Two years ago, in a Veterans Day piece called “Remembering World War I,” I suggested that the Great War and its aftermath has something important to teach us about the value and fragility of our liberal, democratic institutions. Sadly, the need to learn that lesson is even more urgent today that it was two years ago, so I’ve decided to provide an abridged version of the piece in this blog post:
Just over one hundred years ago—on November 11th, 1918—Germany signed the Armistice that brought World War I to an end. … The following spring, in a poem called “Aftermath,” English war veteran Siegfried Sassoon asked: “HAVE you forgotten yet?” …
I’m pleased to report that the British, at least, haven’t forgotten. When I was in England last month, everywhere I went I saw people with red poppies pinned to their coats and jackets in anticipation of the upcoming centenary of the Armistice, and, on the day itself, huge crowds of people—many of them wearing poppies—gathered at Remembrance Day events throughout the UK, and throughout the Commonwealth.
Equally well-attended events took place across Europe (President Trump attended one in Paris) and as far afield as St. Petersburg and Hong Kong. But nothing comparable took place in the United States. That’s understandable, of course. As an occasion for remembering and honoring our fallen soldiers, Armistice Day (or Veterans Day, as it’s now called) never could compete with Memorial Day. Created to honor those who died in the Civil War, by 1918 Memorial Day was already well-established as our national day of remembrance, and it has remained our national day of remembrance ever since.
It would be a shame, however, for America’s answer to Sassoon’s question to be, “yes.” More than 2 million American soldiers sailed to Europe to fight in World War I, and more than 100,000 of them died there, which is reason enough to remember the war. It’s not, however, a reason to single it out for special attention. The death toll was far higher in World War II, and higher still in the Civil War. Nevertheless, World War I is special. It’s special because of the way it changed the course of world history, and it’s special because there are many parallels between the situation in Europe after the Armistice and the situation we find ourselves in now, 100 years later.
By the end of 1918, the war itself and the way it was administered had discredited the global ruling class in the eyes of the people. Radical groups, on the left and the right, were quick to exploit the public’s disillusionment and fear by blaming, not just the specific individuals responsible for the war, but the entire ruling class and the institutions of liberal democracy that, it was claimed, formed the basis for the ruling class’s power. It was time, said the radicals, to destroy those liberal institutions and replace them with something new and better—with communism or fascism or national socialism.
The radicals used lies and propaganda to polarize the public and drive its members into one faction or another. Knowing that nothing would increase the public’s sense of disillusionment and fear more than the specter of blood in the streets, they organized demonstrations that were intentionally designed to provoke violent reactions from their ideological opponents and the police. And in country after country, these tactics worked. The Communists took control of Russia in 1922; the Fascists took control of Italy in 1925; the National Socialists took control of Germany in 1933; and similar radical movements took control of other countries around the world in the years that followed.
Once in power, the radicals subjected the world to an orgy of death and destruction on a scale that would previously have been unimaginable. They persecuted and murdered their own people, they invaded and subjugated their neighbors, and they initiated a second world war that killed tens of millions and left much of Europe and Asia in ruins.
It was a terrible ordeal, but it did bring at least some of the world’s people to their senses. While the persecution and murder continued behind the iron curtain, most people in the developed world recognized that, far from being the cause of the troubles that beset the world in 1918, the liberal institutions that had prevailed during the 19th century were the reason the world had enjoyed an unprecedented degree of peace and prosperity throughout that time. Radical ideologies like fascism and communism were seen for what they are: tyrannical systems under which peace and prosperity—and freedom and equality—are all impossible.
And yet, here we are, in 2018. Once again, a series of policy blunders have discredited the global ruling class in the eyes of the people, and, once again, radical groups, on the left and the right, are exploiting the public’s disillusionment and fear by urging it to blame, not just the specific individuals responsible for our recent wars and economic set-backs, but the entire ruling class and the institutions of liberal democracy that, it is claimed, form the basis for the ruling class’s power. On the right, some radicals are trying to rehabilitate some of the fascists’ ideas, and on the left many radicals are unabashedly extolling the merits of socialism. Once again, the radicals are using lies and propaganda to polarize the public and drive its members into one faction or another, and, once again, the radicals are spilling blood in the streets to increase the public’s sense of disillusionment and fear.
How can we persuade Americans, especially young Americans, to step back from this brink? How can we get them to appreciate the danger? One way, it seems to me, is to teach them about World War I and its aftermath.
I never followed through on that suggestion, and as far as I know no one else has either, but it still seems like a good idea. Over the course of the past year the global ruling class has blundered over and over again: in its handling of COVID-19; in its response to the George Floyd protests; and, in this country, in its administration of a national election. And while the American right has been admirable restrained in their response to all these blunders, the left’s political and intellectual leaders have been remarkably unrestrained in the way they have used lies, propaganda, and dirty tricks to mislead and radicalize the public. Worse still, night after night, radicalized left-leaning members of the public have assembled in the streets to break windows, throw bombs, and burn vehicles and buildings. More than ever, it would seem, we need to learn from World War I and its aftermath.
Note: In the original version linked to above you can read about the American origin of the “Poppy Day” tradition and read in full both Sassoon’s “Aftermath” and also “In Flanders Fields,” which was written by Canadian soldier John McCrae to honor his friends and comrades buried in make-shift graves during the Battle of Ypres.