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Armistice Day

November 11th, 2008

It’s 90 years today since the Armistice that brought a temporary halt to fighting on the Western Front of the Great War. The War had already brought forth the horrors of Bolshevism and fighting in Russia continued well beyond the Armistice. Within a few years, Fascism and Nazism were also on the march. Full-scale war resumed in the 1930s, first in Spain, Abyssinia and the Far East and then throughout the world. The War brought nothing but evil, and its evil has persisted through almost a century since it began.

Even today, the echoes of the catastrophe can be heard in the futile, squalid and bloody war between Georgia and Russia. A pair of authoritarian strongmen, rehearsing the bloodstained lines of irredentist and imperialist rhetoric in a last fight over the remnants of the Russian Empire that did so much to create the War, have brought death, destruction and misery to hundreds of thousands of people who just wanted to live in peace. And, sad to say, there are plenty in the West and East who have been happy to repeat the rhetoric of 1914, with tripe about “gallant little Georgia” being matched by claims of a plot to deny Russia its rightful “place in the sun”. This time, though, the mass of ordinary people seem less willing to send their children to die for such bad causes.

On this Armistice Day, let us remember all those who have died as a result of the crimes of the rulers of the world, and do our best to save more from dying.

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  1. Roger
    November 11th, 2008 at 21:17 | #1

    Hear, Hear.

  2. Jill Rush
    November 11th, 2008 at 22:05 | #2

    The war to end all wars was just a piece of spin.

    That the start of the war was over the assasination of a minor royal and the leaders were so prepared to squander the lives of the proletariat shows the unreality of decision making at that time. When looking at the decisions made by George W Bush we see there are some absolute constants of human nature. Peoples dragged into bloody war for spurious reasons where lives are lost and destroyed for years because it is easier to start a war than to finish it.

  3. November 11th, 2008 at 22:32 | #3

    The people were hardly dragged in. The enthusiasm for WWI in all belligerent nations is well documented and those that failed to volunteer were ostracised. In fact, with the majority feeling the way it was at the time any government that failed to declare war in support of its allies would have a serious issue with their “Proletariat”. My grandfather was one of them – and he joined up, along with his entire class, on day 1. He was in no way a “leader”.
    You may want to write revisionist histories on this, but do not imagine they will be anything other than counter-factual.

  4. Donald Oats
    November 11th, 2008 at 22:47 | #4

    Quite a few people were eager to “see the world”, to volunteer for their country, King, etc. However Andrew Reynolds #3, ostracising those who failed to step forward, as it were, was hardly giving those much choice: volunteer or live in isolation. But, such was the nature of the times, in a far off southern nation.

    Still, war is what we do. Will we ever beat our genes and learn to live without war? Unlikely in my lifetime, unfortunately.

    Lest We Forget.

    We forgot…and forgot…and forgot…

  5. November 11th, 2008 at 23:21 | #5

    Let’s also remember the extraordinary fortitude and principled stand of the few conscientious objectors, not members of the prescribed listed religious groups. They were cruelly treated. For example, being spreadeagled adjacent to the targets on the firing range. Otherwise they might served as a example. The majority found themselves,albeit with the odd shot of rum, going like sheep going over the top, to join the slaughter, and the futility, and to make history serving whatever that Empire was, and whatever that Empire did.

    Donald there is, as far as I know, no gene for war, and no gene for violence. In fact, human beings are “programmed” for compassion. Check out the science related to mirror neurons(there are many more links on Google).

  6. Leon
    November 11th, 2008 at 23:34 | #6

    There was an interesting article in Foreign Affairs recently which argued that, contrary to the common narrative, the world wars may have actually fulfilled the ethnic nationalist dream, rather than ending it.


  7. R J Stove
    November 12th, 2008 at 00:33 | #7

    I wish I could remember the exact Spectator issue in which I read this (and the limited Spectator online archives are no real help) but there was a striking vignette in an article published within the last year by that magazine. The vignette dates from, I think, 1917. It was of a lady schoolteacher at a British all-girls’ school who, as the Western Front mincing-machine continued without cease, announced to her charges something like the following: “I hate to have to tell you this, but when you girls leave school, eight out of ten of you will never be able to find a husband.”

    This little anecdote brought home to me, as no military text could have done, the sheer demographic catastrophe that was “the war to end war”.

    Incidentally here’s another anecdote, a bit less depressing this time, which my late father passed on to me. Growing up as he did in Depression-cursed Newcastle, he told me that when Menzies announced that Australia was at war, all the able-bodied and unemployed men of military age in the city headed for the recruiting office. They thought that combat and possible death in action were very small sacrifices to make for the benefits of a regular job in uniform.

