By Mike Matejka
A Veteran’s Day – Armistice Day reflection
“Honor the Warrior, not the War”
Sunday was the centennial of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, when the final guns ceased, ending the “Great War” of 1914-1918. It was a brutal, ugly conflict, as waves of young men armed with bayonets and rifles were sent year after year into barbed wire and machine gun bullets. World War I began with no clear purpose, devastating Europe and perhaps remains as the most significant 20th century event, reshaping the world stage.
Monarchies collapsed, a Communist revolution succeeded in Russia, warfare was forever changed, new nations emerged, and the seeds were laid for another conflict 21 short years later.
Currently I am reading, Pandora’s Box, by German Historian Jorn Leonhard, published by Belknap and Harvard University Press. It is the most thorough and balanced history of that awful conflict I’ve read, compelling as it carefully analyzes each nation and people involved.
There are numerous war histories that recount armaments, military maneuvers, strategies and the fighting peoples involved. What I appreciate about Leonhard’s scholarship is that he traverses the battle lines, but goes much deeper.
What most Europeans expected to be a quick conflict soon ground to a bloody halt in the mud, stench and futility of trench warfare. Each side hoped for that magical breakthrough, unleashing torrents of artillery shells, followed by advancing soldiers, who perished quickly before the other sides’ machine guns, mowing down advancing youthful rows. Meanwhile, the Generals marshalled even more recruits, sending them in one futile assault after another.
Leonhard’s book looks beyond the battlefield. He probes each nation involved. How did the war impact the people, their economy, their politics, their culture, their intellectual and artistic efforts? His thorough history covers not only the western front of the Somme and Verdun, but also the eastern front where Tsarist Russia fought. The war included conflicts in European colonies in Africa, attacks against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
The conflict reached beyond Europe. Colonized people in Asia, Africa and the Middle East realized that their European masters were not invincible, as the subject people navigated their own interests. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic call for people’s self-determination brought hope to many, though in the final treaties, it was Europeans who enjoyed self-determination, not the colonized. Still, a spark was lit with disenfranchised people around the globe.
The world emerged after 1918 and the 1919 Treaty of Versailles profoundly changed. Monarchs no longer ruled in Russia, Germany or Austria, while older nations or new configurations emerged on the European map with the establishment of Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Zionist hopes for a Jewish homeland were bolstered by England’s Balfour Declaration, while what became Syria, Jordan and other Middle Eastern lands were, despite promises, split between British and French zones.
What did World War I bring us, besides the sacrifices of thousands? It brought a new Middle Eastern map, with protectorates and nations created when European leaders drew lines on a map, creating places with little cultural or religious affiliation, whose conflicts still haunt us today. Revolutions and counter-revolutions were fought for years after the Armistice. It energized the Japanese to see themselves as the new Pacific superpower. It left the United States the strongest economically and politically, yet after the bloodbath, the U.S. withdrew from the world stage, leaving Wilson’s great ideal of a League of Nation behind. The war created the first Communist state, which ruthlessly dismissed any socialist and democratic roots, leading to new repressions and dictatorial regimes. And finally, it left us a disillusioned Austrian corporal, who fed on a festering German myth of a “stab in the back” to create the next terrible war.
As we conjure on November 11 the rows of white crosses, the bandaged and limbless wounded, the psychic traumas endured as a new term, “shell shocked,” entered the vocabulary, we can only marvel at the bravery and resourcefulness of those who served. At the same time, we must remember that it is our duty, as citizens in a democracy, to ensure the leaders we elect are not caught in the mists of haunted glory. We must care and treasure those who serve, but most especially, treasure their lives so if they are asked to sacrifice, we ask ourselves repeatedly, is sending people into combat our only means to bring succor to a world that cries for peace?
Mike Matejka is the Governmental Affairs director for the Great Plains Laborers District Council, covering 11,000 union Laborers in northern Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. He lives in Normal. He served on the Bloomington City Council for 18 years, is a past president of the McLean County Historical Society and Vice-President of the Illinois Labor History Society.
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