The Legacy of World War I Includes One Bright Note: Global Humanitarian Aid

Belgian children being fed and cared for, c. 1917-1919 (Library of Congress)
Responding to Europe’s plight, Herbert Hoover helped organize and lead an international relief effort on an unprecedented scale.

One hundred years ago today, the First World War ended in Europe. The Armistice took effect at eleven o’clock in the morning — the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month: a symbolic acknowledgment that European civilization had come close to irreversible ruin.

The Great War, as men and women then called it, had been a conflict like none other in history. It had begun in the summer of 1914, when 20 million European men had put on their uniforms, boarded trains, and headed off to preassigned battle stations. At the time, the British foreign secretary had remarked, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” The men who marched believed, as the German kaiser and others promised, that they would be home “before the leaves fell.” Instead, they fell, in dark, unimaginable encounters such as the battle of Verdun, which lasted for nearly ten months in 1916 and took at least 300,000 French and German lives. They fell in battles like that of the Somme, on whose very first day (July 1, 1916) the British army suffered 60,000 casualties, including 20,000 dead. They fell in 1917 at the terrible, three-month-long battle of Passchendaele, near the city of Ypres (now called Ieper) in western Belgium. Today, if you visit Ieper, you will find a building called the Menin Gate Memorial, on which are inscribed the names of more than 54,000 soldiers from Great Britain and the British Empire who died in nearby battles between 1914 and 1917 and whose bodies were never found.

By the time “the war to end all wars” had ceased, more than 9 million soldiers had died, and at least 10 million others had been wounded. On November 11, 1918, during the final morning of the war, nearly 11,000 soldiers were either killed or wounded before the Armistice took hold.

Although the Great War was finally over, its consequences were to shape the world for decades to come. Across much of Europe the years immediately after the Armistice were nearly as turbulent as the years just before. From 1918 to 1922, for example, Communists and anti-Communists in Russia fought a brutal civil war in which millions of soldiers and civilians lost their lives.

Every war produces its distinctive engravings in our collective memories. In 1919 and long after, for countless Europeans the dominant symbol of the Great War was: the trench. From the autumn of 1914 until the autumn of 1918, the armies of the Allies and of Germany faced each other in a labyrinth of trenches stretching in parallel for more than 400 miles from the English Channel, across Belgium and France, to the Swiss frontier. In all, the belligerents constructed approximately 25,000 miles of trenches — enough, if laid end to end, to encircle the globe. In these dismal, often wet, rat-infested, lice-packed tunnels, several million men spent much of the war. Between them lay a desolate, shell-marked quagmire filled with barbed wire and known as No Man’s Land.

For nearly four years the competing armies tried to break out of the ghastly stalemate — by going “over the top” and attempting to rout the enemy. Nothing worked. Millions died or were wounded without militarily decisive results. The combatants tried shelling each other in order to destroy the barbed wire and force the evacuation of the opposing trenches. Almost always it was the attackers who lost more men. Secure in his own redoubts, the enemy had only to wait until the opposing soldiers abandoned their shelters and tried to slog across No Man’s Land. If the enemy’s return bombardment did not mow them down, the enemy’s machine guns did. The machine gun was the great defensive weapon of World War I.

The experience of the trenches became for many the principal memory of the war — the abiding symbol of unutterable horror and waste. In the 1920s, after the euphoria of Armistice Day had passed away, a mood of disillusionment with the war took hold in many sectors of European and American life. The mood spread from the “lost generation” of European soldiers, unable to readjust to civilian occupations, on to poets, painters, and novelists. It was reflected in artistic phenomena such as the nihilistic Dada movement and surrealism. (The very word surrealism was invented by a French poet and soldier in 1917.) We can detect it, too, in the frenetic hedonism that Americans associate with the Roaring Twenties; in the early novels of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway; in the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and the early T. S. Eliot (whose poem The Wasteland became another symbol of the age); and in the febrile decadence of late Weimar Germany, so effectively conveyed in the 1972 movie Cabaret.

The postwar wave of disillusionment and pacifistic revulsion peaked in the early 1930s in the principal countries that won the war. Meanwhile a very different sentiment was rising among the former enemy on the continent. If the war experience and the Paris peace conference of 1919 induced feelings of guilt and disillusionment in the victorious Allies, the specific terms of the Versailles settlement evoked among their foes profound resentment and a thirst for revenge. To millions of Germans, the terms of the Versailles Treaty of 1919, which formally ended the war, appeared unbelievably punitive and one-sided. Adolf Hitler and his followers clamored tirelessly for vengeance — for repudiation of Versailles and the European order built upon it. Thus were set in motion two conflicting streams of consciousness, and a deep, almost fatal dissonance between Allied revulsion against the war and German detestation of the terms of the peace.

