11-11-11-1918 The End Of World War One.

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Today, November 11th, is the 100th anniversary of the end of fighting in World War One. The cease-fire agreement was signed on this day on the eleventh hour of the morning in the year 1918.

The “Great War”, and the treaty that formalized the end of the war, the Treaty of Versailles, are too often overlooked when discussing the impact of world events. It’s understandable as the horrors of the second world war would eclipse the carnage of the first. Still, the cost in human life was enormous. Over 8 million troops and 7 million civilians perished as a result of that war. The bloodshed of trench warfare alone, where hundreds of thousands of lives would be lost to gain a few feet of territory, was thought to be more than enough to stop man from ever going to war again. To put that in context, the last great war on the European continent, the Napoleonic Wars, which lasted some fifteen years versus four for The Great War, is estimated to have cost about 5 million lives of both troops fighting and civilian casualties. The death toll for the US Civil War, the conflict that has cost the most in US lives, is around 750,000 total. World War One was for a long time referred to as “the war to end all wars”, because after all the death and destruction, no one though any country or world leader would think to go to war again. That would be insane…

Enter Adolph Hitler. There is no need to go into too much detail about the terrors and carnage left in his wake. What many don’t realize is that the man that he became, the monster, was probably a result of the first world war. He was a soldier. In letters he wrote on the front, where letters from other soldiers fighting that war spelled out the horrors of the war and the wish for the war to stop,  Hitler wrote, he wrote mostly of the glory of war and it’s purpose:

“Those of us who have the fortune to see their homeland again will find it purer and cleansed of alien influence, that through the sacrifices and suffering that so many hundred thousand of us make daily, that through the stream of blood that flows here day for day against an international world of enemies, not only will Germany’s external enemies be smashed, but that our inner internationalism will also be broken. That would be worth more to me than all territorial gains.”

Hitler was in hospital recovering from wounds when the news broke of the armistice. He became enraged. He viewed the armistice as a betrayal by the German Government. In his mind, Germany could and would still win the war if they just continued to fight on. Many of the decisions he made during the second world war, his refusal to allow his commanders to pull back troops in losing efforts, to retreat and regroup to fight another day, can be traced to this line of thought. In the broader picture, one can argue that if there was no World War One as we know it, maybe Hitler would not have been so radicalized, become ambitious enough to strive for leadership, and lead the world into war.

Many of the countries in the Middle East that we have intervened in in the last 100 years, and also during the continuing global war on terror, were created by western powers as part of the Treaty of Versailles, with no regard to the wishes of the people and populations that lived there. Several borders were drawn up so populations would be divided and thus, the theory goes, no one group would be able to rise up and challenge the leaders installed by the western countries. The west was entering a period of transition from steam-based machines and vehicles to those powered by oil and petroleum, and friendly governments were supported and / or installed in part so the enormous oil wealth that was being found in the region would be sold to the west. If you wonder why there is no Kurdistan, and why there are populations of Kurds in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, well, there is your answer. There is more information here.

Four years ago, I made note of the anniversary of the beginning of the great war. There are so many lessons to be learned from it and it’s aftermath. It is worrisome that throughout the world we are seeing a rise in the type of nationalism that fueled the leap into a world war. It seems the lessons from that past have unfortunately been forgotten. I find it even more worrisome that here in the US, we have forgotten those lessons as well. Hopefully we won’t have to repeat the events of the past in order to relearn those lessons.

Note: If you want to know more about the Treaty of Versailles, the book “Paris 1919 – Six Months That Changed The World” is a great read.