Remembering the End of the Great War

By | November 11, 2005

Paris: Somber, gray leaden skies cover Paris, as dignitaries gather to commemorate the 87th anniversary of the end of what the French call La Grande Guerre. The weather matches France’s somber mood at the moment, following the recent riots. Nevertheless the descendants of the victorious allies in Britain, France and elsewhere will hold services in countless communities around the country to honor the dead. My 10-year old son is attending one of them, as I write this.

Does it still make sense to commemorate such a long ago event? After all, in France only 6 extremely old men who fought in the 1914-18 war still survive. The last Australian survivor died this summer. My Godfather, who fought under Pershing, and later in World War II as well, died 30 years ago. Is there any real reason to drag out the grainy newsreels of marching men and exploding shells, as French TV has been doing for most of this week?

There are reasons that this anniversary should be commemorated and not just historic ones. To start with over 10 million men and women perished in that war. The obduracy of the generals sent millions to die needlessly – at Verdun, on the Somme, along the Chemin des Dames. Their sacrifices should be honored. My son took his participation in the local ceremony seriously. He informed me that he’d learned that the men/boys in at least two families in Andrésy, where we live northwest of Paris, had all been killed in the war. I told him that this had happened in towns and villages throughout France and in other countries as well. He though for a moment, and then said, “mais, comment ils peuvent faire ça? (But, how could they do that).” Good question, and one that needs to be continually asked.

How indeed can people continue to kill one another, simply because they are perceived as “the enemy?” How could anyone justify killing nearly 3000 innocent people in the World Trade Center? How many other innocents have to die in Iraq, in Jordan, in the U.K., in Israel, Palestine and elsewhere before we find answers to that question? Solutions to problems, even the most intractable ones, come from seeking answers to such questions, and asking about the First World War is a good place to start. An examination of that war and the horrors that flowed from it might just shed some light on how to settle some of our present day hostilities.

John Reed called the Bolshevik revolution in Russia “Ten Days that Shook the World.” World War I was four years that ripped the world apart. Only two countries, the U.S.and Japan, emerged stronger. Russia was plunged into a communist dictatorship that would lead to millions more deaths. A disgruntled and sullen Germany eventually accepted an Austrian fanatic as its leader, who espoused some of the vilest ideas and most brutal oppression ever conceived in the Western world, causing millions more to die. First the depression and then the Second World War ravaged the worldwide economy. For more than 50 years after that cataclysm the world was divided into hostile nuclear armed camps.

There were some positive outcomes. Weakened colonial powers, Britain, France, the Netherlands and others, eventually surrendered their empires to the indigenous people. Democracy, fragile as it is, supplanted monarchies in many countries. The world’s leading nations formed associations – the League of Nations and then the UN – in recognition, to borrow Churchill’s phrase, that “jaw, jaw was better than war, war.”

By and large the world is probably a better place to live in now than it was in 1918. But that war still casts it shadow over us. How? One example is the failure to address the legitimate concerns of the world’s Muslim community, particularly in the Middle East, following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, which has led directly to the current upheavals in that part of the world and the rise of fanatical and murderous fundamentalism. There are others.

So, yes we need to remember the end of the Great War, and yes, we need to ask ourselves and those around us, “how can they do that?” If we find answers, we may also find solutions. Those millions who died in that long ago conflict will perhaps rest easier if we do.

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