Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Past Is Another Country

Now that the Michael Gove World War I stuff has died down, I feel safer posting my view on that particular conflict.

I have a weird problem with the whole WWI thing and all our other wars, largely because I always try to look at our international aggro from an impersonal, non-national perspective, by which I mean - if I forgot I was Scottish and just looked at the situation as if I was some clam-herder from a modern-day, non-aligned Polynesian island, what would I see?

Well, World War I sure looks like a whole lot of Nazis fighting it out to see who gets to be top Nazi, to me.

As far as I can see, it all basically starts with a bunch of Serbian Nazis shooting an Austro-Hungarian Nazi, which kicks off a big row between the Russian Nazis and the Austro-Hungarian Nazis.  Before you know it, the Austro-Hungarian Nazi-allied German Nazis are squaring off with the French and the British Nazis, and the whole thing descends into a big Nazi-on-Nazi bloodbath before you can say "Seig Heil".

I mean, look at it.  Every major combatant nation in Europe sure looks like a bunch of racial supremacists squabbling amongst themselves to see which bunch of white guys gets to rule over the untermenschen of the colonial world, doesn't it?

It surprises me that the utter Naziness of the First World War is controversial, in this post-Hitler world.  If it did nothing else, surely the Third Reich should've made us reevaluate the merits of total war, ultranationalist violence in pursuit of global dominance?  No?

We usually curse the generals and politicians, so I won't add to that beyond noting what a bunch of Nazis they were, too.  And what of the men in the trenches?  I can understand the French defending their homeland from invaders, but what impelled the Brits and Germans etc over the top to almost certain death?  I fully understand the whole duty-to-your-serving-comrades thing, but not in such extreme circumstances.

Actions like that are totally unimaginable today, because we're more individualist and don't have the same webs of weird Sharia duty impelling us beyond our reason, but also because we're not now a huge clan of racial-supremacist Nazis determined to destroy our enemies for the fatherland, like almost everyone in Europe was between 1914 and 1918.

Hell, Patton was 100% right - war is about making the other bastard die for his country, so what explains adults charging machine guns, except for some deeply fucked up and insane ancient Roman-style sense of duty, of a kind that would strike modern Britons as utterly Nazified and mental beyond belief?

And back in the UK, it's not like our much-beloved war poets actually disagreed with the war, as far as I can see.  It looks to me like they wanted better and more effective tactics for killing the enemy, but nothing so bold as not fighting a gigantic megadeath war to the bitter end to see which group of white people would wind up ruling the planet. Which seems kind of bizarre, for artists.

Sorry everyone - I feel the pathos of all those bakers and miners lining up at the ladder in the face of certain death just as much as everyone else does, but the whole thing might as well have taken place on Venus for as much as I can get my eighties-raised brain around it.

It seems to me that the past really was another country - a pretty nasty and mental one, at that. 


Anonymous said...

" it's not like our much-beloved war poets actually disagreed with the war, as far as I can see. "

That's a great point. Owen, the saintliest of the lot, was (if you read his diaries) quite keen on the war as a thing (although not so keen on its exact manner of prosecution) and fervently wished to join one of the swankier regiments.

The one exception to your above point is Siegfried Sassoon, who actively and courageously stepped out of the war and wrote a letter of protest citing pretty much what you've written here. He was concerned the war had become a war of aggression and not a war of defense. For refusing to fight he risked being shot, imprisoned, shunned etc.

Anonymous said...

"It seems to me that the past really was another country - a pretty nasty and mental one, at that."

I agree, and the reaction to WW1 played a big role in changing people's attitudes. Whatever the justification for defending "plucky little Belgium" did it have to lead to mass slaughter across Europe (and into Africa and the Middle East)? Thus the attempts to creates rules and institutions that might head off that madness. Thus the public debate every time there is a war.

I don't think that Gove really believes in the rules and institutions that try to avoid small incidents turning into mass slaughter. He said he had fallen in love with Blair because of the way Blair had got the UK to support the invasion of Iraq (despite those rules and institutions). He was deeply annoyed that the UK didn't support the bombing of Syria (which could have been another of those 1914 moments where nations retaliate against others without thinking of the longer-term consequence). He is rejecting the lessons learnt from WW1 as long ago as the 1920s.