On June 28th it will be 100 years since the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Franz Ferdinand – was assassinated in Sarajevo, triggering the First World War. While I have over my life studied much history of war, I believe I have spent more time on the First World War than any other. This is because there is something horrendously tragic about the whole thing – thought not, in my view, for the reasons most often given.
For most people with a cursory knowledge of the war, it is just a bloody, miserable waste. Four years in the trenches with men being sent senselessly to their deaths by insensate commanders. There is a bit of truth in that, but it does really get to the bottom of the matter. In my view, our civilization committed mass suicide during that war – over a long period of time prior to the war, starting really in the 16th century but getting rolling in the 18th, we had stripped ourselves of that patina of Judeo-Christian morality which prevented us from doing really horrible things, while at the same time a false sense of security was created by the rising, capitalist prosperity (for some, not all). We thought in 1914 that we had thrown off the shackles of a dead past and were moving inexorably into a bright future. What we found is that we had lost our moral compass and were descending into a nightmare.
The men of 1914 went off to war singing. In all the belligerent powers there was a sense of destiny and awe – we were going to have this thing out and then build a new world of peace, justice and prosperity. Listen to Rupert Brooke:
Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!
Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.
Brooke ended up dying in the war – sadly, not in a heroic battle, but of blood poisoning. But that doesn’t take away from the reality of what he did, and what he believed in. In his poems we see the whole spirit which animated all those caught up in the cataclysm. A few years on, Siegfried Sassoon wrote this:
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
That is quite a change. One can put it down to the sheer horror of war, but it is more than that, it is the betrayal of an ideal. It was an ideal of patriotism, of manly courage, of the surety that your nation was glorious and deserved dominion unchecked because of the good that was in it. That it proved a false ideal doesn’t make the betrayal of it any less an affront. Indeed, it might make it worse. Marching off to war the men thought one thing and found something very different. What the found was that ideal was non-existent. What they didn’t know – and most people still have discovered to this day – is that the ideal was wrong because it wasn’t founded upon a firm understanding of God. To be manly and patriotic is a grand thing, as long as one firmly recognizes that God is Sovereign. Solzhenitsyn said that the problem of the 20th century was that Man had forgotten about God. Indeed – and in the searing abyss of World War One, men found that as they had not God, they had nothing and all the patriotism and manly courage in the world could not redeem the fact that 9 million men had died in battle, and victory had been bought so dear by the victors that it was indistinguishable from defeat. The real pity of it was that people did not, on the whole, turn back to God.
Much is made regarding who started the war – who’s fault it all was. Most people blame Germany and, in a certain sense, the Germans did mess the whole thing up. But we should lay blame where it lies in all aspects. The primary culprits were Serbia and Russia – it was Serb nationalists under the control of people in the Serbian government who did the deed, and it was Russians who encouraged the whole thing. As to just why people wanted to play with fire, that will never be absolutely discovered. Sheer stupidity cannot be ruled out – especially as Russia simmered in pre-revolutionary turmoil and Serbia was both exhausted by a recent war and totally incapable of stopping a determined Austrian attack. But people still turn to Germany and lay the blame there because the Germans approved of Austria taking vigorous measures – with war implied – against the Serbs. I ask, what were the Germans supposed to do? Tell the Austrians, “sorry your heir to the throne was murdered; can you just cool it, though?”. Germany’s real blame isn’t that she backed her ally in reasonable application of force against a hostile power, nor was Germany in the wrong to mobilize against Russia when Russian mobilized – quite unjustifiably – against Austria in support of Serbia. No, Germany’s failure – Germany’s crime – was to insist upon attacking France, which had nothing at all to do with the issue…and by attacking France, also attacking Belgium, which brought in Britain and made it into World War One.
Why did the Germans do that? Having no particular quarrel with France at the moment and France not at all keen to be dragged into war over a mess in the Balkans, why did the Germans decide they had to attack France, and thus Belgium? The blame here is laid on the German war plan, which called for the destruction of France in about six weeks and then turn the German army upon the Russians. But to blame a plan – as if plans can’t be changed – is nonsense. The real blame lies in the minds of Germany’s rulers, civil and military. They had calculated everything to a nicety. They had done the math. It was all worked out on paper – all they had to do was fight for six weeks in France, then maybe a few months in Russia and, presto!, Germany has won the war and thus absolute dominance of the European continent. They worked it out in a void – because they, like everyone else, had forgotten about God. To be sure, a nation is justified fully in defending itself – but the Germans had, over the previous century, schooled themselves in a series of un-Christian falsehoods. Most notably that it is the right and duty of a nation to use calculated, aggressive war to increase the power of a nation. This was the lesson taught most grandly by Bismarck, who forged German unity under Prussian leadership by a series of calculated wars – and the wars being brought about by whatever means came to hand; lying, blackmail, treason, what have you. As to why Germany needed to be unified, or Prussia needed to dominate the nation, no one really ever even asked the question (on a smaller scale the same thing was done in Italy at the same by Cavour, using much the same methods as Bismarck – once again, no one ever asked why Italy needed to be united).
By 1914, a few voices in Germany were worried about Germany’s justification for entering war – especially against France and Belgium – but most didn’t care. Victory would cover it all – why they started it won’t matter to the victorious side. But why one fights a war does matter; if not to those who start it, then to the Ruler of all things. And, in fact, hardly anyone on either side was particularly interested in where right lay. The plain fact of the matter is that Serbia, as a nation, had done wrong and richly deserved exemplary punishment. Everyone else should have stayed out. Had everyone done so, the war would have been a local affair and over in six months.