SLIDESHOW: World War I in Photos

The First World War and its aftermath did more than generate disillusionment, spiritual exhaustion, cultural pessimism, and pacifism among the victors and a desire for retaliation among the vanquished. The war had begun as a clash of empires. It ended in a clash of ideologies. One of these was liberal, democratic internationalism, propounded by its prophet, Woodrow Wilson. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” he proclaimed in his address asking Congress to declare war. For many Americans the struggle became a transcendent contest, not between governments or armies but between overarching principles: between democracy and autocracy, democracy and Prussianism, the principle of self-determination of peoples and the notion that “might makes right.”

In January 1918, in another stirring address to Congress, President Wilson listed 14 components of his program for world peace. They soon became known as the “Fourteen Points.” According to Wilson, a single principle undergirded them:

It is the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak. Unless this principle be made its foundation no part of the structure of international justice can stand.

In the words of Wilson’s preeminent biographer, the Fourteen Points address was “the single great manifesto of World War I.” Here was a vision that seemed to redeem the frightful slaughter in the trenches and beckon humanity to a truly better world. It is a vision that influenced American policymakers in the Second World War and lives on in some respects to this day.

Of course, we all know what happened next: Wilson failed to implement his vision. His compromises at the Paris peace conference disillusioned much of the American Left. His abstract universalism greatly disturbed the American Right. Nevertheless, Wilson’s fundamental principle of the self-determination of peoples remained potent. It became one of the enduring legacies of World War I — indeed, one of the catalytic doctrines of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, not all the ideologies that emerged from the cauldron of the Great War were so altruistic in their intentions. Two of them were profoundly demonic. They were, in fact, ideologies not of peacemaking but of struggle. The first of these — revolutionary Marxism — was not new; it had been around for more than half a century. But in the hands of Vladimir Lenin and his fellow Communists in Russia, it now became more than a coffeehouse theory.

Wilson wanted the Great War to lead to the end of war. Lenin wanted an even greater war first: an international, revolutionary uprising of the proletariat against the capitalists and the bourgeoisie. Then, once he seized power in Russia, the Communist leader implemented his conception of politics-as-war with all-encompassing ruthlessness. By the time of his death in 1924, Lenin had created an unparalleled system of internal warfare against his own people. And thus, out of the maw of the “the war to end all wars,” there arose a hideous new form of warfare: government-organized terror against, and total control over, the state’s own citizens, even to the point of exterminating them if it desired. We now call this form of government “totalitarianism” — a term coined and popularized in the decade after World War I.

The other ideological demon unleashed by the war was the phenomenon of Nazism. Like Lenin, Adolf Hitler was a revolutionary and a self-proclaimed socialist, although his variant was called “national socialism” rather than “international.” Like Lenin, Hitler was anti-Christian and totally without moral scruples. Like Lenin, he conceived of politics in military terms and instituted an apparatus of state violence never before seen on earth. But whereas for Leninists the meaning of existence was class struggle, for Nazis the engine of history was racial struggle. In short, Hitler’s worldview was a form of social Darwinism — the notion, put crudely, of “the survival of the fittest.”

In a sense, Hitler wanted to renew World War I. But what deceived many in the West for a time was the belief that all he wanted was to reverse the supposed inequities of Versailles. Transfixed by the horrific experience of trench warfare, many in the West could not imagine that Hitler desired not only the reversal of Versailles but much, much more.

The First World War, then, gave birth to the Ideological Age, which lasted until the end of the 20th century. Perhaps this outcome of the war was inevitable in the aftermath of perceived civilizational collapse. Most political ideologies, after all, aim in some way to remake the world. What else but a “purified” world could erase the memory of the bloodletting and waste of the First World War?

In the movie Cabaret there is a chilling scene in which a fair-haired German youth sings to a crowd at an outdoor restaurant in the waning days of the Weimar Republic. As the camera turns, we see that he is wearing a Nazi uniform and swastika on his armband. He is cheerful. He is confident. His song ends with the words “Tomorrow belongs to me.” This, too, was part of the allure of the two evil ideologies that laid siege to Europe’s soul after the Armistice. Yesterday, the war; today, corruption and shame; but “tomorrow belongs to me.” This is the false promise of all totalitarians: that the future will atone for the crimes committed in its name.

