The 100th Anniversary of the End of WWI

Today marks 100 years since the end of World War I, so this morning over coffee I reflected on what small connections I personally have to the great war and what books have educated me on it.

My maternal grandfather, Elmer Dalton Warren, was in the Great War. He was 82 years old when he died in 1973 and I was only 7, and so I don’t recall learning anything about his experiences during the war. My dad told me “Poppy” served in the U.S. Navy during WWI, assigned to a “submarine chaser.” My guess is Poppy spent his war years in the Atlantic, hunting German U-boats.

I also knew another gentleman, Sebastian Sanchez, who was like an uncle to me growing up, who’d served in WWI. I believe he served in the British Army, though I’m not sure. He died in the mid 1980s when I was around 16 years old. On his death bed he gave me his WWI rifle bayonet, which was really more like a small sword. I can remember asking him if he’d ever used it, though I can’t recall what he said in reply.

Educationally speaking, my views of WWI have mostly come from reading books like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, John Keegan’s history of The First World War, Robert Grave’s incredible memoir Good-bye to All That, and a vast trove of magazine articles and TV documentaries that I’ve read and watched over the years.

My views of WWI are basically summed up in John Keegan’s opening paragraph to his masterful work, The First World War:

The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the cause of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots.

And, of course, for me, no reflection on the First World War can leave out my reading of Alex Danchev’s incredibly well done biography of B.H. Lindell Hart. Lindell Hart was a British army infantry officer during the First World War, and learned firsthand the futility of WWI battlefield strategies. It was Lindell Hart’s strategic insights, formulated after WWI, that would, oddly enough, be quickly adopted by the German army and utilized to make quick work of the French and British armies on the battlefields of Europe during WWII.

One of the stories that’s stayed with me from reading Danchev’s biography of Lindall Hart, is the one about the 9th Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Lindall Hart was an officer in the Battalion…one of the lucky ones to survive. There is no doubt that by eve of the Battle of the Somme, British officers and soldiers were well aware of the gruesome carnage and death that awaited those going “Over the top.” And yet, the futility and fear would not outweigh the sense of honor and duty in the face of it all by the officers of the 9th.

On the evening before the Battle, the officers of the 9th all met one last time before being deployed to the trenches the next morning. Most of them certainly knew or felt that many of their fellow officers wouldn’t survive the coming battle. The commanding officer of the Battalion, Lt. Colonel Lynch, was not popular with the officers because it was believed he’d shown favoritism with promotions. So there was some bad blood between the officers. And even though they were going into battle and there was a good chance this was the last time some of them would ever see each other again, honor and sincerity would not be sacrificed for the sake of expediency. Captain Haswell would find a way to preserve his personal integrity while summoning all to reflect on their shared duty—and fate—that lay ahead.

At about 6pm on June 28 all officers received a summons to go to Battalion HQ for a final drink before going into action. We assembled, glasses were put into our hands, drinks were passed round and we drank quietly to one another – everyone was naturally feeling strained. The Adjutant and Second-in-command were away on some course, so the Acting Adjutant, Keay, was in charge. Lynch came into the room and was given a glass. Keay went up to Haswell, the senior Captain, and said quietly to him,

‘I think you should propose the CO’s health!’

‘I’m damned if I will’, said Haswell ‘I don’t wish him good health and am not prepared to be insincere on this occasion.’

‘You must’, said Keay.

‘I won’t.’, said Haswell.

For a few moments they argued, and then Haswell stepped forward and raising his glass said:

‘Gentlemen, I give you the toast of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and in particular the 9 Battalion of the Regiment’ – a slight pause – ‘Gentleman, when the barrage lifts.

We emptied our glasses and were silent. Dramatically, Haswell had avoided an unpleasant scene, and the toast has never been forgotten.

Of those present, twenty-four went into action the next day in the attack on Fricourt. Six were in reserve [Lindell Hart was one of them]. Of the twenty-four, twelve were killed, including Lynch and Haswell. Three died of wounds afterwards, eight were wounded, one slightly and only one left untouched.*

Of the 800 British soldiers assigned to the 9th Battalion, 720 were either killed or wounded in the July 1, 1916, attack on Fricourt.

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Officers of 9th Battalion of the KOYLI, La Neuville, Corbie, April 1916.