In the end, the Serbs were wrong, the Russians were wrong and the Germans were wrong – not in the wrong were France, Belgium and Britain, all fighting a defensive war (though, Britain, to be sure, slouched into war because the government was more fearful of overthrow than of anything else – in order to stay in office, Britain’s government hesitated on their way into the conflagration; an early and firm “no” or “yes” to war would have toppled the government..temporizing while the world blew up made certain the particular officer holders could stay in office). Surely, then, these nations, unjustly attacked, would give a better account of themselves? Not at all. Infected by the same disease, they went on and did a lot of wrong things all on their own. As Churchill put it in his history of the war – The World Crisis – while Germany was ever in the van in bringing about new horrors, the allies followed them step by step and then did the crimes on an even greater scale than Germany had done. Churchill noted that by the end of the war the nations had only refused cannibalism and torture as means of making war – and these because they were of doubtful utility. Of course, Churchill also described the warring parties as “scientific, Christian nations”. The problem is that while the science was there – and was used with great effectiveness to increase the slaughter – the Christianity was lacking. In 1917, the former Foreign Secretary of Britain, Lord Lansdowne, observing with dismay that the war was destroying civilization circulated a letter which called for a negotiated peace with a return to the pre-war status quo. The Germans lied through their teeth and said they liked the idea while their real desire was to grab huge amounts of territory in Europe and around the world. The allies, in their turn, heaped scorn upon Lansdowne – furious that someone could suggest something other than fighting to absolute victory. But Lansdowne was right – the war had reached a point where victory would not be worth the price. Better to settle the matter like gentlemen – like Christian gentlemen. But no one wanted that – they just wanted to hate and lacerate and kill and crush without mercy with the alleged notion being that out of a wasteland of utter devastation, a better would could be built. A Progressive solution, as it were.
And so the war went on until everyone was exhausted, but the Germans just a tad more exhausted than everyone else. And then a vindictive peace was imposed, old systems were destroyed and the arena was cleared for communism, fascism and Nazism. Manifestations which had not merely forgotten about God, but loathed the very concept of God.
After the war, things just got worse. Cold-blooded massacre of millions became rather the rule. The Russian communists with their GULAG, the German Nazis with their death camps – but the United States and Britain with their “area bombing” of German and Japanese cities – which blew up wondrous works of Man, massacred quite a lot of people and did precisely nothing to win the war. Outside of the immorality of deliberately targeting civilians (and, yes, I realize that the Nazis started it – but, come on!, are we going to use what Nazis did as justification for what we do?), it was also a waste of ammunition. Something no great military captain would ever do – I feel it in my bones that if someone like Douglas MacArthur was Supreme Commander, he wouldn’t have allowed things like the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden. He would have seen to it that the bombs were dropped on something useful – something which would actually curtail the enemy’s ability to fight. MacArthur did have a lot of faults, to be sure, but he was one of the rarities of the modern era: a Christian gentleman. And such people don’t drop bombs on civilians on the off chance that it might harm military production – you’d drop ten times the amount on any target, if you thought it would shorten the war and bring victory…but if its just blowing up some poor person’s home, what is the point? Why expend the lives of brave air crews on something like that?
We lack Christian warriors, we also lack Christian common sense. This lack manifests itself in war when in the First World War hundreds of thousands of men were sent to charge barbed-wire and machine guns, in the Second World War in pointlessly hideous aerial attacks and in the “peace” time, a complete inability to see things as they are. We’re watching outright savages brutally move across Iraq and we’re not really horrified, now are we? Just the way things are, right? A Christian woman is sentenced to death in Sudan for refusing to abandon her faith. What do we do? Nothing. Christian women are kidnapped and sold into slavery in Nigeria. What do we do? Nothing. Hash tag campaigns on Twitter don’t count as something, by the way. A people possessed of any sense of morality would have mounted a punitive expedition against miscreants who propose to behead people, hang them for apostasy, or sell them into slavery. We don’t. Who really is more immoral: a German Emperor ordering an unprovoked attack on Belgium, or a pack of American cowards who won’t go to the rescue of women sold into slavery in Africa?
On this centenary of World War One, I think it good for all of us to reflect a bit. Not just one World War One, itself. Not just on the deaths. Not even just on the heroism (and there was plenty of that – men who by sublime acts of courage redeemed themselves from the muck and mire of a demoralized, dying civilization). But on what it really all means – the death of a civilization is an astounding thing. The last dregs of it which we are plumbing today are all prefigured in what we saw starting in 1914 – the cowardice, the greed, the ignorance, the cruelty, the indifference. They were there, they are here – we labor under them. We continue the job of mass suicide. Will we stop doing it?
As a Christian, I know we will – or, at least, that some small remnant of survivors will stop doing it. It would be better – and far less bloody – if we were to stop before we’re reduced to a band of survivors. If we can recapture the Judeo-Christian morality, then even our wars won’t be a horror like World War One, and our peace will be real peace – not a mere willful blindness to facts while we sit rich, dumb and happy in front of our televisions. Time will tell when and where a halt will be called – but I fear that we’ve got a bit further down into the gutter to go before we can start to rise again.