Can we give definitive meanings to great historical events? If we can’t, does it mean that we are condemned to moral and political relativism? The centenary of the outbreak of the Great War will be the occasion of an outpouring of historiographical reflection on the war’s true meaning and significance. (A minor subsidiary question is why some anniversaries — the tenth, fiftieth, hundredth, and so forth — so capture the human imagination. Why not the seventeenth, the thirty-first, the hundred and eleventh anniversary?)
Thirteen years after the end of the war, in 1931, Noël Coward, an unlikely radical, wrote a deeply anti-war play called “Post-Mortem.” In it, a soldier killed in 1917 comes back to his family in 1930. His father, Sir John Cavan, is a press magnate who had a good war in the sense that he made a great deal of money during it by the mass sale of his jingoistic publications. On his return to the living world, the son discovers that forgetfulness of the suffering of the soldiers during the Great War is general, and that what one of the characters calls “all that mealy-mouthed cant [about patriotism and heroic sacrifice]” is still “being shoved down people’s throats.”
Coward believed that, from the point of view of the population’s true interests, the war was irrational and was fought for the benefit of industrialists and profiteers. Post-Mortem was virtually a Marxist play and was part of a wave of theatrical and literary revulsion against the war. In 1928 had come R. C. Sherriff’s great anti-war hit, Journey’s End, in which heroism and sacrifice in the trenches are shown to be to no larger purpose or end. (I was first made to read the play when I was about twelve, under the direction of my English teacher.) In 1932, Somerset Maugham’s attack on military patriotism, For Services Rendered, in which the shallowness of such patriotism is compared with the depth of the suffering that it wrought, was likewise a great success. The critic of the very conservative Morning Post, long defunct, wrote, “This is one of those great plays which make nearly everything else seem so much trivial entertainment.”
Here was the soil in which appeasement grew: the view that anything was preferable to war. The irony was that both Coward and Maugham would be writing patriotic propaganda only a few years later: in the case of Maugham, extolling the French war effort in 1940. The effectiveness of their anti-war plays helped to make inevitable the very war for which they were now propagandizing.
The belief that the war was a pointless cataclysm that brought in its train every kind of calamity, with neither side having justice or right on its side, is one that is now commonplace to the point of cliché, even among those who view appeasement as having been a historical calamity of similar proportions. I doubt you could find more than one person in a hundred in any European country who thought that any of the participants, including his own country, was fully justified in its actions. And Niall Ferguson has recently written that, from the strictly British national perspective, entry into the war was a terrible mistake, hastening the country’s no doubt inevitable decline as a power. While it lent as much money as it borrowed during the war, it had to pay its creditors without being able to recover its debts. It was weakened in a way from which, in effect, it has never recovered, and probably never will.
The war smashed up European civilization and sapped Europe’s belief in itself: For if the wages of its civilization was such a war, bloody and muddy carnage on so unimaginable a scale, what price its civilization? At least savages fought only with spears, often in a highly ritualized and non-fatal fashion. Civilization was therefore worse, more brutal, than savagery; in short, a sham. No wonder the word “civilization” now almost always appears in quotation marks in all right-thinking academic writing. Of course, from any point of view other than the European, the suicide of Europe might now seem to have been more a blessing, and certainly an opportunity, than a tragedy. When Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he replied that he thought it would be a good idea. This witticism after the First World War seemed to have a point, as it almost certainly would not have done before it.
#page#It is salutary, then, to realize that the anti-war reaction of the late Twenties and Thirties was not universal (after all, it took several years for it to develop), that patriotic verse probably outweighed anti-war verse, in quantity if certainly not in quality, long after the war ended, and that what seems so obvious to us now, that the war was a struggle without deep moral meaning, was not always obvious. Indeed, a moment’s reflection shows that it cannot have been so, for otherwise the war could hardly have lasted as long as it did, or been fought so bitterly as it was.
I was reminded of this recently when I happened to read The View in Winter, a book by Ronald Blythe about the process of growing old. It consists of transcribed interviews with old people, how chosen the author does not tell us. The work is therefore not in the least scientific, but that does not make it valueless and the author does not seem to have been a man with an ax to grind, except the belief that human experience is worth recording. In 1979, when it was published, survivors of the Great War were still alive, and the chapter about them has the title “The Beloved Holocaust.” How I wish now that I had been more interested myself in the lives and experiences of the old people I met, but youth is a period not of idealism but of self-absorption, when the time ahead seems infinite and no opportunity lost forever. The old you have with you always and you can listen to their stories any time in the future.
The old men whom Blythe interviewed said things that now mystify us almost wholly, so deeply entrenched (no pun intended) are we in our own view of the war that we never witnessed. One 81-year-old man said: “The war means something special in my life. I think of the life and the attitude we had then. Now it is an entirely different world so I feel a great gratitude that I passed through all that. I really do. I’m always pleased when I remember.”
Blythe describes another man, aged 79, who was wounded in the last year of the war. He lived and will die (he told Blythe) “in the spirit of 1918”:
That was when he was 18 and when a bullet crippled him for life. He has lived with pain and disfigurement ever since. One leg is bowed out and shortened so that his movements are gripped in a vigorous rolling motion. . . . Now old, he has no doubt whatever that his bad wounds were a good price to pay for what the war eventually gave him and it is hard to detect a scrap of regret.
This man describes his imminent death as “going over the top [of the trenches] again.” But he knows that what he thinks he fought for “doesn’t mean a thing to them [the younger generation] any more.”
Another veteran of the war, 81, quotes Browning’s poem “Fra Lippo Lippi”: “This world’s no blot for us, / Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good: / To find its meaning is my meat and drink.”
But the old man doesn’t quote the following line, which is the reply of the Prior, who finds Lippi’s defense of his realism in painting insufficiently pious and orthodox: “Ay, but you don’t so instigate to prayer.”
The fact is that the prayer to which history instigates is constantly changing. Our pieties may change, it is true, but the need for piety, or pieties, remains. What, when we commemorate the outbreak of this war to start all wars, will be the pieties to which we subscribe? From history, to adapt slightly Mao’s adage about the poor people upon whom, like a blank piece of paper, the most beautiful characters may be drawn, the most beautiful morals may be drawn.
In Europe, almost certainly, the views of the old men of the kind whom Ronald Blythe interviewed will be forgotten, as ruthlessly expunged from the record as any erstwhile colleague of Stalin from photographs once he had fallen from favor to enmity of the people. Instead, the lesson will be drawn that nation-states mean national hatreds, and national hatreds mean war — to which the only solution is federation. The European Union not only means peace, but is the only means to peace.
Hang on a moment, though: Weren’t the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires multinational unions, and weren’t they opposed to one another in the Great War, as Russia and the European Union are now? Were they peaceful and contented even internally, within themselves?
Oh, it is all too difficult, this historical-interpretation business. I feel the need to adapt Siegfried Sassoon’s famous poem about Armistice Day: “Everyone suddenly burst out interpreting / O, but Everyone / Was an historian; and the moral was unclear; the interpreting will never be done.”
At least, not from 2014 to 2018.
– Mr. Dalrymple is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author, most recently, of Farewell Fear.