent war. There's been a lot of writing on the subject, but it is my own view that the Russian response to Austria's (in my opinion justified) anger to the murder of the Archduke and his wife turned a Balkan crisis into the First World War. Certainly there were pre-existing national and imperial tensions, but these exist in any age, including our own.

The “conditions which gave rise to the Bolsheviks” were produced by the war, and the Bolsheviks would have remained bomb-throwing cranks and fugitives had the weakening of the Russian state as a result of the war not given them their chance.

As for the Palestinians: they should perhaps look at the successive maps of Germany in 1914, 1939, 1960 and today and reflect on the wisdom of trying to recoup their successively poorer military (and financial) positions via military or violent solutions (the 1939 German approach); as opposed to, instead, accepting their losses, however unfair they may perceive them to have been, and getting on with life (the post 1945 German approach).

The Palestinians don’t seem to want to deal, but persist in demanding everything despite their military impotence. In 2000, at Camp David, Bill Clinton offered the Palestinians the best deal that the military facts gave them any right to expect, but Mr. Arafat choose to walk away from the table; preferring nationalist fantasies to a state he could get, however flawed. The Irish could deal. Why can’t the Palestinians ?

Louis Godena said...

Well, you have more faith than I in the ability of capitalists to "cooperate" even when doing so may serve their long-term interests. But, capitalism does not derive its impetus from doing what is right in the long run, but only in what is most profitable and expedient in the here and now (witness America's long-term indebtedness to the Asian economies in order to finance current domestic consumption). A system based upon the rank exploitation of resources and people is hard-wired for conflict; agreements between antagonists over the division of the spoils can only be temporarily ameliorative; in the long-run, fundamental issues can only be resolved by violence, a fact understood by Lenin and by genuine communists ever since. I think you and I can agree on the infeasibility of fundamental regimes possessing nuclear weapons, be they islamic or jewish or christian. States based upon the fulfillment of ancient, malevolent superstitions are doomed to fail. What is needed in the modern world is a model for our mass civilization with its concomitant re-definition of the State and society. Conflicts of the past can only be consigned to history when the circumstances of their being repeated are forever changed

hank_F_M said...



Of course in one sense capitalism could blamed for WWI it build the economies that could feed that massive war effort. But creating a situation where an undesirable outcome is possible is not the same as saying it is inevitable or necessary. I assume you would not have been in favor of leaving everyone in the poverty of preindustrial age Europe.

What went wrong? Lots of interesting theories, and they almost always fall apart when you check them against data.

El Jefe Maximo said...

The interesting theories fall apart when you put the data next to them because people usually aren't neat or organized enough to be explained by theories, thank God. I've always been leery of unified-field theories, particularly in politics, that purport to explain everything.

Maybe the First World War happened because of the internal contradictions of capitalism. . .or maybe it was because the Austrian military machinery was too creaky to slap Serbia down in a hurry, when the Sarajevo outrage was still fresh in everybody's mind. Maybe the British were too preoccupied with Ireland; the German foreign secretary (Herr von Jagow) with his honeymoon and recent marriage; the French with the Caillaux trial; the Russians with avoiding a repeat of their humiliation over the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. . .and on and on. Nobody immediately recognized the crisis as dangerous. They were all staring right at the Copperhead and missed it.

More globally, I tend to disbelieve in the reality of "isms." Is there such a thing as capitalism -- or is this just what we call the interplay of people and institutions all seeking to maximize their own benefit (the definition of which is always personal and specific and maybe intangible) with differing, sometimes non-existant, sometimes extreme concern for any and everybody else.

For that matter, is there really such a thing as Marxist-Leninism, or is it all about what to call a particular brand of power manipulation ? Did the objective economic and social conditions favor the development of such in the late-war Russian Empire ? Or did the good Vladimir Ilyich simply have the only troops who could be counted on to obey orders; the best apparatus for political agitation and organization; plus control of the railroad and industrial hubs-all for long enough to take over Russia and shoot anybody who didn't believe that conditions favored Marxist-Leninism ? Could be that it's the same thing. As repellent as I find Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and their party, a certain type of practicality where power was concerned was Lenin's (and Stalin's) long suit, although not Trotsky's.

Louis Godena said...

Hank; I think you're right when you say that theory must always bow to experience in our assessment of history (Marx and Lenin also believed this). The development of capitalism *was* progressive in that it broke apart the hierarchical regime that preceded it (generally called feudalism) and liberated man's productive capacities. However, it has in our modern age run its course; a new thesis is emerging, one that re-defines the State and man's relation to it, but the very notion of progress itself. Capitalism has reached the point where it not only does not facilitate man's productive capacities, but rather decisively impedes them. El Jefe, I believe the Great War would have come regardless of the military readiness of its actors, including Austria; the tinderbox of national aspirations and colonial plunders would have been set alight in any case. The Bolsheviks came to power first of all because Lenin knew what he wanted and no one else did (his famous retort to the remark that there was no party willing to assume real power during the crisis of July 1917 was "there is!"), but, more importantly, the Russian ruling class was no longer able to rule in the old way; there would have been fundamental change sooner or later. I think, too, you are wholly correct in surmising that as limpid and articulate as Trotsky was, he was no politician; there was never a chance he could beat Stalin in the political arena. Marxism is the science of society based upon materialism; it postulates the proletariat (historically the industrial working class) as the historical absolute which will free humanity and abolish exploitation of man by man. Leninism, as Marxism's further development, calls for the abolition of the State through the dictatorship of the proletariat which in turn renders both itself and the State superfluous. Its pre-requisite is the ruthless elimination of the exploiting class. Although Marxism-Leninism today (in its original form)is in eclipse (perhaps inevitably so given the breakneck speed with which its theories were applied -- often in the most haphazard fasion -- to conditions which its authors could not foresee or anticipate; it may be, like in the 1930's, a temporary hiatus. New forms (Maoism, neo-Communism) have taken root in Russia and Asia (especially Southern Asia). What will its next *denouement* look like? It's anyone's guess, but your curiosity about the world and its ideas will certainly serve you well in the coming period. both of you I am sure.

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