by Henry Lane Hull
A month from today the world will be commemorating the centenary of the end of the First World War, the so-called, or perhaps I should say, “miscalled,” “War to make the world safe for democracy.” Far from bringing about democracy, the conflict led to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the rise of fascism and Nazism in Italy and Germany.
Most importantly, the war brought about the enormous suffering that came to be experienced by its participants and victims. On June 28, 1914, the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and in the resulting aftermath the alliance systems of Europe were set in motion, with the major countries declaring war on each other.
For four long years the war dragged on in the trenches, in the air, and at sea. The first war in which airpower was significant also saw the beginning of the use of chemical weapons as instruments of war. As a child I knew a man who had been gassed in battle and who suffered from the experience all of his life, with reduced capacity in his lungs and overall weakness.
The Russian Empire, which had nothing to gain from entering the conflict, saw the struggle devolve into the two revolutions of 1917, the first ending the reign of the Tsar and the second bringing Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power, thereby producing a new form of slavery over the population of the Empire. The result would last for three-quarters of a century and which continues in a transmogrified form to this day.
Austria-Hungary ceased to be an empire, and broke apart into a multiplicity of states in Central Europe and the Balkans, many parts of which later were annexed by Nazi Germany, only to suffer through the Second World War followed by the communist regimes of Yugoslavia and the other Balkan states for over 50 years.
Britain, France and Italy survived the war as victors, but their triumph proved to be short-lived with the coming to power of Mussolini in Italy in 1922, the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler in Germany. The United States, by the time of our entry into the War in April 1917, had become a melting pot of immigrants from a vast variety of nations. America entered on the side of Britain in part because of President Woodrow Wilson’s lifetime of being enamored with all things British.
In his doctoral dissertation Wilson, a native of Staunton, had written of his glowing admiration for the British form of government. Irving Berlin popularized the war in song, and the doughboys, as the soldiers and Marines were called, set off to teach the Germans and their allies a lesson.
At the end of the battles came the armistice, not a victory as such, but a cessation of hostilities, after which came the Paris Peace Conference during which Wilson, the first president to visit Europe while in office, was hailed as a modern-day messiah. At Versailles the victors dealt with Germany, and in other historical venues with each of Germany’s allies.
Wilson took with him two eminent historians, professor Carlton J. H. Hayes of Columbia University to advise him on Western Europe and professor William Howard Lord of Harvard University as counsel on Eastern Europe. The victors imposed on Germany a severe punishment in the form of war reparations to repay them for their efforts, which bankrupted the country in quick order. Lord was distressed by the results of the peace settlement to such an extent that soon after his return, he converted to Catholicism, became a priest, seminary professor and ultimately a simple parish priest.
The First World War began the long debilitating trajectory of conflict that characterized much of the 20th century. Perhaps the only way to study it is by keeping in mind the words of another historian, George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it.”
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