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Fintan O’Toole: The first World War is still being fought

A century after the Armistice of 1918, we are still living in the world it created

It was the greatest silence in all of history. On the western front, the British and Americans were using sound waves transferred on to film to give visual signals of where the German guns were located.

A strip of such film survives in the Imperial War Museum in London, recorded on the morning of November 11th, 1918. It shows the waves of sound rising like mountains right up to 11 o’clock as gunners lined up in a grim ceremony to fire one final shell, to have, as it were, the last word on this terrible war. In some batteries, all the officers got together to pull the lanyard that triggered the firing of their great gun.

In one case, as many as 800 men tugged a specially extended rope so each would be able to claim to have fired the last shot from the battery. And then, at 11, the recorded sound waves flatline, as if a divine hand had suddenly smoothed a raging sea. Or as if a patient had died, the vital signs of the great death machine all suddenly ceasing.

The silence, to those who experienced it, was much weirder and more uncanny than the terrible, thunderous noise to which they had grown accustomed. Indeed, one of the stranger phenomena of the alien realm of the front line was that at times the noise was so great it overwhelmed the brain and soldiers could not hear it all.


Unheard roar

And, in a sense, this unheard roar continues. The influence of the first World War has never stopped. A century after the Armistice that brought its active phase to a close, we still live in the world it made.

It is the original sin of modernity, and one for which there is no forgiveness. Its din remains so overwhelmingly present that we cannot yet find the signal in the noise. We struggle to extract a clear meaning from its immensity because there is no external vantage point, no place for us to stand outside it. We are still in the war.

The very word “Armistice” is telling. An armistice is not peace, merely a cessation of fighting, a short truce. The breach of the peace that happened in 1914 could not be undone by a mere absence of war.

The great historian Eric Hobsbawm noted that in his central European family, "'Peace' meant 'before 1914': after that came something that no longer deserved the name".

Before 1914, there had been no conflict involving all the great powers since the end of the Napoleonic wars a century earlier and since 1871 there had been no war in Europe in which the army of any major power crossed a hostile frontier. “Peace” of a kind seemed to be the norm – no western European country even required passports for travellers from any of its neighbours.

Great divide

In 1912, the German industrialist and politician Walther Rathenau observed that never before had the European peoples been so close to each other or known each other so well. But by 1918, this world had receded behind a great divide. It is striking that the term "first World War" was actually coined in September 1918 before the war had even ended – the idea that it would not be the last was already present.

Even in the midst of the immense relief of November 11th, there was a sense of not knowing what to do with this new history, or how to exist in the world that the great cataclysm had created.

On the day of the Armistice, Virginia Woolf noted in her diary the strange aimlessness of the crowds celebrating in London: “Nobody had any notion where to go or what to do.” She sensed a “restlessness & inability to settle down, & yet discontent with whatever it was possible to do… Taxicabs were crowded with whole families, grandmothers & babies, showing off; & yet there was no centre, no form for this wandering emotion to take.”

Berrnard Shaw imagined that even William Shakespeare would have been unable to find the right words for what had happened

It is not for nothing that the form it eventually took was silence. The idea of keeping a two-minute silence on Armistice Day was taken up very quickly and seemingly organically from the first anniversary in 1919. It was the first war for which this form of commemoration – standing still in a great hush like the one that had descended on the front – seemed appropriate.

The right words

This muteness was felt even by one of the most loquacious men alive, the Irish playwright Bernard Shaw. He imagined that even William Shakespeare would have been unable to find the right words for what had happened: "What would he have said if he had seen Ypres as it is now, or returned to Stratford as French peasants are returning to their homes today, to find the old familiar signpost inscribed 'to Stratford 1 mile' and at the end of the mile nothing but some holes in the ground and a fragment of broken churn here and there? Would not the spectacle of the angry ape endowed with powers of destruction that Jove never pretended to, have beggared even his command of words?"

The great German philosopher Walter Benjamin asked rhetorically:"Was it not notable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent – not richer but poorer in communicable experience?"

For all the poems and novels and paintings and memoirs that came out of it, there is still a sense that the experience of the war remained incommunicable – and not just because no individual could see more than a tiny shard of its infinitely exploding shrapnel. It is incommunicable because (unlike with the second World War’s moral of the defeat of fascism), it defies all efforts to give it a clear meaning.

Continuity of violence

Did it, to ask the most basic question, even end? If you were in Russia, the Ukraine, Finland, the Baltic states, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Italy, Anatolia, the Caucasus or Ireland, all of which had either pogroms, wars of independence, ethnic conflicts, civil wars or revolutions and counter-revolutions in the immediate postwar years, it probably didn’t feel like it.

