HistoryBits: The Great 20th-Century War

HistoryBits:The Great 20th-Century War

Bits and Pieces of History


Power/War/World War I/Black Hand

The Black Hand wrought incalculable damage by lighting the fuse of the powder keg that straddled the fault lines that separated the empires of Germany, Russia, the Austro-Hungarians, and the Ottomans—the latter no less lethal for their senescence. In this case, the Black Hand’s assassination of the archduke—which might otherwise have remained a localized event—sparked an imperial implosion that resulted in the Great War and the end of empires.

Power/War/World War I/Bloody Stalemate

The term “bloody”–in the case of the four years of stalemate during which the French and British managed to stem the German onslaught just short of Paris–was not just an epithet. With more than a million casualties sustained in the defense of Verdun alone, the Bloody Stalemate–with both sides mired in trench warfare that took the front essentially nowhere–represented the most horrific barbarism of the Meat Grinder of the Great War. It also goes to show that once war goes beyond a mere political squabble and takes the High Road of principle–whether in defense of homeland, the abolition of slavery, or in the determination to forge a new nation–the cost in casualties no longer counts.

Power/War/World War I/Changes on Home Front

The Great War stirred up at least as much of a tempest on the home front as it did in the trenches. What won’t people do when the government ratchets up the animosities that are forever lying in wait, just beneath mankind’s thin veneer of civilization! Women abandoned any pretense to feminine frailty, the elderly roused themselves for one last rattle, and the tender flower of the nation’s youth—too young for the real fight–rushed into service as soldiers on the home front. Government fiat, not the market, now determined the allocation of labor, materials, and capital. Wages, rents, and prices were all hammered into compliance, and new taxes were decreed to ensure that any vestiges of free-market forces such as profiteering and supply and demand were patriotically transformed into the fervor for war. History is replete with lessons for those of us in the here-and-now, and all of this might serve as a timely reminder that war cannot long proceed without the acquiescence and support of the people.

Power/War/World War I/Christmas Truce

The Christmas Truce of 1914 wasn’t much, but it would have to do for the poor wretches in the trenches until several years later, with the Bloody Stalemate. The term “bloody”–in the case of the four years of stalemate during which the French and British managed to stem the German onslaught just short of Paris–was not just an epithet. With more than a million casualties sustained in the defense of Verdun alone, the Bloody Stalemate–with both sides mired in trench warfare that took the front essentially nowhere–represented the most horrific barbarism of the Meat Grinder of the Great War. It also goes to show that once war goes beyond a mere political squabble and takes the High Road of principle–whether in defense of homeland, the abolition of slavery, or in the determination to forge a new nation–the cost in casualties no longer counts.

Power/War/World War I/Lusitania

The sinking of the Lusitania also sank the last vestiges of “war with honor”—the sort of chivalric sparring that ‘til then had kept non-combatants more or less off-limits. The onset of the Great War marked the beginning of a reprehensible change in the rules and objectives of warfare in which civilians—being the sea, so to speak, in which the enemy swam—would themselves become the target. The progression of this ghastly reasoning came culminated with the fire bombings of Dresden and the atomic incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and ultimately with the attacks of 9/11.

Power/War/World War I/Moral, Social and Psychological Changes

Nothing shakes up the social order like war. In fact, it seems that social change is a far more prominent casualty than national boundaries or regimes. War is a masterpiece of creativity in the same sense that a painting of the Last Charge of the Light Brigade is. War brings out both the worst and the best in man, and it induces the sort of hothouse conditions for social growth that otherwise tend not to emerge during periods of complacency. Much as the ferment of the 1960s was a by-product of the Vietnam War, Progressivism may have had something to do with America’s acquisition of an empire in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, to consider one example. That particular war itself wasn’t much of a dust-up, but all of a sudden, the world was America’s oyster, and the job description that came with managing the “White Male Imperium” that came with those much-expanded horizons called for a new social message that would work for the world as it would for us, with lasting consequences for women, labor, and Big Business. World War I (and its back half, World War II) accomplished the purpose of passing the torch of international leadership from the British and other colonial powers to the Americans, and with it, a new social orientation that would thenceforth number the world’s priorities among our own.