  8. November 12th, 2008 at 02:57 | #8

    “The War brought nothing but evil, and its evil has persisted through almost a century since it began.”

    Agreed. But who knows what horrors an alternative reality in which German aggression in 1914 was left unchallenged would have spawned? I’m reminded of Stephen Fry’s thought-provoking novel Making History, in which the (modern day) hero manages to prevent Hitler’s birth, but slowly discovers that the modern world and recent history created is even more terrible than the world (our world) that he changed.

  9. November 12th, 2008 at 04:53 | #9

    Pr Q says:

    On this Armistice Day, let us remember all those who have died as a result of the crimes of the rulers of the world, and do our best to save more from dying.

    Lest Pr Q forget that the Great War was quite popular right up until 1917. Crowds cheered its declaration and social revolution was triggered in its wake. So its a bit unfair to blame the “rulers of the world” for all the violence esp since that part of the world was fairly democratic at the time.

    THe Great War caused a lot of unnecessary grief. But most Australians supported it, including the troops of course, who were volunteers.

    They were fighting to arrest the juggernaut of Prussian militarism. Subsequent events appear to have vindicated their concerns.

    Whilst I share Pr Q’s dismay at the Great War’s terrible cost and worse consequences it would be nice to have a spot of analysis of its fundamental causes. (I find my limited stock of moral outrage is exhausted by the shenanigans of the post-modern liberal duo of New Left and New Right.)

    I am going for the dangerous disjunction b.w the economic growth and civic retardation of the two great military land powers of the day: Prussia and Russia. Sort of like rapidly evolved T-Rex’s with very small political brains.

    The Prussian problem has been solved. But Russia’s civic brain is still badly lags its economic potential. To return Europe to a more pacific whole a reintegration of Russia with its European brethren is indicated.

    But NATO (the bureaucratic spawn of all the long-forgotten Ententes, Axes and Alliances of those bloody days gone by) is still a going concern and growing still. Perhaps its time to wind it up and bring Russia in from the Cold?

  10. bill broome
    November 12th, 2008 at 06:23 | #10

    I thought ww1 was a family squabble, the grandkids of queen Vicky carving up the family estate? Put me right off monarchy.

    Anyway, the 747 and combi van have cured most ozzies of the urge to kill furriners in their homes. That’s what happens when they invite you in for a feed.

    Now, all we gotta do is wrestle the keys of the national car away from politicians, and sign a mutual defense pact with the all blacks. Then, the politicians can’t start a war, and bondi is safe from occupation.

  11. Donald Oats
    November 12th, 2008 at 08:42 | #11

    In #4 I probably should have had quotemarks on “gene” – I didn’t mean it literally, just that people (well, men for the most part) have a knack for wars, in spite of knowing the horrible consequences of it.

  12. Paul Norton
    November 12th, 2008 at 09:05 | #12

    “Agreed. But who knows what horrors an alternative reality in which German aggression in 1914 was left unchallenged would have spawned?”

    Firstly, this begs the question of the extent to which “German aggression” was actually a German response driven by the fear of letting go unchallenged the Russian response driven by the fear of letting go unchallenged the Austro-Hungarian aggression against Serbia, and the extent to which the whole thing was the result of the decrepit “balance of power” system of European great power relations being destabilised by the burgeoning of industrial capitalism.

    Secondly, Niall Brennan, in The Pity of War, looks at what might have happened had Britain and the Empire stayed out of the European conflict, allowing for a relatively rapid German victory. His conclusion is that what would probably have eventuated would have been greatly preferable to what eventually did happen largely as a consequence of the war. After all, it’s hard to imagine what could have been worse than wall-to-wall totalitarianism from Lisbon to Vladivostok by 1940, the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, etc., the Second World War, the Holocaust, and all today’s unfinished business from the Sykes-Picot treaty and the subsequent British and French mismanagement of their mandates in the Middle East.

  13. Paul Norton
    November 12th, 2008 at 09:07 | #13

    The state of European Great Power relations on the eve of war, and the psychology driving the respective governments’ responses to the unfolding situation, can be summarised in the words of a folk song:

    He knew that I
    Was about to attack him
    So he had to attack me first in self-defence
    And that’s why I knew that he
    Was about to attack me
    So I had to attack him first in self-defence

  14. smiths
    November 12th, 2008 at 10:39 | #14

    the franco-prussian war lasted less than a year and resulted in a unified Germany, growing in strength and pride,
    its not that surprising that the Germans hada sense of euphoria over their prospects,

    it doesnt however mean that they werent used and lied to in the schemes of the great powers, jills point that leaders were so prepared to squander the lives of the proletariat is true andrew

    and the fact it ran for four years had nothing to do with the willingness of the cannonfodder

    as usual you take a fair point by someone, twist it 180 degrees and then with usual pompous know all style accuse of counter factual revisionism

    these wars are generally not in the interest of the class that mostly die for them,

  15. smiths
    November 12th, 2008 at 10:46 | #15

    lines of grey muttering faces, masked with fear,
    They leave their trenches, going over the top,
    While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
    And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
    Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!
    -Seigfried Sassoon

  16. November 12th, 2008 at 10:52 | #16

    The Great War was never universally popular in Australia. Archbishop Mannix’s views were not isolated, especially amongst many Irish Australians.