These conflicts, in turn, fed the growth of fascism and led to the resumption of world war. Hobsbawm coined the phrase “the thirty years war” to emphasise the continuity of violence.

And one could go much further: did the first World War only really end when Germany was reunified in 1990? Or was it not continuing in the Balkan wars of the 1990s that were a resumption of the conflicts that had helped to create the first World War itself and that brought Sarajevo back into European history?

Is it not still going on now in Syria and Iraq, countries created by Britain and France in their carve-up of the defeated Ottoman empire, and in the continuing homelessness of the Kurds, who were primary victims of that deal?

And what was it all for? The Tommies sang: “We’re here because we’re here/ Because we’re here because we’re here.” There was, after the war had dragged on so brutally for so long, no “because”.

‘Nothing sacred’

The official answers – honour, glory, the nation – were not good enough for those who had been there. As Ernest Hemingway's alter ego Frederic Henry, a young American veteran, puts it in A Farewell to Arms: "I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice… I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stock yards at Chicago" where cattle were butchered en masse.

Those big words retained their place in official rhetoric but even the officials knew that the two-minute silence said much more.

The title of a book published in 1922 by the Anglo-Irish journalist and novelist CE Montague became the key post-war word: disenchantment. The industrial nature of the slaughter – the constant possibility of being randomly blown to smithereens by a shell fired from miles away by an invisible enemy – destroyed all the notions of individual heroism and chivalry.

In a sense, almost all the first World War’s soldiers were unknown soldiers – the war itself had no interest in their names or characters, their courage or cowardice. It killed them absurdly, indiscriminately, anonymously.

The US president Woodrow Wilson tried to give the war a more specific meaning as the horrible but necessary labour pains for the birth of a new post-imperial era of national democracies. Superficially, this was plausible.

Four great empires – the German, the Hapsburg, the Ottoman and the Tsarist – had indeed been swept away. And monarchy ceased to be the default mode of European statehood: just one of the successor states created from the wreckage of the Hapsburg empire (Yugoslavia) was a monarchy and in the interwar years, just one further monarchy was established, when an Albanian strongman declared himself King Zog. So, as Jan-Werner Müller puts it, "for the first time in European history, republics became the rule rather than the exception".

Democracy did expand. Women voted for the first time in Ireland and Britain just a month after the Armistice and female suffrage took hold in Russia, Germany, Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Austria and the United States. Male suffrage, previously limited by property qualifications, became universal in most of the postwar states. So the republican and national democracies that so many of us now inhabit did emerge from the war and in retrospect could be seen to give it meaning: the slaughter was the bridge between empire and democracy.

But it was not as simple as that. The age of empires was over – but only for the defeated. The British and French empires expanded and the United States arguably emerged as a new kind of imperial power as, over time, did the Soviet Union. Wilson’s promise that the moral purpose of the war lay in the principle of national self-determination by peoples with a historic collective identity turned out not to apply to the victors either. Ireland was the most immediate and obvious European exception: the British were not expected to follow the rules that applied to the Austro-Hungarians or the Ottomans.

Democratic moment

And of course there was never the slightest intention of recognising the right to self-determination of, for example, the Indian or the Vietnamese peoples. In any case, the democratic moment would prove to be short – in the 1930s, most of the new democracies succumbed either to authoritarianism or to invasion.

If the war was supposed to be in the cause of democracy and national self-determination, it turned out to be little more meaningful than “We’re here because we’re here”.

The dead can tell us just three things

We are left, then, with a great force that still pulses beneath the skin of our own times but that remains fundamentally mysterious. We know the broad facts: that 20 million people were killed and 21 million wounded. We know the battles and the alliances and the weaponry and the tactics and the strategies. But, beyond that, the dead can tell us just three things.

One is that, as Shaw put it, we are angry apes with godlike powers of destruction: this is what happens when our technology has advanced too far beyond our political and moral capacity to control it.

The second thing the dead have to tell us is that the slide from complacency to catastrophe can be dizzyingly fast. We take things for granted: most educated people in 1914 believed in the inevitability of progress and the gradual advance of civilisation. They sleepwalked into an abyss, assuming that militarists and extreme nationalists and paranoid fantasists did not really matter. If we are not to follow them, we have to be continually alert to the signs they missed.

Finally, the dead tell us that the consequences of great historic mistakes can continue for a very long time. We are still struggling with the consequences of the last great epic blunder and everything it led to. We are in no fit state to deal with another one.

This is all that the dead of the terrible and unspeakable conflict that ceased but did not really finish a century ago have to say to us: pity our fate lest you repeat it.

The rest is silence.