At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month one hundred years ago, the guns of August 1914 finally fell silent on the Western front in France and Belgium. This armistice, as it was called, was essentially a surrender of an exhausted German Empire to an exhausted France and Great Britain, the latter being saved by fresh American forces that intervened late. At the time, a large part of northeastern France and most of Belgium was still under German control, and no German territory had been invaded. It was thus not seen as a win for the western allies as much as a new, liberal government in Germany giving up. This was, the genesis of the “stab-in-the-back” theory advanced with success by the National Socialists. The truth is that there was no way Germany could continue the war. Its economy was devastated, the government was in chaos, its civilians were starving, it had suffered two million casualties, and there were over a million fresh American troops poised to invade. So a truce was made.
Beginning in 1926 to 1954, November 11 was officially celebrated as “Armistice Day” in the United States. It was changed to Veterans Day in 1954 to honor all of American Veterans. Certainly part of the impetus for the change was because it had become obvious that there is no reason to celebrate what amounted to a temporary truce. The day is still Armistice Day in France and Belgium and Remembrance Sunday (informally, “Poppy Day” for the red paper poppies that are traditionally worn) in Great Britain. Germany, understandably, does not celebrate the day, but has the Volkstrauertag — national day of mourning — on the Sunday closest to November 16.
What was called the Great War, and after 1945, World War I, was really the first phase of an 80 Years War. It began in August 1914, and only ended, according to some historians, in 1994, when the last Russian troops were withdrawn from Eastern Europe. That year, the Western victory was celebrated here in Dallas by a local restauranteur who obtained a bronze life-size statue of Vladimir Lenin from a factory in Russia that he erected on a pilaster in front of his establishment bearing the caption “America Won.” Whether that caption was accurate, or whether there is just another truce, remains to be seen.
The November armistice was followed by the Treaty of Versailles between Germany and the Western belligerents, and associated treaties with Germany’s allies. The Treaty was harsh, but not as harsh as the one Germany had imposed Russia. Nevertheless, economist John Maynard Keynes, who was a consultant to the Western allies at the Versailles peace conference, believed then the treaty was folly as it attempted to impose what amounted to a Carthaginian Peace. Even so, it might have been less odious to the German people had it not included the “war guilt clause” blaming Germany solely for the war. There had been enough blame to go around. As it turned out, it was, as Professor David Fromkin put it, the war to end all wars was interrupted by a peace to end all peace.
The war that began in 1914 is sometimes described as the attempted suicide of Western Civilization, or a civil war in the West. Scholars can argue about that, but, like all wars, it was about material resources — land and money, if you will. The first phase saw three European hereditary monarchies — Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire — opposed by an alliance of the Russian Empire and colonialist empires of Great Britain and France. Others, including Italy and Japan, joined in on the side of Britain and France, though, except for Italy, did little actual fighting. The European belligerents engaged in a bloody stalemate for 3 ½ years before the United States, a constitutional republic, came to the colonial empires’ rescue at the 11th hour, almost literally.
The 1914-1918 conflict destroyed four hereditary empires and left the purported winning colonialists — Britain and France — seriously weakened. Arguably, the United States and Japan, later to be adversaries, came out stronger.
The 20 year truce period of this eight decades long war, ended with what has been commonly called World War II. In that phase, a re-alignment of parties occurred. Italy and Japan, both now authoritarian if not totalitarian dictatorships, allied with a totalitarian Nazi Germany. Initially the Soviet Russia, also totalitarian, aligned with Germany to partition Poland and gain hegemony in eastern Europe. Later Hitler double-crossed Stalin, and attacked the Soviet Union, and America entered the war after Pearl Harbor. There then existed an improbable alliance of a democratic republic, an imperial monarchy, and a communist dictatorship allied against three totalitarian and militaristic regimes.
This phase ended with a real Carthaginian Peace as to Japan, Germany, and Italy. These belligerents knew they had lost. Neither nation has been in a position to militarily menace the world since. Britain’s and France’s remaining colonial empires were collapsing, and were gone within two decades. The United States and the Soviet Union emerged bloody, but in fighting form. They soon became the principal adversaries in the third phase, termed the Cold War.
The Cold War was only cold in the sense that a direct, all-out conflict between the principal adversaries was avoided — thankfully, as both sides soon became nuclear armed. There was, however, plenty of fighting. The Korean War, brush fire wars between client states in the Third World, Vietnam, Afghanistan, various standoffs — the Korean DMZ and Berlin Wall — all produced casualties and destruction. But the ultimate weapons were economic. Collectivist communism could not prevail against free market capitalism. The communist system collapsed. The Berlin Wall fell, soon followed by the Soviet Union itself. Russia, the Soviet Union’s successor, withdrew its military from its former Eastern European bloc.
Some semblance of peace between the Great Powers now exists. Of course there is rivalry between and among the major states, but that does not amount to war where one side seeks to destroy the other as was the case formerly. Russia under Vladimir Putin wants to be dominant in its geographical sphere of influence, but is not seeking world domination. The military and otherwise existential conflict today is with militant Islam, not the great nation-states of the 20th Century.