November 11, 1918 is one of those few truly memorable dates in world history. The first global war of the industrial world had ended. It had taken the lives of millions, destroyed several empires, and helped bring about the world’s first Communist state.
In our cultural memory, we tend to think of World War I as a catastrophic, horrible waste. That memory dates back to the 1920s and works of literature like All Quiet On The Western Front and films like The Big Parade. The narrative that World War I meant nothing other than death and suffering still lives on a century later. In the recent Wonder Woman film the titular heroine needed to fight a villain who personified the destructive horror of war itself, and thus had her origin placed in the Great War, rather than in World War II, where her character had actually been born.
It is very easy to forget that in the Allied nations, at least, the established narrative of the war was very different on the November day the guns fell silent. The full name for the Great War was “The Great War For Civilization.” “Civilization,” as usual, was a loaded word. It had been weaponized during the imperialist expansion of the preceding decades, an excuse to violently subjugate peoples who preferred to be free. During the Great War the target of civilization’s march shifted from Africa and Asia to Germany. Both the American and British war efforts established formidable and successful propaganda machines that pitched the war as a fight for higher ideals against a wicked enemy.
This point of view was affectionately parodied in the great British film The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp, made in the heat of World War II. The main character, an honor-obsessed aristocratic officer of the old school, hears of the Armistice and beams with pride that the British had won the war with “fair play.” By 1943, in the midst of an even worse world war caused by the last one, the romantic view of a “Great War For Civilization” had become a joke.
It is dangerous, however for us to ignore that initial postwar feeling of triumph, because it provides a lesson that we should learn from. It was another November day in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. That event, symbolizing the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, infamously gave rise to rhetoric that would’ve been at home in a Great War propaganda speech.
There was a feeling in those heady days of release that the fear of nuclear annihilation had passed. There was an assumption that we would all be living in a more peaceful, connected, and democratic world. The problems of the past could very well have been solved.
Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the “end of history” found many willing adherents. Civilization, in the form of neoliberalism, had won, and there was truly No Alternative. Like the viewers of The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, we today have the wisdom to know just how preposterous that idea was.
It was obvious already in those supposedly peaceful 1990s with the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans. A new world of enlightenment was hard to see in midst of such hate-fueled bloodshed. Those who weren’t paying attention finally got the message when the planes crashed into the towers on 9/11 and America launched the Forever War.
The world today is dominated by a wave of bigoted nationalism that our media mistakenly calls “populism.” From Duterte to Bolsonaro to Orban, this is the age of blood and borders. The same United Kingdom that so celebrated its victory in the Great War for Civilization so reviles immigration that it has opted to cut off its nose to spite its face via Brexit. The earth’s most powerful nation is led by a dangerously unhinged narcissist wannabe dictator who sows chaos with his every move. His followers applaud it all, giddy with the thought that no matter how bad things get, other people will always have it a lot worse. On top of all of this, we are staring a near future of climate change dystopia straight in the face.
History does not end and it does not stop. Its dark waters flow and can break their banks and drown us in the flood. A hundred years after the guns of the Great War went silent, we still stand at the river’s edge, uncertain of how long the ground under our feet will hold out.