The Commemoration of World War 1, 1914-1918

By Ivan Light

The centennial of the US entry into WWI is two years in the future.  But will the emphasis of remembrance ceremonies be on nationalism and glory or on honesty about the war and its consequences?  

The centennial commemoration of World War 1 began on August 3, 2014, one hundred years to the day after Germany declared war on France, initiating a round of reciprocal declarations of war that soon enveloped all Europe.  The leaders of the warring nations assured their people of easy victory.  Initially mad with enthusiasm for the looming conflict, Europeans thought the war would be over by Christmas, 1914. Instead it lasted four years, engaged 65 million soldiers on all sides, killed 8.5 million outright, and left 21.2 million wounded, crippled, and maimed for life (Table 1).  Of the major belligerent powers, Austria lost 1.2 million soldiers, Britain lost 908,000 killed, France 1.3 million, Germany, 1.8 million, Italy, 650 thousands, Russia, 1.7 million, Turkey, 350,000, and the United States, 126 thousand.

Had the United States entered the war in 1914 when it started in Europe, American losses would have been 504,000. Happily, the United States remained neutral during the first three years of the war, and did not enter the conflict until April, 1917.  As a result, by European standards, American casualties were light, and the war was also immensely profitable for the United States because American factories were busy throughout the conflict producing armaments for Britain and France as well as, during the war’s last year, for the American expeditionary forces.

The Peace Treaty of Versailles in 1919 imposed a harsh and punitive reparations policy upon Germany, which was declared solely responsible for the horrifying conflict. To pay its post-war debt to the victorious Allies, Germany printed money, bringing about the ruinous inflation of the early 1920s. At the height of the inflation a million marks were required to buy a loaf of bread. This inflation wiped out the savings of the German middle class, and in tandem with German bitterness about the betrayal of Wilsonian promises of “peace without victory,” the inflation brought Hitler to power in Germany with revanchist military plans.

Bad consequences arose elsewhere in the world as well.  Disappointed by its meager share of the Versailles settlement, victorious Italy turned to Mussolini for fascistic leadership in new wars. Also disappointed with what Versailles got them, the Japanese planned and waged new imperialist wars in Asia.  

Hitler and Mussolini caused the Second World War in Europe as a consequence of which the Holocaust and Stalin terror claimed an additional 20 million lives. Allied with Germany and Italy, Japan attacked China in 1937, and the United States in 1941. After the defeat the Axis powers in 1945, Europe was divided into Soviet and Western zones, and the Cold War began. The Cold War ended in 1989, but the Korean War and the Vietnam War were key military conflicts during the Cold War. A thermonuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States was narrowly averted in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis.  

Blunt as is this historical resume, it is no exaggeration to conclude that the horrors of the twentieth century were all set in motion by World War 1.  That is, without the First World War, there would have been no Sino-Japanese war, no Second World War, no Holocaust, no Stalin terror, no Cold War, no Vietnam War, no Korean War.  Indeed, there would have been no Iraq war because Iraq was a fictitious nation created by the Versailles Treaty as a convenience for the British and French. The First World War was, therefore, the key event of the twentieth century without which the rest of the twentieth century would have been immeasurably more peaceful. Yet very few people know today why the world went to war in 1914, and, knowing nothing, the people do not care either.

That is a pity because, for a war with such devastating long-term consequences, the First World War had no good reason to have happened at all. It served no valuable purpose of the various peoples engaged, and it protected nothing that needed protecting.  What was at stake in 1914 was not “civilization vs. barbarism” as Allied propaganda billed the conflict, but only an imperialist rivalry between Germany and its allies, the challengers, and, on the other side, France, Britain, and Russia, the status quo powers. The question was only whose empires should prevail?  The challengers or the status quo powers?

As the rest of the twentieth century witnessed the end of empires, and good riddance to them, few people today would regard the survival of an empire as a worthwhile cause for which millions should die at once and more millions as long-term consequences of war. Yet preserving or enlarging empire is what the First World War was chiefly and most basically about at the beginning. After 1915, the war was still about empire, but it was also about covering up the stupidity and vainglory that leaderships of the warring nations had earlier displayed and the responsibility for which they now wished to evade.  

In the next four years, from 2014 through 2018, the centennial commemoration of the First World War offers the world a chance to obtain a fresh and accurate view of not just that horrifying war, but of the whole horrifying twentieth century. George Orwell presciently observed that whoever controls history controls the future, and that wise adage applies to the history of the First World War. The people of the world need to understand what a useless conflict this was and how horrible were its consequences. If they can understand this lesson, they stand a better chance in the future of avoiding new horrifying wars that need never have been fought at all.

