World War I began 100 years ago, and in early June we mark the bloody D-Day Allied landings in the war that followed it. World War I shattered the European Enlightenment’s rosy illusions about scientific “progress” and the perfectibility of human reason. But World War II’s D-Day unity — the Commies working with the Capitalists — is hardly present today: Did you observe the ugly body language between Putin and Obama at this year’s June 6 Normandy celebration?
The Great War killed tens of millions and made hollow the results of the industrial revolution. Its onset is a truly compelling milestone in recent Western history, and we would perhaps do better to study the origins of the devastating Great War (1914 –1918) than to make gaudy commemoration of the brave beachhead landings in Nazi-held France 70 years ago.
When World War I began with the Austrian Archduke’s assassination, it was a struggle between Europe’s dominant empires. The first cracks of decay and crumbling among Europe’s elite machine cultures became apparent, a decline that continued throughout the 20th century. The Second Word War on this reading is simply a horrendous continuation of the first.
In 1919, when W.B. Yeats wrote his often-quoted line “things fall apart / the centre will not hold,” we observe authentic prophesy because il Duce and Hitler animated that rough beast and wiped out more of the best and the brightest in a second round of an Armageddon. The faith in Western rational leadership evaporated, and many Brits bitterly spoke of their soldiers and generals as “lions being led by donkeys.”
The horrifying WWI death totals were followed by the Great Depression, fascism in Germany, British kowtowing and appeasement of Hitler in 1938 Munich, and then the Holocaust inside a second imperial war indissolubly hooked to 1914.
Today, EU countries such as Greece, Spain, and Portugal topple like walls of dried mud into ennui and economic stagnation, and a resurgent right wing performs very well in French elections — notably, Marie Le Pen. In this country, Obama’s preferred “pivot toward Asia” is getting wrenched back into old-style Euro-centrism because of Putin’s wild gambits into the Crimea and Ukraine. The former KGB agent threatens to haul us back to the brutal 20th-century style of war, in fact, back into conditions similar to those holding sway in 1914 imperial Europe.
Then, nationalist and anarchist groups like Young Bosnia and the Black Hand attacked the peripheries of “empire” (the Archduke was next in line for the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s throne), and imperial Russian interests clashed with the new Germany’s amazing industrial power, aggravated by Kaiser Wilhelm’s lust for imperial respect. Today, the Western world needs to focus on the burgeoning imperial contests in which we’re involved, especially in the Crimea and in Ukraine. Putin toys with Obama. We need to shore up Western Europe and the entire EU zone, and prevent more bands of Putin’s military-equipped gangsters from advancing west to infiltrate Slovakia, Romania, or even Poland, which were all once part of the Soviet Empire.
With the huge American military apparatus reeling from our debilitating imperial wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Empire is in full retreat. As Obama blows the horn in brave speeches in Poland as well as in Asia, we sense some desperation. The Polish foreign minister openly mocks Obama and the toothless U.S.A. Meanwhile, citizens at home want lower taxes for the wealthy, renewed “open carry” gun rights, and zealous Tea-hadists clamor to weaken the federal government’s power. And now 300 “advisers” have been sent to collapsing Iraq.
When WWI erupted into full combat in August 1914, no one foresaw the unbelievable carnage that lay ahead, the utter defeat of Czarist Russia, or the new killing technologies’ hideous effects: light machine guns, accurate heavy artillery, barbed wire, poison gas, and submarines. Most of the Enlightenment’s golden promise of rational progress and the industrial revolution’s material plenty evaporated in Flanders Field with its 500,000 casualties. Bitter post-WWI art and literature show contempt for conventional bourgeois society and its leaders: Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, the Dada and Surrealist art movements, and the aptly named “Lost Generation” of American writers.
Today, all but three of our current NATO allies fail to contribute their required minimum 2 percent to the Alliance’s military budget. Are we moving our military machinery to forward bases in Germany, such as Grafenwoehr, and to other heavy weapons posts we still have on the continent? Does Obama realize Putin and the Poles see him as head of American imperial decline? Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, a former Communist like Putin, who speaks fluent Russian, has stated after long meetings with Putin: “He is in another world.” This was no figure of speech.
Putin dwells in an early 20th-century world, with a mindset similar to the conditions that led to WWI. When he speaks of greater Russia — Velikorossiya — it is reminiscent of Kaiser Wilhelm’s urgent need for the “new” Germany to garner imperial respect, the British Empire’s stranglehold on India, and the tottering Austro-Hungarian Empire’s need to hold down fractious provinces in the Balkans. Wilhelm had a withered arm, Putin has a withered 20th-century soul, and Obama begins to resemble British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain kissing Hitler’s feet in 1938 after being summoned to Munich twice that year.
Remarque’s world-famous novel was written in German with the original title Im Westen nichts Neues, with a better translation being “Nothing New in the West.” One hundred years later, how much has changed? All is not quiet on the Western front, and recent scenarios resemble the European empires’ competitive scrambles in the decades leading up to 1914.
Dan McCaslin has taught history at Crane School since 1980.