91 years ago, the world marked the end of the Great War that had consumed tens of millions of lives, mostly those of young men sent to die far from home in a cause that few could explain, then or now. It was a false dawn. The chaos unleashed by the Great War spawned more and greater wars, revolutions and genocides that continued through most of the 20th century and still continue, in places, even to this day.
I’ve written in the past about the futility of war, and that is the most important thought for this day of remembrance. But there is something else that demands more attention than it has received. The cataclysm of the Great War brought forth monsters like Hitler and Stalin, who killed millions. But the War itself, with the millions and tens of millions of lives it took, directly and indirectly, was loosed on the world by political leaders more notable for mediocrity than for monstrous greatness.
The names of Asquith, Bethmann-Hollweg, Berchtold and Poincare are barely remembered, yet on any reasonable accounting they belong among the great criminals of history. Not only did they create the conditions for war, and rush (eagerly in most cases) into it, they carried on even as the death toll mounted into the hundreds of thousands and beyond. Even as the original grounds for war became utterly irrelevant, they continued to intrigue for trivial postwar benefits, carving up imagined conquests among themselves. Eventually, most were displaced by leaders who were marginally less mediocre, and more determined to win at all costs (Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Ludendorff, Hindenburg and others).
How could such ordinary, seemingly decent, men pursue such an evil and self-destructive course, and yet, in most cases, attract and retain the support of their people? I find it hard to understand.