  17. November 12th, 2008 at 11:46 | #17

    Simple fact. My grandfather was learning his trade. When he heard that war had been declared he, along with his entire class, left the room and went down to the recruiting centre. All of them went.
    If the Australian government had not declared war there would have been protests that they had not. Is that the “leaders” doing it or the “proletariat”? To me, this is neither of them doing it – it was simply what everyone (or nearly everyone) believed was needed.
    It was nearly universally believed (by “leaders” and “the “proletariat”) that the war would be short and glorious. Most of the “leaders” who declared war had their sons in the forces. This was hardly “the leaders [who] were so prepared to squander the lives of the proletariat”. This was everyone not understanding the difference that the machine gun had made to war as there had not been a general European war since the Crimea, where most of the troops were equipped with muskets. Many of the “leaders” lost sons in the war.
    War is a horrible, bloody, thing – but there is no need to misrepresent it to tell that story. To me, to imply that the men and women who died were somehow forced to, or lied to, go is to downgrade their efforts, lives and sacrifice. They were not sheep led to the slaughter, but people who made a conscious decision to go to war.

  18. charles
    November 12th, 2008 at 11:55 | #18

    I think John Quiggin made the point that:

    “This time, though, the mass of ordinary people seem less willing to send their children to die for such bad causes.”

    Given that all the leaders of the “coalition of the willing” have now been chucked out, I think this is a fair point. In the 21 century, glorious little wars have not been political winners; and the losses have been far less than those suffered in world war 1.

  19. Michael of Summer Hill
    November 12th, 2008 at 12:14 | #19

    John, whilst many might disagree with me, I see the green revolution as a good thing and a direct threat to the MIC and those who profit out of war. The problem is there are very Nation States who currently think in those terms.

  20. smiths
    November 12th, 2008 at 12:27 | #20

    It was nearly universally believed (by “leaders� and “the “proletariat�) that the war would be short and glorious.
    Except obviously, for those leaders that worked to keep it going, the pope tried to mediate a peace in 1916/1917 and had Wilson supported it it might have worked,
    but it wasnt good for american business which recorded the greatest profits of all time

    This was everyone not understanding the difference that the machine gun had made to war
    The merchants of death and their friends in high place new full well andrew, the combines and cartels that sold armour plating and weaponry had men from all countries on their boards of directors and knew what was coming

  21. November 12th, 2008 at 12:42 | #21

    So, smiths, why did they send their own sons to war? The devastation of WWI was very equal opportunity. Why did the US join in when it was known?
    Can you show any evidence at all that they knew? I very much doubt it.

  22. smiths
    November 12th, 2008 at 12:43 | #22

    War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the
    benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses. – Smedley Butler, a Major General in the U.S. Marine Corps and, at the time of his death, the most decorated Marine in U.S. history

  23. smiths
    November 12th, 2008 at 12:49 | #23

    Even more dramatic was the revelation late in 1917 that there existed a secret clause in the Treaty of London (1915) in which Britain, France and Russia pledged to work with Italy to reject any Vatican peace initiative.
    On Trotsky’s publications of the Allies’ secret treaties in November 1917.
    See Stevenson, The First World War and International Politics, London, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 184.

    it is naive in the extreme to think that it is a regular coincidence that the incredibly powerful military industrial complex just happens to profit out of ‘inevitable’ of just wars,
    Sir Basil Zarahoff is smiling on you andrew

  24. November 12th, 2008 at 13:11 | #24

    Another conspiracy, smiths – this time to slaughter the working classes for the heck of it. Pretty low. It did not work, did it? They were all beggared by the war and the ones that truly started it lost out big time.
    So, the wealthy got their own children slaughtered, lost a large quantity of their workforce, lost power and … this was a conspiracy by the “leaders”. Odd conspiracy.