SLIDESHOW: World War I in Photos

But there is another legacy of the Great War that we must also mention, for out of it something positive came. At its center was an American who in 1928 was elected president of the United States: Herbert Hoover. In the summer of 1914, Hoover had been a highly successful American mining engineer living in London when the war broke out. In the first weeks of the fighting on the Continent, an invading German army overran the small, neutral nation of Belgium, in a dash for France. Dependent on imported food for most of its consumption, yet trapped between a hostile occupier and a British naval blockage of its German enemy, the civilian population of Belgium faced mass starvation unless food supplies could somehow be obtained from the outside world.

With the approval of the American ambassador to Great Britain and the acquiescence of the warring British and German governments, Hoover — a private citizen of a neutral country at that point — established in October 1914 a benevolent organization called the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) to purchase, transport, and deliver food through the blockade to the beleaguered Belgian populace. Initially, no one anticipated that this humanitarian mission would last more than a few months. But as the clash of giant armies degenerated into a gruesome stalemate on the Western Front, Hoover’s emergency relief undertaking for Belgium turned into an elaborate enterprise without precedent in human history: an organized rescue of an entire nation from the threat of starvation amid enemy occupation in the middle of a war.

For the rest of the war, Hoover and his fellow volunteers in the CRB (mostly Americans) succeeded — despite tremendous obstacles — in supplying the food that kept more than 7 million Belgian civilians alive, as well as more than 2 million French civilians subsisting in German-occupied French territory just behind the front lines. It is an amazing story, told with great verve by Jeffrey B. Miller in his new book WWI Crusaders. In the course of these exertions, Hoover, working without pay, became an international hero, the embodiment of a new force in global politics: American benevolence in the form of humanitarian aid programs.

When the United States entered the world war in 1917, Hoover returned from Europe to America to head a new wartime agency, the U. S. Food Administration. But he continued to lead the Belgian-relief effort from afar. And when the Great War ended in November 1918, President Wilson quickly dispatched him back to Europe to take charge of food distribution to a continent exhausted by war and threatened by hunger and disease. While Wilson and Allied leaders labored to draft a peace treaty in Paris, Hoover, as director-general for relief and head of the American Relief Administration, orchestrated the distribution of food to millions of desperate people in more than 20 nations. In Poland alone, the ARA, at its peak of operations, supplied food for the daily feeding of 1.3 million children.

Hoover’s far-flung operations involved much more than keeping the specter of famine at bay. He arranged, for example, for the deployment of teams of technical advisers to the nascent governments of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Austria. He helped to reopen the vital Danube River basin for peacetime commerce. His agents worked to resolve labor disputes and increase coal mining in Silesia. It was no wonder that President Wilson labeled the ARA the “Second American Expeditionary Force to Save Europe.”

With the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in the summer of 1919, the American Relief Administration was reconstituted as a nongovernmental institution, with Hoover at the helm. A little later, between 1921 and 1923, Hoover’s relief apparatus organized a massive program of food assistance in the interior of Communist Russia — Lenin’s Russia — where the worst famine in Europe since the Middle Ages was raging. Millions of Russians died before Hoover’s food supplies could reach them, but millions more survived  thanks to his provision. At the peak of its activity inside Russia, Hoover’s organization fed upwards of 10 million people a day.

All in all, between 1914 and 1923, Hoover directed, financed, or assisted a multitude of international humanitarian relief efforts without parallel in history. During this nearly ten-year period, the CRB and numerous other governmental and private organizations delivered nearly 34 million metric tons of food to the nations and peoples imperiled by the world war and its aftermath. The value of this aid exceeded $60 billion in today’s currency. For most of this undertaking, the man with supreme responsibility was Hoover. Tens of millions of people owed their lives to his exertions. It was later said of him that he was responsible for saving more lives than any other person in history.

The work of the Commission for Relief in Belgium and its successors was more than a minor episode in the Great War. It was a pioneering effort in global philanthropy. Hoover’s relief endeavors were among the forerunners of the vast network of transnational, nongovernmental relief agencies with which we are familiar today: groups such as World Vision, Doctors without Borders, and Save the Children.

Hoover and his associates, of course, were not alone. During the Great War and afterward, thousands of other American citizens journeyed to Europe on voluntary missions of service. The Salvation Army, the Red Cross, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the American philanthropist Anne Morgan made notable contributions to the succor and rehabilitation of war-ravaged Europe. Amid the horrors of 1914–18 there emerged a profound and enduring impulse to mitigate suffering and heal the wounds of war. This impulse did not disappear when the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918.

Some years ago, the American historian Peter Viereck declared that the First World War was “the worst single catastrophe in human history.” This year, on November 11, we shall ponder anew the war’s appalling costs and pernicious consequences. But let us also remember the remarkable humanitarian ventures initiated and sustained by Herbert Hoover and many others a century ago. These, too, have shaped our world — and for the better. Here is one legacy of the Great War that can comfort and inspire.


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