The Saturday Essay: The death of glory, the violent birth of peace

War was part of the natural order; it was virtuous and glorious, and gave men the chance to prove themselves
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The Independent Culture
AS THE 20th century passes from view, its origins stand out ever more clearly. Eighty years on, the Great War has come to be accepted as the real divide between that peaceful, orderly universe which was the Victorian 19th century - Stefan Zweig's lamented "world of yesterday" - and the frenetic anxieties and violent tensions of modernity. On one side of this gulf stood figures like the bearded paterfamilias Leslie Stephen; on the other his daughter Virginia Woolf, whose writings - exploring the limits of feeling, expression and mutual comprehension - capture so precisely what it was that disappeared in the war by focusing on vanishing memories. "There had been a complete break," she writes in The Years. "None of them could remember what they had been saying."

Can we remember? Can we remember how joyfully people had greeted the war in the summer of 1914 - those jubilant crowds who were not a revisionist myth but a reality drowning out misgivings, doubts and the voices of those few principled pacifists who tried to avert catastrophe? War itself was part of the natural order; more than that, it was virtuous and glorious and gave men the chance to prove themselves and to escape from an increasingly humdrum and materialistic world. How distant that all seems, how hard to understand Captain Nevill of the East Surrey Regiment who led the charge towards German lines on 1 July 1916 by kicking a football over the top and urging his men on. A few rounds of machine-gun fire and most of them lay dead; by nightfall more than 19,000 more British soldiers had joined them, the heaviest loss ever suffered in a single day by the British Army.

Similar attitudes were so deeply entrenched in society that they had withstood the harsher evidence of the American Civil War - the one war before 1914 which really showed what lay in store for Europe. But soon they vanished in the bloodbath. "Everywhere," writes Yeats in his 1921 poem The Second Coming, "the ceremony of innocence is drowned."

The sheer numbers were unimaginable enough - eight and a half million soldiers killed, another 21 million wounded. No previous war in memory had killed so many - casualties in 1870-71, in the Boer War, in the 1905 Russo-Japanese conflict or in the two Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 had all been negligible in comparison. The British death toll was nearly ten times higher than in the Second World War. Some countries - notably France and Serbia - lost such a high proportion of their young men that the demographic consequences lasted for decades: France's total population in 1940 was still lower than in 1913, and only surpassed it in the 1950s. War wounded - the mutiles de guerre with their stunted limbs, their crutches and glassy eyes - became an ineradicable feature of post-war street life. What went on indoors between de-mobbed husbands and wives, the secret intimate history of the war's afterlife as couples tried to pick up the pieces of interrupted marriages, can only be guessed at, or pieced together from memoirs. To many homes no men returned, and in Germany alone half a million women lived the rest of their lives widowed by the war.

But it was not just a question of numbers. In the war of 1914, Europe turned itself into what Czech politician Tomas Masaryk called "a laboratory atop a vast graveyard", experimenting with new forms of organised cruelty in which, for the first time civilians were the chief targets. Those high- minded late Victorian efforts at international agreement upon laws of civilised warfare vanished with the sinking of the Lusitania and the shelling of Louvain; the British shipping blockade, which aimed to undermine Germany's war effort by starving its cities was not much better from this point of view.

Because the Serb army had initially humiliated the invading Habsburg forces in 1914, Serb civilians suffered the consequences: vengeful Austrian and Hungarian troops burned down villages, took civilian hostages and executed them en masse whenever they came under attack from guerrillas. Young Habsburg cadets learned a language of "ruthless severity", of "reprisal actions" necessary against a Slav population animated by "fanatical hatred". Twenty-five years later, another army, another war: but as Hitler's Wehrmacht swept through the Balkans, the same men, now risen to senior echelons of the military, would use the same language to spur on their men.

And this was far from the only prefiguring of the even greater bloodshed to come. War-torn empires, fighting not to fall apart, treated their own civilians with an unprecedented callousness and suspicion. Tsarist authorities deported hundreds of thousands of Jews from Russia's western territories eastwards away from the front lines because they feared - how ironically this must read today! - that the Jews would sympathise with the invading German army and welcome liberation by the Kaiser's men from the notoriously anti-semitic Russian yoke. Further south, the Turks uprooted thousands of Greek civilians from their homes on the Asia Minor seaboard and sent them inland, again because they suspected their loyalty to the Sublime Porte.

And if this was not enough, the Ottoman Empire in 1915-1916 proceeded to even more draconian measures: the entire Armenian population of Anatolia was targetted for deportation and death to rid the empire of a potentially treacherous minority. The First World War thus offered an opportunity for ethnic cleansing: "first we kill the Armenians, then the Greeks, then the Kurds," a Turkish gendarme told a Danish Red Cross nurse in July 1915. Precise numbers will never be known but probably between 800,000 and 1.3 million Armenians were killed, proportionately higher than the percentage of Jews who died in the next war at German hands.

Connections between the two genocides are not hard to find. Hitler's remark of January 1939 - "who now remembers the Armenians?"- is well known. But as early as 1932, even before Hitler had come to power, the author Franz Werfel had toured Germany reading from his new novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a story which depicted the Armenian massacres in order to warn of what might lie ahead - "the planned extirpation of another race" - in Europe's heartlands.