Power/War/World War I/Remarque

Remarque’s landmark work on trench warfare, All Quiet on the Western Front, went well beyond the letter of the war to evoke the spirit of the horrific barbarism of the Meat Grinder of the Great War. It also goes to show that once war goes beyond a mere political squabble and takes the High Road of principle–whether in defense of homeland, the abolition of slavery, or in the determination to forge a new nation–the cost in casualties no longer counts. As to why the work was banned by the Nazis, I can only speculate, but having read the book, I can well appreciate the effect that it would have had upon the German public: a taste for literature–and the reflection upon the issues of war and peace that such works engender–does not lend itself to acquiring a taste for blood.

Power/War/World War I/Versailles Treaty/Squandered Expectations

Woodrow Wilson’s high-minded pursuit of “open diplomacy” and a compassionate settlement at Versailles did not square with the determination of France, Italy, and Britain to exact vengeance against the Germans. The crushing indemnities levied against Germany ensured that the day would come when some demented demagogue like Hitler would rouse Germany’s resentment over this treatment into a fervor for its own vengeance. World War II proved to be the conclusion of unfinished business and unredressed resentments that had festered for twenty years.

Power/War/World War I/Steps Toward War

World War I was the inevitable outcome of a Europe that festered with diplomatic intrigues, nationalist aspirations, and the hubris and bloodlust of imperialism. One of the constants of European politics involved the French, forever itching to avenge their offended honor and humiliation at the hands of someone or another (the Prussians, in this case); Germany rubbed salt in their wound by seizing Alsace and Lorraine (and with those provinces, France’s treasure-trove of iron and coal deposits), and by allying itself with Russia and Austria to ensure that France remained helpless. With Germany’s Iron Chancellor Bismarck riding off into the sunset of force retirement, Kaiser William II resolved to forge his own foreign policy, which immediately proceeded to alienate Russia and drive it into the welcoming arms of France. What’s more, the Germans and the Brits disconcerted each other with their mutual sword rattling, the menace of their dreadnoughts, and the controversy of Britain’s Boer War in South Africa. The British soon followed the Russians into the French embrace, while the Germans lined up with the fraternal Austrians and stalwart Italians (who craved Germany’s blessing for their own ambitions for empire in Africa). And speaking of empire, the decline of the Ottoman Empire held forth the promise of new nationhood for the myriad seething tribes of the Balkans: Bosnia had been recently handed off from the Turks to the Austrians—which understandably irritated the Serbs, who had longed to embrace Bosnia in its own burgeoning empire. If you’ve got all that straight, then the stage is set; with the powder-keg thus primed with fuse, calamity awaited only the spark, which was struck with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand at the hands of a Serb nationalist. Europe rejoiced, that it might at last cast off the frustrations of a hundred years of peace, and reinvigorate the ancient animosities that had animated its aspirations from time immemorial! World War I was one of those earthquakes of history that occurs along the fault lines of fading empires—in this case, the Ottoman, British, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires. Europe’s boundaries were ripe for the re-shuffling, but more so, colonialism itself was destined for the dustbin. In the wake of World War I, Britain and France drew those infamous “lines in the sand” that created the modern nation-states of the Middle East from what had been an inchoate mass of Bedouins with Flags under the fading leadership of the Ottomans. And after a 20-year interregnum, the Great War continued (now under the rubric of World War II) with its final shakedown of colonial empires throughout Africa and South and Southeast Asia. It was a rotten state of affairs that required only the actions of a lone assassin in Sarajevo to put out of its misery.

