World War One and the Lessons of Pernicious Nationalism

canadian ww1 soldiers

Canadian soldiers on the Western Front.

On this day, the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending the First World War—then called, optimistically, the War to End all Wars—it behooves us to remember that it was an avoidable, unnecessary catastrophe fought for no clear, moral, or even straightforward political reason. And while it is right and proper to commemorate the fallen, we need to avoid the platitude that the soldiers who died in the trenches and in no-man’s land did so for the sake of our “freedom.” Canada faced no existential threat from Germany and Austria-Hungary, and indeed, Canadians fought along with other Commonwealth forces on behalf of a monarchical, imperial power—which was itself not facing an existential threat, and which fought other monarchical, imperial powers.

WWI was a war fought between imperial nation-states over long-held nationalist prejudices, for pride of place in a factious Europe, and for control of imperial holdings around the world.

These facts do not denude the sacrifice of the soldiers killed and maimed, who fought less for the abstraction of king and country than for the men on either side of them. But it demeans their memory when we sentimentalize and mythologize their loss.

In the present moment, we should also keep in mind precisely why the First World War was so catastrophic: namely, it was a 20th-century war fought with 19th-century tactics over 19th-century politics. When Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz said in On War that “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” he articulated what was basically an ancient premise: that when regular politics failed, nations used the application of violent force in pursuit of political ends. For centuries, realities of weapons technology, manpower, and logistics, meant that lengthy, sustained wars were untenable and undesirable, and even such arguable exceptions as the Peninsular War still hewed to von Clausewitz’s notorious dictum.

In hindsight, the apocalyptic experience of the Western Front was predictable from such precursors as the American Civil War, which began as a familiar 19th-century conflict and ended with the Union prevailing because of its ultimate massive advantage in industry and logistics; or the Franco-Prussian War, in which the crushing Prussian victory showcased new generations of weaponry that anticipated the horrors of the trenches.

The collective trauma WWI visited on Europe shook people’s faith in technological progress as an inevitable good, as well as related conceptions of social and cultural progress. For some more astute observers, however, it also troubled assumptions about the sovereign nation-state as an ideal political entity. Such voices were unfortunately few and far between, as the failure of the League of Nations attested. And indeed, the two decades between the wars instead saw the emergence and entrenchment of inward-looking nationalism and political isolationism. There is a broad tendency to think of Nazism as born in a crucible of expansionist dreams of conquest, but as Benjamin Carter Hett observes in his recent book The Death of Democracy, which examines the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler, the dream of the extreme right of Germany in the early 1930s was autarky—that is, the creation of an economically and racially self-contained and self-sustaining nation, answerable to none. Conquest and expansionism—Hitler’s notorious need for “elbow room”—came later, at least in part as a pragmatic realization of the need for resources Germany alone could not supply.

I recite this history here because we all know what happened from this point on. And if we’re to look at the Second World War as the “good war,” fought genuinely in the name of freedom from tyranny (though even that is something of a myth, as I argued a few years ago), we also have to acknowledge that the seeds of that conflict were planted by WWI. But at least WWII accomplished something the Great War did not, in the acknowledgement of a global and interconnected world: the United Nations, the enshrining of international law, the International Court of Justice, the early political moves that would eventually give rise to the European Union, NATO, as well as the dissolution of European empires.

All of this, I hasten to add, is and has been deeply flawed: globalism has been hijacked by massive corporations with the willing assistance of western nations, and in many senses one form of empire has been supplanted by another, something made painfully evident by then global effects of the economic meltdown of 2008. The return of populism as a political force and the distressing resurgence of nationalism are not unpredictable, but on this day of all days we should see the latter for the existential threat it genuinely is. Today at the Paris for Armistice ceremony, French president Emmanuel Macron—with Donald Trump sitting stony-faced nearby—called nationalism a betrayal: “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism: nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism … By pursuing our own interests first, with no regard to others’, we erase the very thing that a nation holds most precious, that which gives it life and makes it great: its moral values.”

What Macron did not say (so far as I know), and what I am saying here, is that nationalism is untenable in the 21st-century; and more than untenable, it is potentially cataclysmic. The kind of politics espoused by Steve Bannon and his ilk enjoins us to wall ourselves off into impermeable sovereign states based on difference, rather than overlapping communities based on common good. Bannon waves away the kind of racist and misogynist extremism his populism inspires, telling Joshua Green in Devil’s Bargain that “that sort of thing always burns itself out over time,” a claim that is either deeply dishonest or dangerously disingenuous: if the past two years of American politics has shown anything, it is that nationalist populism falls open to racial, ethnic, and gender biases like a book with a cracked spine.

The First World War, to reiterate my earlier point, was catastrophic because it waged politics made obsolete by terrible new weapons. That fact was exacerbated by a magnitude in the Second World War, which ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Cold War, even at its various nadirs, recognized the need for a global consciousness lest we visit our own extinction upon ourselves. And even more dangerous than nuclear warheads in the present moment is the spectre of climate change, an existential threat that cannot be solved by insular, nationalist nation-states.

One hundred years ago today, the Great War ended. Over sixty thousand Canadian youths died in the slaughter, sacrificed on a pyre of nationhood. We love to say how Canada was forged in the fires of that war; we honour their memory best by committing ourselves to an idea of Canada that rejects nationalism.

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