Not even massacres and deportations could hold the empires together and four ancient dynasties - the Habsburg, the Hohenzollern, the Romanov and the Ottoman - which had collectively lasted for millennia perished with astonishing speed in the war. Yet massacre and deportation did have their own logic: they might not keep emperors on their thrones but they could help replace them with something new - a state ruled by a single nation. The dream of nationalism came closer to being realised after 1918 than ever before, and as it emerged into the light of political reality it brought up with it its corresponding nightmare, the awkward reality of all those ethnic impurities, minorities marked off from the victorious nation by language, religion or race.

The First World War changed the map of Eastern Europe by helping Poles, Czechs and Latvians gain independence; but the euphoria of those jubilant peoples was tempered by the knowledge that they shared their land with others. In the eastern marches of Poland, the result in 1918-1919 was a series of violent pogroms against local Jewish populations, and virtual civil war with Ukrainian and Belorussian militias.

It is scarcely surprising that 1918 should lead to even greater upheavals of civilians than had taken place during the war itself: the First World War thus led to Europe's first great refugee crisis as millions fled westwards, the true victims of nationalism's triumph and the precursors of more unhappy stories of upheaval and flight to come through the rest of the century.

Where were they to go? Before the First World War, Europe had traditionally relied on the Americas to receive its surplus and unwanted peoples; but immigration barriers across the Atlantic rose after 1918 and this safety valve was shut off. Refugees were cooped up in detention camps, and starved or begged for work: as late as the mid-1930s more than half a million of the Russians who had fled westwards during the Civil War remained stateless.

This new world of war generated its own visions of peace. The scale and terrifying horror of the fighting itself seemed to produce future utopias of a corresponding ambition. It was as though it was not enough to wish, as had once been the case, for a territorial settlement or financial compensation; now it was increasingly hard to imagine an end to the war which did not imply a radical transformation of the social and political order itself. Lloyd George's pledge of "homes fit for heroes" was the relatively down- to-earth British version of this; elsewhere the dreams of what Europe might become after the war were grander and more sweeping.

The Great War was thus the seedbed not only for new forms of waging war but for new ideologies of continental reorganisation as well: on the one hand, the promise of American President Woodrow Wilson to create a world "safe for democracy", in which peace-loving peoples would rule themselves in a liberal universe of nation-states; on the other, the rival project of a determined and energetic Russian revolutionary movement to sweep away the old bourgeois order and establish peace through social transformation, a world in which quarrels and exploitation ceased because private property was abolished and society was led by its most enlightened class, the proletariat, and their spokesmen.

Both visions were realised between the wars, both in the process being transformed and compromised by the inevitable reckoning with reality: Wilson's vision led to the creation of a system of nation-states at Versailles under the League of Nations; the Bolshevik version of Marx's ideas came to fruition with the creation of the Soviet Union. And both were increasingly threatened by the emergence of a third ideology, fascism, which tried to militarise society as a whole in the image of the First World War experience of front-line comradeship, and to forge a national unity by excluding, expelling and ultimately exterminating minorities.

Hitler - the supreme embodiment of this movement - glorified his own memories of the First World War and came to see war as the supreme test of men, nations and races. Another world war, and more specifically the Nazi New Order, was thus no mere accident but rather the realisation of Hitler's own project for Europe. All this - the struggle between liberal democracy, communism and fascism, the struggle which tore our continent apart for seven decades and which forms the essential political drama of our century - was born out of the First World War.

Where, then, do we stand today, nearly a decade after the Berlin Wall came down, eight decades after the ending of the Great War? Memories of that world before 1914 have vanished; even for scholars it must seem an almost impossible task to think oneself back to the values and attitudes which motivated people then. There has indeed been "a complete break", as Virginia Woolf put it. With the passing of time, even the Great War itself seems very far away: 20 years ago, it was not hard to find old men who had stories of their own experiences in the trenches of Flanders; today it is more or less impossible. Even the Second World War, as the opening scene of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan suggests, is far removed from the comprehension of most people under 40.

Perhaps this very difficulty in understanding shows us how far we have come: war no longer strikes us as likely to solve our continent's problems, nor even forms a familiar part of our political or daily life. The one recent European war - in the former Yugoslavia - reinforces these attitudes rather than challenging them. Our armies are shrinking and turning themselves into peace-keeping forces which compete for contracts with private mercenaries.

Insofar as we worry about the Nation, we do not connect these worries with military service, still less with ideas of courage, or the glory to be won on the field of battle. All such concepts seem impossibly outmoded to most people in Europe today, with the possible exception of the Balkans. We find it hard to understand, and therefore to respect earlier generations for whom these ideas did not seem so strange. But if we are leaving Great Times behind, is this necessarily a bad thing? This violent century - in which war-related death became a more intimate part of people's lives than ever before - has left its mark upon us and taught us the mundane benefits of peace.

Dr Mark Mazower's latest book is `Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century", published by Penguin Books