Remembering the First World War | Andrew Gu
Two days ago, the 102nd anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War passed by with very little recognition. November 11 has become a day where we enjoy a day off and sometimes “honor veterans,” usually by mouthing some words and showing a reverence that usually wears off once our other responsibilities interfere, but for a time, it was a day of real monumental importance, marking the anticlimactic end to what was at the time by far the most destructive war in human history.
Nowadays in the United States, the First World War is mostly remembered, if it is remembered at all, as the Second World War’s younger sibling, with that endlessly-repeated comment about it not being “the war to end all wars” hammering home the idea that World War 1 is only important because of its relationship to its bigger sequel. Most of its details, unlike with World War 2, have been forgotten or muddied, at least until a resurgence in interest around the World War I centennial exemplified by the likes of Battlefield I (2016), Wonder Woman (2017), They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), and 1917 (2019), but it seems to have once again receded into the background.
But World War I was so much more than just a dress rehearsal for World War 2; it saw the beginning of major American intervention across the Atlantic, sparked a wave of women’s suffrage across the West, and prepared the conditions for the Russian Revolutions of 1917, events that defined almost the rest of the 20th century. And for those who care to remember it, the First World War was a catastrophe of titanic proportions, a symbol of the brutality and impersonality of modern warfare, a violent shattering of old conceptions that forced participants across the world to redefine how they saw themselves. The war forged the entire “Lost Generation” of writers, and artists, including C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Gertrude Stein, and it most likely killed many more.
In America, the actions of the U.S. government during the war set a dark precedent for the ensuing century. The First World War gave birth to a proto-Red Scare as war fervor and the government’s Espionage and Sedition Acts created an Orwellian environment as neighbors denounced each other and vigilante groups like the American Protective League cracked down on any anti-war sentiment. As had occurred in the European countries on the outbreak of war, the American government used its expanded wartime powers to crack down on anti-war activists, socialists, and ordinary citizens who dared to openly question American involvement in a war that, in the space of a single year, killed twice as many people as Vietnam.
Outside of the West, the war is a symbol of yet more imperial oppression as colonial subjects died by the millions, either directly while serving as soldiers or porters or as a result of wartime famines that colonial masters didn’t have the resources or care to solve. In the Middle East especially, much hay has been made of the double-dealing that Britain, France, and the United States engaged in that set the stage for the conflicts of the modern day as Britain and France promised Arab independence only to divide the area between themselves, while also allowing a fundamentalist regime – the same one that exists today – in Saudi Arabia to take hold.
Given the sheer impact of the war, it’s safe to say that without remembering – and without understanding – the world of the First World War, we can’t understand the world of today.