  25. smiths
    November 12th, 2008 at 13:27 | #25

    maybe you cant read andrew?

    at no point in my comments did i say there was a conspiracy to “slaughter the working classes for the heck of it”

    is it a comprehension problem?

    since you seem very fixated on the wealthy losing their children, could you provide some evidence for this claim

  26. November 12th, 2008 at 13:32 | #26

    “The War brought nothing but evil…”

    What, 100% unadulterated, no silver lining whatsoever? Think of the poetry, of countries’ independence, of technological and medical advances – artificial limbs took great strides.

    When netting off, face up to what you are doing.

  27. O6
    November 12th, 2008 at 14:52 | #27

    Smiths (15) is correct: the poets saw the reality. Here is Georg Trakl, from the other side:
    Am Abend tönen die herbstlichen Wälder
    Von tödlichen Waffen, die goldnen Ebenen
    Und blauen Seen, darüber die Sonne
    Düstrer hinrollt; umfängt die Nacht
    Sterbende Krieger, die wilde Klage
    Ihrer zerbrochenen Münder.

  28. matt
    November 12th, 2008 at 15:41 | #28

    Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
    And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
    Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

    Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
    And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
    Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
    In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

    If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent1 for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.

  29. rog
    November 12th, 2008 at 15:46 | #29

    To condemn past wars is easy – of course they are horrible, how do we prevent the next one and how do we know when we have prevented the next one?

  30. Mike
    November 12th, 2008 at 16:23 | #30

    It was not worth it, but the war did kill off the autocratic regimes that started it. It is hard to imagine how otherwise the German, Austrian, Russian & Turkish empires could have been overthrown. Germany, Poland, ex-Habsburg central Europe, the Baltic states & Finland all gained independence & self-determination. Even if developments afterwards weren’t as expected.

    Counterfactuals are difficult but . . if there’d been no war in 1914 could the French, Germans & Russians have maintained peace for the rest of the 20thC. Would Austria have disintegrated anyway, in other circumstances. What if the rivalry of imperial & dynastic Europe was maintained into the nuclear age; would that be more stable or less. What of democracy. There’s no doubt imperial Germany would be a superpower if it had stayed at peace and integrated Austria-Hungary into a German Mitteleuropa; it would be many times it modern size and have a population of 150m plus. What would a declining Britain have been faced with.

    The achievement of a liberal democratic ascendancy in the late 20thC has been incomplete & hard enough as it is, and it has been mostly achieved by autocrats, fascists & communists bringing about their own downfall, ghastly as it has been. There might be worse alternatives.

  31. melanie
    November 16th, 2008 at 10:03 | #31

    Here’s another silver lining: in the UK, Labour’s share of the vote went from 6% to 21% between the last pre-War general election in 1910 and the first post-War one, in December 1918. This happened despite the fact that a large proportion of young and otherwise eligible men were still overseas and women of the propertied classes were given the vote (if they were over 30).

  32. November 16th, 2008 at 16:23 | #32

    But, but, but…

    By any set of values not itself a product of “a liberal democratic ascendancy in the late 20thC” and/or the changes inherent in “Labour’s share of the vote went from 6% to 21% between the last pre-War general election in 1910 and the first post-War one, in December 1918” – particularly, by pre-1914 values – those were bad things. You are applying a circular argument, testing the worth of the changes against values produced by the changes and not against independent standards.

  33. Mike
    November 17th, 2008 at 10:51 | #33

    Maybe for pre-1914 Imperial Germany’s militarism, Austria-Hungary’s suppression of national identities, Tsarism’s autocracy and the Ottoman’s all-of-the-above, liberal democracy and national self determination were bad things.

    But liberal democracy & national self determination were values that had agitated Europe and were stubbornly resisted by the four eastern empires since 1789. They are not ‘values produced by the changes [of WW1]’.

  34. November 17th, 2008 at 13:03 | #34

    You misunderstand me. The two posters just before me were expressing their views that those were silver linings. Yet the ordinary person of most countries before 1914 – the proverbial “man on the Clapham omnibus”, say – would have thought they were bad things. It’s not that liberation movements of that sort were a product of post war years, it’s the fact that ordinary people now tend to share a sympathy for those values that is a product of those things themselves; they are not the sort of people their grandfathers were, and that is not independent of those very developments. Yet a sound conclusion requires an independent test, not merely holding those “silver linings” up to their own mirror.

  35. Mike
    November 18th, 2008 at 10:35 | #35

    PML, this is strange. Many ordinary people in central and eastern Europe struggled for freedom and independence prior to 1914. You seem to be denying this.

  36. November 18th, 2008 at 12:17 | #36

    No, I am denying that (say) a middle or working class person of typical views in London, New York, Amsterdam or Sydney in 1913 would have agreed that those were good things. Such a person would even have deplored people seeking Irish independence (with the possible exception of Sydneysiders).

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