World wars and vanishing history


Before I start, consider this a rant rather than an essay.
Today is the hundredth anniversary of the First World War, otherwise known as the Great War, although there truly was nothing great about it. It marked a watershed in warfare, the transition point between the time of Cavalry, cannons and sabres and the time of tanks, rocket fire and automatic weaponry. Men and horses, sent to charge through no man’s land as if it were the Crimea rather than the Somme, died gruesomely tangled in barbed wire, under shell fire and drowning in the mud filled craters. Foot soldiers would follow to die in the same mire, choking out their own lungs when shells of mustard gas came raining down on them. Oh! What a lovely war!
Meanwhile, Lord Kitchener’s face was every where declaring “Your country needs you!” and any man with sense enough to see the madness for what it was became labeled a coward, shunned, shamed, jailed and forced to fight. In the end, the victors – those famous donkeys leading their sacrificial lions- were the Entente powers with the help of the Americans, but the actual final result was Entente 6 million dead soldiers : Axis 4 million dead soldiers. Oh! What a lovely war!
For all of my secondary education, year after year from S1 through Standard Grades to Highers, we studied WW1 and the build up to WW2. We learned how Germany and unified, we learned about the arms race, we learned about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, we learned about the Black Hand, Belgian neutrality and the Schlieffen Plan. We revisited the assassination of Archduke Frans Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip. We were shown the horrors of the Somme and Ypres, the disgusting existence of life in the trenches and all of the shifting fortunes of the war as it progressed. When finally we came to the Palace of Versailles and the bill of reparations, I already understood why the “war to end all wars” was anything but.
So did a certain failed Austrian artist, who understood the bitterness of ordinary Germans made to pay extortionately for a war begun by a King they had discarded in disgust. Defeated at first by the false prosperity of the Weimar Republic, American reckless capitalism gave him the opportunity to charge up the beleaguered Germans with his own hate and so he seized power. From there on, the rest, of course, is history, but it’s history that we cannot seem to escape.
I work in a small public library, and every time I look at the history section I feel a sense of despair. Though the section is not terribly big, number about four shelves of books, 90% of those books concern themselves with those two wars. Of those books, the majority deal with World War Two. This depresses me because the inclusion of books on other parts of history (oddly, for a Scottish Library these are mostly on English History, but that’s another story in itself) seem token at best, as if the only real history of any note is these two world wars. This is not a phenomenon unique to my small library, just as the almost exclusive focus on that period I endured in my history classes was not peculiar to my school. It is a trend that can be seen in book shops and libraries throughout these islands. It is a trend reflected in documentaries and even fictional films. It’s even engrained in our language with Adolf Hitler’s name more synonymous with evil than Satan in our modern world and the term Nazi being attached to all forms of extremism. Both terms are being used with greater frequency and looseness too, something which is certainly to be frowned upon.
There is such a rich, flowing and enlightening narrative to the history of humanity, one which goes beyond conflict and horror, one which celebrates the tenacity and ingenuity of humanity, one which allows us to understand just how far we’ve come in our short time in this universe. To overlook the greater story by focusing on one, brief but shocking part of it, is to deny ourselves a better understanding of who we are. Some might say we must focus on these things to prevent a recurrence, that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, that we must learn the lessons of these appalling conflicts. I say the evidence of the modern world contradicts this stance entirely.
Since WW2, America has been involved in conflict for all but one of the intervening years, 1977.
Since WW2, the UK has been involved in conflict for all but two years, including the bloody, costly and misnamed Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Since WW2, the Military-Industrial Complex has profited to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, although I haven’t yet found a concise figure.
Since WW2, the refounding of the state of Israel as compensation for Hitler’s atrocities against them has led to a blatant and savage ghettoisation of a dispossessed people which now seems to culminating in scenes of atrocities that I can’t even find a historic comparison for. Except for, maybe, the Pogroms against the Jews in Germany, Poland and Austria during the 1930’s, but with far more sophisticated weaponry and no intent to incarcerate or even take captives.
And yet the world stands by, claiming a lesson learned in persecuting a people means somehow Israel is justified in taking such heavy handed action against the Palestinians who would dare attack their territories occupied illegally by Israel. What historical lesson is this? That the victim is always right, in perpetuity? The German people felt victimised by the outcome of WW1, but that could never be used as a serious justification for World War 2 and the use of death camps for exterminating undesirables.
Therefore I say that by clinging desperately to this one period of history we are doomed to repeat it, because we blind ourselves to the greater story of progress and change the rest of history can teach us. We are made to forget how often victim becomes oppressor, and we are made to forget that old divisions can heal, and that old villains can learn repentance.

Indyref postscript

Can we also get over this “we fought the fascists together” nonsense. It’s a facile argument at best. Britain was not the only country fighting the fascists.

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