Power/War/World War I/Weapons

Man is at his most clever and ingenious when it comes to devising ways to slaughter his fellow human creature, and the Great War witnessed the blossoming of his talent to date in this respect. Machine guns, flamethrowers, mortars, grenades, tanks, barbed wire, and poison gas made for an unprecedented dimension of misery. Yet, with germs, chemicals, and plutonium now added to the mix, we have attained a new threshold of lethality that promises vastly more profound horrors to come. Is it any wonder that men have such a boundless hatred for each other? At the same time, don’t we just love it? (Lest you think I’m being facetious, consider the hew and cry for blood in the days leading up to the war: governments and citizens alike had determined that Western civilization had grown soft, and that nothing would reinvigorate things like a proper dust-up!) War: we can’t live with it, and we won’t live without it.

Power/War/World War II

In his assessment that modern man had reached an unprecedented threshold of savagery with the Second World War, Albert Camus may have confused the constant of human cruelty with our ever-burgeoning capacity to inflict it; man is always at his most creative, clever, and ingenious when it comes to devising ways to slaughter his fellow human creature.

Power/War/World War II/Blitzkreig

The blitzkrieg was as much a psychological rout as it was a military romp. Who could have imagined such a frenzy and firestorm as that which swept through Europe from London to Moscow… in less time than it took the world to realize what was happening! But determined to emulate the spectacular defeats of the Spanish Armada and Napoleon’s Grande Armee, the Nazis predictably floundered in their lunge for the island fortress of England, and succeeded only in stiffening English resolve and awakening the slumbering giant of Fortress America. Lest there be any doubt at that point as to the ultimate outcome, Hitler then proceeded to irretrievably snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by once again taking his cue from Napoleon and dissipating his armies in the infinite wastes of Russia. Perhaps he should have quit while he was ahead, triumphantly strutting down the Champs Elysee. But military conquest is a ravenous serpent that won’t stop until it has consumed its own tail… and there’s a limit to that meal.

Power/War/World War II/Concentration Camps

The Nazi death camps offer a potent lesson to those who would hate: if allowed to run its course, this is where race hatred and the doctrine of “purification” inevitably lead. Consider the murderous hatred of the Jews by ancient Romans and modern Germans alike; the epidemic of lynchings in the post-Civil War South; the butchery in Rwanda and the genocide in Cambodia; the slaughter of the Muslim minority by the Slavic majority of the Balkans and of the overseas Chinese by host-country Indonesians, Malays, and Filipinos. Here in America, people of all kinds (generally) get along because everyone more or less subscribes to the same American Dream and cultural standard. But nothing sows such terror and savagery in the human breast as the enemy within—the perceived threat of a stand-apart society to the shared values that form culture and the rules by which it safeguards itself.

Power/War/World War II/inevitability

The postwar collective security promised by the League of Nations was impotent without the participation of the United States and the Soviet Union. What’s more, it was moot, since the crushing indemnities and other terms that the Allies imposed at Versailles at the end of World War I assured Germany’s eventual rearmament and renewed aggression. When Germany defaulted on the reparations payments after making the first payment, France moved into the Ruhr Valley—Germany’s industrial heartland—to collect in kind by operating its mines and factories. Germany responded to this body blow its already prostrate economy by printing ever more paper money, which soon became so worthless that the single U.S. dollar that bought four German marks in 1914 bought four trillion marks by late 1923. Naturally, the profound misery that hyperinflation caused also abetted the rise of Hitler. Hitler’s vow to put all of Germany’s wrongs right, to avenge its humiliation, and to reassert its primacy in the world order fell on ears that were keenly attuned to the message. As such, Hitler was a legacy of the First World War, and the success of National Socialism was assured not so much by dint of political stratagem or popular mandate, but of the forces of history from a generation before.