But, if the opening ceremonies are any guide, the leaders of the world today do not intend to focus the attention of the world’s people upon the futility and stupidity of World War 1. Instead, if they say anything, they propose to peddle reassuring political bromides that justify new wars.  Speaking at a commemoration ceremony in in Belgium, Prince William, 2d heir to the British throne, declared that we must “salute those who fell for our freedom.”  This royal judgment is absurd because the First World War was about empire, not about freedom. The First World War had nothing to do with freedom.

As if to drive home the consequences of misunderstanding our history, The Imperial War Museum in London opened First World War galleries that encourage children to try on war uniforms for size as well as a measuring rod courage children to try on war uniforms for size as well as a measuring rod that allows them to see if they are tall enough yet to qualify for the British army in 1914. These child visitors are being prepared to die in the next useless war Britain declares.

Speaking at an American cemetery in France, President Obama told the world that we recall World War 1 with horror because that war introduced “chemical weapons” that still threaten us. Of course, World War 1 did indeed bring poison gas to the battlefields of Europe. President Obama was quite right about that. But his historical message ignored the “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq that lured the United States into a useless and counter-productive war in that country. President Obama might have said that the First World War displayed the depravity to which world leaders would sink on the battlefield in order to justify the unwise and sanguinary conflicts into which they had lured their people under false pretenses. That would have been a historical lesson the world’s people needed to hear, but he did not say that.

Fearful that the world’s leaders will use the commemoration of the First World War to preach blind nationalism, obedience to authority, and militarism, people in many countries are raising independent committees pledged to tell the truth about the causes and consequences of the First World War.  This is a cultural and historical struggle. In Britain, a committee calling itself “No Glory in War, 1914 – 1918,” has taken responsibility for debunking the official glorifications of World War 1 that have already begun. Their entertaining webside (www.noglory.org) is becoming the organizing center for a worldwide campaign to bring the facts about the First World War home to the people despite the predictable efforts of authorities to turn the commemoration into a propagandistic glorification of militarism and the next war.

In the United States, we are still two years short of the centennial (April, 2017) of our nation’s entry into the “War to End Wars” which became the war to create wars.  This delay offers some possibility for doing here by 2017 what the British No Glory in War committee are already doing. In my forthcoming novel, Take Up the Sword of Justice, I have crafted what I hope will ultimately be one of many contributions to that worthwhile cause, the cultural criticism of useless and counter-productive wars, starting with the First World War.

Table 1. Casualties: First World War

Countries

Total Mobilized

Killed & Died

Wounded

Prisoners &Missing

Total Casualties

 

Allied Powers

           

Russia

12,000,000

1,700,000

4,950,000

     2,500,000

9,150,000

 

France

8,410,000

1,357,800

4,266,000

    537,000

6,160,800

 

British Empire

8,904,467

908,371

2,090,212

    191,652

3,190,235

 

Italy

5,615,000

650,000

947,000

    600,000

2,197,000

 

United States

4,355,000

126,000

234,300

    4,500

364,800

 

Japan

800,000

300

907

    3

1,210

 

Romania

750,000

335,706

120,000

    80,000

535,706

 

Serbia

707,343

45,000

133,148

    152,958

331,106

 

Belgium

267,000

13,716

      44,686

    34,659

  93,061

 

Greece        

230,2230,000

5,000

21,000

    1,000

17,000

 

Portugal

100,000

7,222

13,751

    12,318

33,291

 

Montenegro

50,000

3,000

10,000

  7,000

20,000

 

Total

42,188,810

5,152,115

12,831,004

  4,121,090

22,104,209

 

Central Powers

           

Germany

11,000,000

1,773,700

4,216,058

1,152,800

7,142,558

 

Austria-Hungary

7,800,000

1,200,000

3,620,000

2,200,000

7,020,000

 

Turkey

2,850,000

325,000

400,000

250,000

975,000

 

Bulgaria

1,200,000

87,500

152,390

27,029

266,919

 

Total

22,850,000

3,386,200

8,388,448

3,629,829

15,404,477

 

Grand Total

65,038,810

8,538,315

21,219,452

7,750,919

37,508,686

 

Source: www.spartacus-educational.com viewed 10 Oct. 2014

   

Image from The Telegraph

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/germany/10860889/Angela...