A war to end all civilisation

A hundred years ago the West talked itself into suicide.

All sorts of geopolitical, national and economic reasons have been put forth as an explanation, and an argument could be made for each one.

Prussian militarism was to blame, as was French revanchism, Habsburg stubbornness, Russian yearning for the Straits, British fear of Germany’s ascendancy.

Yet all those were pretexts, not the reason, for the suicide. The sides were simply trying to post-rationalise the intuitive craving they all shared: to finish off Western civilisation once and for all.

Since the craving was metaphysical, the tools used by both sides to push millions into clouds of noxious gas weren’t physical but verbal.

There was no rational reason for the First World War. It was to words that the masses responded, not to any fundamental need. Any geopolitical problem could have been swept under the carpet if the consequences of solving it by violence had been weighed in the balance.

Words, however, can’t be dismissed so easily. Their power is irrational and therefore has to be absolute to be anything. And nothing promotes absolute power as effectively as a war can, the bloodier, the better.

The Great War was the first major conflict ever fought for words, though regrettably not only with words. So millions had to die, taking what was left of the West with them.

Neither side was averse to particularising its claims. They were both fighting to save civilisation in a broad sense, while making the world safe not just for democracy (the marasmatic President Wilson was welcome to that one) but also for true faith, world commerce, family, security, children, church and prosperity.

Almost instantly the war acquired a character that went beyond any national grievances or economic interests. It wasn’t nationalism but internationalism that reigned supreme: the nations were united in their inner imperative.

The world was replete with proposals for unifying the control of global raw materials in a single body that could also administer international taxes aimed at levelling inequalities among nations. The air was dense with phrases like ‘World Organisation’, ‘The United States of the Earth’, ‘The Confederation of the World’, ‘A World Union of Free Peoples’ and, finally, ‘The League of Nations’.

Both sides described themselves as defenders of international law. The British especially depicted the war as a holy crusade for the law of nations. Not to be outdone, the French organised a Committee for the Defence of International Law.

The Germans were at first taken aback by this sudden outburst of affection for global legality, but they quickly recovered. Belgium, according to them, wasn’t neutral in the international-law sense of the word. It was conducting secret military negotiations with the British aimed against Germany.

The Brits weren’t squeaky-clean either. They were systematically violating the trading rights of neutrals on the high seas. Thus Germany was really fighting for the freedom of the seas and the rights of smaller nations to engage in peaceful trade without being harassed by the dastardly Royal Navy.

The Entente wouldn’t allow Germany to get away with the claim of defending the small and weak. It was the Allies who were after liberating the oppressed nations, by which they no longer simply meant Alsace and Lorraine.

This time they also meant the oppressed minorities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Polish minority in Germany (not to be confused with the German minority in Poland, whose plight was a casus belli for Germany’s next war). That most of Poland was a minority in the Russian Empire could be overlooked for as long as the Russians played ball on the right side.

Funny you should mention oppressed minorities, replied the Germans who hated to be outdone by anybody, especially the Brits. It was they, the Germans, who were fighting to liberate the small nations of the world. More specifically, such small nations as India, Ireland, Egypt and the entire African continent.

But never mind liberating nations. Both sides had broader aims: they were out to save civilisation.

A week after the war began the London Evening Standard was already carrying headlines screaming ‘Civilisation at Issue’. France was fighting a ‘Guerre contre les barbares’, while Germany was battling for her Kultur.

Germany, the nation of composers and philosophers, had established a spiritual ascendancy over the world thanks to her industry, fecundity, wisdom and morality. She was now waging war against the degenerate Latins, barbaric Russians and mercantile British in whose assessment Napoleon would have been correct had he not been French.

While the British were usurers (a role they were to cede to the Jews before long), the Germans were epic heirs to Arminius and Alaric. The British were unable to see beyond their utilitarian noses, as demonstrated by their ‘philosophers’. The Germans had the sagacity to penetrate the meaning of life, as proved by their thinkers. The war was fought for heroic, self-sacrificing Bildung and against the pecuniary British.

Speak for yourself, sale Boche, objected the French. The war was waged by a good race against a bad one. The Gauls of France and Belgium were fighting the Hun, and never mind Bildung.

This argument secretly appealed to the Germans who had been beaten to the racial message that time but decided to store it for future use.

Race more or less equalled God, as far as the French were concerned. While both sides claimed that God was on their side, La Croix made the case with a forthrightness not normally associated with the French: ‘The story of France is the story of God. Long live Christ who loves the Franks.’

La Guerre Sainte’, echoed L’Echo de Paris, and La Croix agreed in principle but wanted to expand: yes, it was ‘a war of Catholic France against Protestant Germany’. But it was more than just that. It was a ‘duel between the Germans and the Latins and the Slavs’, a contest of ‘public morals and international law’.

Hold on a minute, the British begged to differ. The French, while on the side of the angels in this one, couldn’t claim exclusive possession of God.

The Bishop of Hereford explained this succinctly: ‘Such a heavy price to pay for our progress towards the realisation of the Christianity of Christ, but duty calls, and the price must be paid for the good of those who are to follow us… Amidst all the burden of gloom and sorrow which this dreadful war lays upon us we can at least thank God that it brings that better day a long step nearer for the generations in front of us.’

Which generations went on to lose, conservatively, 300 million in assorted wars and purges, not to mention their faith. But then, to be fair, the bishop had no way of knowing this.

Never mind God or, in the case of the Germans, the Gods of their Valhalla. As a British musical promoter explained, this was really a war between different types of music:

‘The hour has come to put aside and to veil with crepe the scores of the men who have crystallised in so unmistakable a manner the spirit of the modern Huns… . The future belongs to the young hero who will have the courage to exclude from his library all the works of Handel, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Brahms and Richard Strauss…, who will draw from the depths of his own being tone pictures of all that is beautiful in the wonderful poetry of Great Britain, and find the vigorous rhythms that will tell of the dauntless spirit of those who go to death singing “Tipperary”.’

The gentleman was right. His future and our present indeed belong to the young hero who has courageously excluded Handel and Brahms, while including, with equal courage, Sex Pistols and Band Aid. The impresario also displayed enviable insight: the underlying aims of the war weren’t geopolitical but cultural.

Amidst such inane clutter, our civilisation was shot up at Verdun, gassed at Ypres, bayoneted at the Somme. Only the Golem of modernity rose up from the corpse-strewn physical fields – the metaphysical victim hasn’t, probably won’t, come back from the dead.

Civilisations resemble a young suicide who pretends he wants to hang himself because Jane doesn’t love him. However, the real impulse lies deeper: he has no God and therefore no love for life God created.

The West no longer wanted to live because it no longer possessed an inner reason to do so. Hence it killed itself, and we today shouldn’t just mourn the 17 million lives brutally taken 100 years ago. We must also shed a tear for a world lost.


 P.S. My new book, Democracy as a Neocon Trick, is coming out this autumn. You can pre-order from roperpenberthy.co.uk 







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