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Armistice Day--the 95th anniversary

Two minutes of silence are observed in the UK at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month: November 11 when the guns of the Great War fell silent in 1918. The U.S. has renamed this "Veteran's Day," in honor of the fallen from all of our 20th and 21st century wars, but in the UK, World War I is still is considered the Great War. Here is the BBC story of today's observances.

Today is the 95th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the slaughter of the Great War. Very soon, 2014, we will be observing the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war. Several books have appeared retelling the story of the events leading to the outbreak of hositilies in August 1914. I am currently reading Margaret MacMillan's The War that Ended Peace, and during the summer finished Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers: How Europse Went to War in 1914.

How did the war break out? It depends on when the authors think incipient hostilities began.

MacMillan plays up the Morocco crisis of Spring 1905; Clark begins quite precisely at 2 AM on June 11, 1903 when Serbian military officers carried out their plan to murder their monarchs, King Alexander and Queen Draga.

MacMillan is focused on English-German rivalty. Clark points to the impact of Serbia and the leverage that Balkan tensions played in forcing Russia, Germany, France and England to firm up what were loose alliances at the end of the 19th century.


About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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Canada also observes Remembrance Day on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (today). And as children we all memorized the famous Canadian poem, "In Flanders Fielf" and wear poppies.


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead: Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved: and now we lie
In Flanders fields!

Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields

The poppies seem to have disappeared from the U.S. observance. When I was a kid (in the last century), my mother and father always bought them from veterans to pin on their coats. 

Same in Kansas City.  Downtown.  People sold poppies for Armistice Day.  No more.

(And no more sellers of bittersweet, carmel corn, chances on punch boards, or tamales.)


Imho, the book to start with in remembering WWI, is Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory.

And the book to keep at hand during the five years of the centennial of the war is The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry.


Ms. Steinfels - taking a step back from precise or specific actions as the kindling to start WWI, would suggest that the context was the end of *monarchies* - some died a painful death; some were overthrown in revolution; some crashed of their own weight, corruption; etc. and the beginning of national democracies in the western world.  Thus, you can find specific events that are attached to various western nations but the common theme is the end of each nation's monarchies.

This same context or *dynamic* is playing out now in the Middle East & Africa (Arab Spring) - some shifts such that we now have both monarchies and dictatorships struggling with national democratic movements (and these movements are much more cognizant of full rights for all religions, genders, etc.)  

At some point, this same dynamic will impact the Far East e.g. China, N. Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, etc.

End of monarchies: How does England fit in?  Not that I dispute your larger point about a shift in governance.

England was then, and had been for some long while, a parliamentary monarchy, with the monarch an important ceremonial and inspirational leader.  The monarchies that fell durring (Russia) and after WWI were the ones that still had significant vestiges of absolute monarchism, and specifically those that tied the monarch to the military power structure.

Yes but...Germany had a parliament.

Bill de Haas: Is the underlying idea here that democracies don't go to war, but monarchies do?

When I go camping upstate on Memorial Day and other holidays, the VFW is at  intersections collecting donations; they give you a little artificial poppy  if  you donate.

We all memorized In Flanders Field in 5th grade. And we had to read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school. I wonder if  that's still recommended reading for high school?

My daughter in 8th grade is prcticing "Abraham Lincoln walks At Midnight" for Forensics; I think that is about  WWI.


On Monarchs: From 1905 Serbia had a king, Peter I, who seems to have been under the sway of a more or less democratic government led by Nikola Pasic.

This one is rarely remembered, but should be:


What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

      Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

      Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,

      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?

      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.

      The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.


Source: The Complete Poems and Fragments of Wilfred Owen (1984)


Ms. Steinfels - no; point is that governance develops.  Absolute monarchies led to WWI; led to nationalism (unfortunately, nationalist movements can wind up as republics, democracies, dictatorships, religious movements and too often continued colonialism).  WWII led to the introduction of self-determination by peoples/cultures/nationalities and a questionning of dictatorships/colonialism.  The impact of religion also plays a significant part in this development e.g. Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia in which religion is a tool to be used by dictators, even kings (Saudi Arabia).  This last process is still being developed e.g. colonialism created governmental gaps in the 3rd world (those peoples have had to go through the same stages of developement but in the late 20th and early 21st centuries).  So, in the Middle East, Africa, Central/South America - what the west experienced in the first half of the 20th century, is now being played out - nationalism struggles to find a stable government and swings from dictatorships (some using religion to justify their power); others wind up with different religious groups fighting for power. 

It appears that the *charter* of FDR marked by self-determination, rights of human freedom, religious freedom, human dignity, etc. is still being worked out.  Thus, you can roughly see a cycle in which nations seek to reach a democratic level in which a nation's governance is not identified with one religion; one ruler; one race or culture but allows a balance that is built upon the *freedoms* of FDR and the early UN.(that is why you see folks such as Clinton push for education as a part of foreign policy - until people are educated, there is a risk that power can be manipulated and used to dominate).


Not sure I buy your whole schema on what led to WWI. Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia could be said to be absolutish, kind of, but England, France, Italy, Serbia were not. Yet in both MacMillan and Clark, Serbia emerges as a provacteur in the Balkan wars and obviously in the immediate lead up to the war--the assassination of the Archduke. France is keen for a return of Alsace and England is busy trying to maintain a balance of power among the continentals. Nationalism seems to be an incitement, sometimes provoked by leaders, sometimes spontaneous in response to perceived slights or losses.

It is interesting in MacMillan telling how many threats to go to war were in play a decade before 1914. But solutions were found and war did not break out. Did leaders expect the same outcome in the summer of 1914, or did the assassination turn out to be the last straw?

Could one parse that the negotiated settlements and compromises prior to 1914 and their breakdowns leading to more and other crises, finally led the major powers via contrived and overlapping alliances (that were used earleir as part of various negotiations to avoid war) with a spark (assassination)  that at last pushed the whole complex into WWI.

If nothing else, the various books last spring/summer and the two works you cite along with the groundbreaking Tuchman Guns of August lays out how the public and secret alliances/promises eventually pushed each great power to the wall; left no wiggle room; and the *system* collapsed into war.  Guess one can continue to drill down and try to identify the one *spark* but even then it is more complex than that.

Some years ago, I read Robert Graves' "Goodbye to All That," his memoir of World War I. He talked about how corrosive the practice of multiple deployments were, something that has been common in our current Middle Eastern conflicts with similar results.

My grandfather and two great uncles fought in WWI, though only Uncle Martin fought in the trenches. It wasn't until I read Graves' book that I understood why he could not talk about it. My God.

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