The Paradox of Tolerance

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Karl Popper

The essayist William Hazlitt wrote, “We may be intolerant even in advocating the cause of Toleration, and so bent on making proselytes to free-thinking as to allow no one to think freely but ourselves.” Hazlitt was anticipating what we’ve come to call PC or political correctness. In this country, as one recent study showed, those who favor or support PC culture are in a very small minority. I personally don’t know anyone who favors it. I do read, however, a fair number of right wingers on twitter who seem utterly consumed by a hatred of it and of anyone for whom they believe stands for it. So let’s return to the central concern of Hazlitt’s quote, “the cause of toleration.” Whether it’s PC culture or the right wing reaction against it, we have people and groups of people who are very intolerant and even some of whom push ideas that are anti-democratic and potentially, given enough time and political chaos, dangerous to the Republic. That’s not, by the way, an opinion; that’s demonstrated history.

So should there be limits to our tolerance? I think it’s a fair question to ask. At what point is being tolerant and open minded a foolish idea? Or should we be tolerant, personally and as a society, of all views, regardless of their danger-to-democracy nature? Should we, for example, regardless of the potential destruction it may bring, be willing to tolerate, say, a Nazi party, or something like it, establishing itself in America, in government? One would hope that couldn’t happen, but just for a moment imagine that it could. Consider that in 1939 there were actually a fair number of Americans open to that idea. If you doubt that, just take a few minutes and watch A Night at the Garden, a video that should haunt anyone’s casual dismissal of the idea.

In a democratic society we should be open to debate and civil discussions of various ideas, especially those we disagree with. But what about anti-democratic, authoritarian, ideas? What if, as some fear now, those ideas start catching on? As history demonstrates, a number of violent and destructive movements—costing the lives and freedoms of millions—could have been stopped had the society and its leaders acted to arrest its growth.

Germany and other European nations currently have laws that constrain hate groups, hate speech, and the symbols used by these groups. These nations are Western liberal democracies, but they have a well founded fear of how things, like the tolerance of the intolerant, can ultimately cause things to get out of hand. These are very tolerant societies to be sure, but only up to a point. We Americans have never had to suffer what many Europeans have, so we can be naive about what could happen in our own country.

And yet being tolerant, I agree, is an important virtue. But when and at what point, I’d ask you to consider, does this virtue potentially empower a virulent set of vices that could threaten our democratic society and the liberties and way of life we cherish? The answer isn’t easy, and yet the question should, I think, be something each of us considers as we observe the forces of reaction in this country and in other places around the world.

Let me close this post with some words and ideas to ponder. Here’s a quote from Karl Popper’s book the Open Society and its Enemies:

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

“rather than assuming the burden of national leadership for themselves”

The best paragraph from Oliver Bateman’s review of Professor Maizlish’s new book on the Compromise of 1850:

But for Maizlish, the biggest takeaway from the debate over the Compromise of 1850 as it relates to present circumstances is the danger of extreme polarization. “When representatives fall into making absolutist statements, there is very little room for compromise or progress,” he says. “That happened then and it is clearly happening now. And when representatives are fearful of challenging their constituents to think in terms of a larger good, and instead pander to their constituents’ narrow prejudices in exchange for votes rather than assuming the burden of national leadership for themselves, disaster is at hand. Moderates need to lead and compromise, but they need to ensure they’re compromising on the right matters, not just ensuring some weak ‘peace for their time’ that they win by caving to dangerous radicals, like those pro-slavery congressmen who refused to make necessary reforms.”

Howling with the Wolves

One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.” ― Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments and War Production for Nazi Germany

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Cass Sunstein has an interesting review in the NYRB entitled It Can Happen Here. It’s a good, short read. The title of the piece, so you’re aware, is oddly chosen because Sunstein thinks “full-blown authoritarianism is unlikely to happen here [in the U.S].” So why name it that? I’m not sure.

Anyway, Sunstein’s review looks at 3 books that attempt to account for how Hitler and the Nazis came to power in the pre-WWII German liberal democratic republic.

These books, for the most part, tell the story from the view of the average working class German. It was ultimately the German people’s collective action and inaction that allowed Hitler and the Nazis to take and keep power. But the change (the fall into fascism), as we’re told, wasn’t a sudden thing—at least not in the awareness of the average German. The descent into tyranny was gradual. By the time most German people realized it, it was too late to do anything about it. Sunstein quotes a philologist who captures a set of common sentiments that many Germans seem to have had when reflecting back on that time:

…a German philologist in the country at the time, who emphasized the devastatingly incremental nature of the descent into tyranny and said that “we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.” The philologist pointed to a regime bent on diverting its people through endless dramas (often involving real or imagined enemies), and “the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise.” In his account, “each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’” that people could no more see it “developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.”