Power/War/World War II/Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact

As monstrously cynical as the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact was—with Hitler’s cozying up to his avowed enemy for the purpose of dividing up Eastern Europe–it’s hard to imagine that when the axe fell on Poland, it came as a surprise to anyone, but it seems that it did. Stalin must have wondered his pact of eternal amity with Hitler could have given way so soon thereafter to war, but then again, Herr Hitler had long ago articulated an understanding of the delusional propensities of both people and nations when he said, “If you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big one.”

Power/War/World War II/Operation Barbarossa

Europe is too small a place to contain the ambitions of megalomaniacs like Hitler. They predictably flounder in their lunge for the island fortress of England (as with the ill-fated invasions of the Spanish Armada, Napoleon, and the Luftwaffe), or dissipate themselves in the infinite wastes of Russia (as again did Napoleon and Hitler). The whole world loves a winner, but greed is a ravenous serpent that just doesn’t stop until it has consumed its own tail… and there’s a limit to that meal.

Power/War/World War II/Nuremberg Trials

It’s tragic and terribly unfair that the monstrous crimes of Adolf Hitler evaded justice at the hands of his victims; that he may have taken his own life speaks eloquently of the cowardice of such tyrants. That some of his cohorts did not escape justice is scant consolation– could there ever have been justice for their 50 million victims (a very rough estimate)? But irrespective of their executioners, history–and its students—-must forevermore serve as their jury. But irrespective of their executioners, history–and its students (paying attention?)-—must forevermore serve as their jury.

Power/War/World War II/Superpower Riff

Politics and war (an extension of the political process) make for strange bedfellows. What better example of this than the United States and the Soviet Union, whose World War II alliance arose from the shared need to defeat Nazi Germany. Surely it could have been expected to last, as ideologically, the Americans and the Russians were further apart than North Pole from South. The falling out began with Stalin’s acute disappointment over the decision of the Allies to take their offensive through North Africa and up through Italy, rather than open up a second front straight away in Europe and relieve the Soviet Union of their besiegement by the Germans. As the war drew to a close, further differences arose over plans for postwar Germany, and the exclusion of the Soviets from any participation in the occupation of Japan, and the Soviet insistence on a buffer zone to prevent any reoccurrence of menace from Germany. Winston Churchill once said that the Hun is either at your throat or beneath your boot—and with the Russians having lost some 20 million lives to the Nazi onslaught, is it any wonder that they were so adamant about applying the boot?

Power/War/World War II/German Violations of Versailles Peace Treaty

Why in the world didn’t they see it coming? Hitler set out to test the resolve of the Allies with small steps, starting with his violation of the military clause of the Versailles Treaty that limited Germany’s army to 100,000 men—if, that is, you consider the sudden increase in the size of Germany’s army to more than a half-million men to be a small step; it seems that someone should have noticed! He took another such step by trying his new army out in a joint intervention in the Spanish Civil War (any clues, anyone?), and then by marching it into the demilitarized Rhineland, and then into Austria, the Sudetenland, and the rest of Czechoslovakia (obvious to the brain-dead, no?). But the British continued to delude themselves, comforting themselves with their assertion that these actions merely accorded with meeting the reasonable demands of a restive nation (the French, for their part, were unable to respond, paralyzed as they were by a political crisis). As monstrously cynical as the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact was—with Hitler’s cozying up to his avowed enemy for the purpose of dividing up Eastern Europe–it’s hard to imagine that when the axe fell on Poland, it came as a surprise to anyone, but it seems that it did. Stalin must have wondered his pact of eternal amity with Hitler could have given way so soon thereafter to war, but then again, Herr Hitler had long ago articulated an understanding of the delusional propensities of both people and nations when he said, “If you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big one.”

Power/War/World War II/Yalta

The aftermath of World War Two presented the Allies with a supreme opportunity to rearrange the world in a way that they hoped would forevermore prevent the resurgence of Germany and Japan as a military threat. In laying the groundwork for a divided Europe (and a divided Korea), the puppetmasters of Yalta little comprehended the horrific consequences that lay in wait at the end of history’s long fuse.


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