Today is the 100th anniversary of the armistice, ending fighting in the Great War. It is the concluding centennial observance of a war that started in 1914, with the United States of American entering the war in 1917. Entering the war, there was talk of ending the threat of German militarism, ascendent since the Franco-Prussian War. In the face of the industrialized slaughter, the horror of the trenches, and with faith in man’s ability to mold more perfect institutions not yet confronted with the far larger horrors to come, people dreamed of a lasting peace. The phrase capturing these aspirations was “the war to end all wars.”
We see now, as the people, who first heard those words, knew by the 1930s, that the phase is as mockingly empty as the ancient cry, recorded in Genesis 11:4 —
“Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (NIV)
Technology was supposed to offer such deterrence, as to prevent war. Alfred Nobel is claimed to have sought an explosive so terrible as to ensure mutual annihilation of those who dared use it.
According to the Austrian countess Bertha von Suttner, Alfred Nobel, as early as their first meeting in Paris in 1876, had expressed his wish to produce material or a machine which would have such a devastating effect that war from then on, would be impossible. The point about deterrence later appeared among Nobel’s ideas. In 1891, he commented on his dynamite factories by saying to the countess: “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilised nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.” Nobel did not live long enough to experience the First World War and to see how wrong his conception was.
Perhaps that vision was imperfectly realized in the hydrogen bomb and the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, yet war went on under the nuclear umbrellas.
Expertly designed institutions were supposed to save humanity from future slaughter. The Weimar Republic and the League of Nations were the institutions thought to represent the very best minds, after World War I. The League of Nations was ardently advanced by an American president, Woodrow Wilson, who had risen from academia. There he had written “The Study of Administration,” providing justification for taking governance, out of the hands, of what his class considered the ignorant masses, into the hands of technocrats—like himself. Read these 27 clearly written pages, and you will see the height of his ambition for the better ruling of the world.
The United States Senate was not so enthralled, with the idea, of a super-sized mutual defense entity, that could drag America back into wars, not of their choosing.
On September 16, Senator Lodge called up the treaty for consideration of the full Senate. On November 15, the chamber was still considering the treaty when, for the first time in its history, the Senate voted to invoke cloture–or cut off debate–on the treaty. Four days later, the Senate took up Senator Lodge’s resolution of ratification, which included fourteen reservations to the treaty. The Lodge resolution failed on a 39-55 vote. The Senate then considered a resolution to approve the treaty without reservations of any kind, which failed on a 38-53 vote. After 55 days of debate, the Senate had rejected the Treaty of Versailles.
The Weimar Republic was constructed by men who were the product of German universities, then seen as leaders in all manner of science, including “political science.” The Weimar Constitution was, on its face, a remarkable achievement:
This constitution made the Weimar Republic one of the most democratic and liberal political systems of its time. It provided for universal suffrage, contained a limited bill of rights and offered a proportional method of electing the Reichstag.
Yet, both the Weimar Republic and the League of Nations failed. The Germans were not done with making their way in the world by military, rather than commercial, force. Nor were other nations done with enlarging their territories or spheres of influence by force, or the threat of force.
And so, the “war to end all wars” became a bitter joke. And the disillusionment, in the seemly vain loss of so many, may have signaled weakness to those spoiling for a rematch. Yet, that disillusionment was not necessarily the whole truth of public opinion. See this remarkable BBC presentation, The Long Shadow: Europe After World War One, for a remarkably objective presentation of how this played out in Great Britain.
At a century’s distance, our views are conditioned by the eventful intervening years. Yet, on this occasion, it is right and proper to stop and acknowledge the enormous sacrifices and the heroes, known and unknown to many. We humans may never eliminate war, but pray that we never fall, lurch, or march into such butchery, such wholesale killing of one another, again.