The abiding direct link from the onset of The Great War 100 years ago this summer to the world we live in today is far more pervasive and goes far deeper than the annual “Iron Harvest.”
The “Iron Harvest” is an annual event in Northern France and Belgium, when weapons specialists from both of those countries scour farmland looking for dud missiles and other ordnance still there from the Great War.
Every spring this occurs after the unfreezing of the ground lifts more weapons to the surface. Last year alone, 160 tons of the stuff were found, and people are still dying from the exploding of missiles, grenades and other weapons.
It’s just one more witness to the horror of that war, which had as one of its earliest clashes the battle near Ypres, Belgium, when the German forces who thought they could sweep through France and win the war in six weeks were stalled, and the horrific legacy of the next four years began to be played out.
The Germans had built an army made up of fully 41 percent of the male population of their country, and threw everything they had into what they estimated would be a short campaign. When the dust finally cleared, there were over 37 million military and civilian casualties, over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded.
The toll included 10 million military personnel and seven million civilians. The Allies lost six million military and the Central Powers lost four million. Another two million were lost to diseases such as the Spanish flu and six million were missing and presumed dead.
But what was far more stunning than these horrible numbers was the extent of the destruction of this European cradle of modern civilization with its achievements unprecedented in human history in science, engineering and the arts. The previous half-century, built on the accomplishments of the Enlightenment, had been called the Belle Epoque (the “Beautiful Age”). The finest achievements of the Art Nouveau, late romantic composers, inventors and scientists were blossoming all over the continent, interconnected by rails linking all the cultural and educational centers on the continent, and those in England, the U.S. and South America, as well.
It took only a matter of days from this height of a half-century of this civility and optimism to devolve into a sheer hell unleashed with a fury and seeming inevitability of relentless force to bring low every aspiration of man, down from the beautiful opera stages to the stinking trenches of death.
Even the most gifted writers who took part and survived the war were hard-pressed to do justice to its horror, lacking the ability to step back and assess this overnight descent from the standpoint of what, culturally, morally and in terms of the human soul, was obliterated along with it.
Mankind’s aspirations were dealt a near fatal blow in that short period. The dark side of human nature took over the domains of human consciousness, defining cultural values and philosophy. Humanity reeled in the Weimar period between wild hedonistic excess, on the one hand, and institutionalized hate formed into cruel militaristic cults like the Nazis on the other.
Across the Atlantic, relatively insulated from the Great War, the impacts still were deeply profound, with the overall collapse of global civilization contributing to the Great Depression on this side.
The flowery optimism of pre-war Art Nouveau, perceived as too feminine and weak, was supplanted by styles of strength and stern resolve in the Art Deco style. Invention would henceforth be put to the service of preventing another great war, even as the terms on which the Great War ceasefire occurred in 1918 had built into them the inevitability of a second even more deadly phase, which became known as World War II.
A deep skepticism and caution took over the prevailing thought processes of mankind. There were no other answers to what had happened.
This remains our predicament today, including how we view our own republic and our politics. We will never get back to our founding principles as a nation until we’ve worked this though.