So it was an incremental descent into tyranny aided, as one writer put it, by the “‘Automatic continuation of ordinary life” that “hindered any lively, forceful reaction against the horror.” For me, it’s easy to see how this might happen in a democracy.

To be clear, if an election is an indicator of whom and what political party a nation supports (and it is), then Hitler didn’t have popular (majority) support amongst the German voters. The other parties combined, all more left leaning, garnered the majority of support. The problem was the left leaning opposition parities were divided and that gave Hitler’s Nazi party a united front in the German Reichstag (parliament) and the keys to power. Hitler and his fascist right-wing party came to power in 1933 and basically seized dictatorial powers that same year. The speed of things, confusion, mass lies, propaganda, and fear were all on Hitler’s side. An important set of things to keep in mind when thinking about how this might happen in our own time.

Certainly most Germans could see the fracturing of their democratic society (and its values) when Hitler seized full dictatorial control of the government so quickly. Some German’s actually welcomed the fascist authoritarianism. As Sunstein’s review points out, there were working class Germans who said (years after the fall of Nazi Germany) that the Nazi years were the “best years of their life.” So there were some Germans, knowing full well what had happened, who still admired Hitler and the life he gave them. When asked about the horrors the Nazi regime had carried out, like the murder of 6 million Jews, many of these Nazi working class supporters just dismissed that as Fake News. Of course reading this made me feel all the more pleased that Nazi Germany had been utterly destroyed.

I didn’t read the books involved in this review, so I can’t properly critique the gradualist theory. My theory is that initially a lot of Germans who hadn’t supported Hitler grew to support Hitler. Even if they weren’t initially comfortable with Hitler and how he’d seized power and his divisive, hateful rhetoric, they chose to make moral compromises, over and over, because of a booming economy (mostly via a massive stimulus in government spending on the military) and a perceived order and stability that initially, at least, were all very agreeable. Many other Germans, even among the political opposition, sold out politically and morally. They decided it was best to go along. A German Republican at the time of Hitler’s rise told a man who’d voiced a deep opposition to the Nazis, that he needed to learn to “Howl with the wolves.” An apt imagine when you think about it. A pack of wolves, indeed, had taken over the country.

The problem, of course, was the Germans had made a deal with the devil, and the deal quickly became far more costlier than anticipated. Word was slowly spreading about the imprisoning (and murdering) of political enemies and the growing number of Gestapo raids and missing people (Jews AND fellow Germans) and their families and the suppression of individual rights. And so now the deal couldn’t be broken without a lot of death and destruction. The devil would get his due. The wolves would feast on the lambs.

The George Mason Memorial

One of the nice things about early morning jogs on the National Mall is all the small gardens and memorials you come across by happenstance. This morning, because of a construction project blocking my normal path, I was detoured down some steps and into a small garden tucked away near the 14th street bridge along the Potomac river.

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George Mason Memorial (Photo by Jeff Wills)

It’s a beautiful memorial garden dedicated to George Mason of colonial Virginia, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. A life size bronze statue of Mason sits on a stone bench beneath a long trellis that curves along the southern end of the garden.

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Statue of George Mason (Photo by Jeff Wills)

Mason appears relaxed and contemplative. On the bench to his right is his hat and walking stick, and on his left are two books; one by John Locke and the other by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Mason was one of the three Virginia delegates to the constitutional convention of 1787 who refused to sign the final draft of the Constitution. Mason actually wrote a paper entitled Objections to this Constitution of Government. Mason cited a lack of a Bill of Rights as his chief concern. But he also wanted an immediate end to the slave trade. He would eventually get his Bill of Rights when they were introduced by James Madison during the First Congress of 1789. The slave trade with America would not end until 1808, and, of course, slavery within the United States would not end until the Civil War.

It was George Mason, by the way, who gave Virginia its official title of the Commonwealth of Virginia. For Mason the state’s name would indicate that power stemmed from the people.

You may have noticed some writing to the left of Mason’s statue, engraved in the stone on the back of the bench. Let me note, these words were written before the Declaration of Independence was published in July of 1776.* The words just might ring familiar to you:

All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights…among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

— George Mason, May 1776

 

*The Declaration of Independence was written over the period between June 11th and July 4th of 1776.