Read Ian Harris on World War I commemorations, from his Faith and Reason column in the Otago Daily Times, 8 August 2014
Faith and Reason column in the Otago Daily Times, 8 August 2014
“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”
As countries around the world begin solemnly remembering the outbreak of war 100 years ago, those opening words from the constitution of UNESCO are a fitting reminder that the quest for peace is never done. And as commemorations continue over the next four years, people would do well to make that truth their central theme.
The constitution goes on: “Ignorance of each other’s ways and lives has been a common cause, throughout the history of mankind, of that suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of the world through which their differences have all too often broken into war.”
So though remembrance in each country will naturally highlight its own experience of the war that failed to end war, there is much at this distance to commend any effort to look into the minds of men who fought on the other side as well. That would help reveal how the powers of Europe early last century stumbled their way towards war through ignorance, mistrust, nationalism and militarism, buttressed by the more noble sentiments of loyalty, duty and honour.
The causes of World War 1 are more complex than the patriotic catch-phrases of 1914 would suggest. While all participants blame “the enemy” for the catastrophe, historians now apportion the responsibility more evenly. They also note one missed opportunity after another to keep the peace, as had been managed in earlier crises.
But the final say went to those in every country who had come to think of war as necessary, inevitable, even desirable. And the military brass counted on a short, sharp offensive that would be over in weeks.
This is no time for drum-beating, and Germany and France are setting the right commemorative tone. Bitter rivals for hundreds of years but now the twin foundation of European unity, they are marking the centenary with dignity and mutual respect.
Last Sunday, on the 100th anniversary of Germany’s declaration of war on France, their presidents attended a joint ceremony in the once hotly contested region of Alsace. A month earlier Germany invited a French political scientist with links to both countries, Alfred Grosser, to address a special session of Parliament in Berlin.
Grosser was born in Germany. His father won the Iron Cross in World War 1. But when the Nazis barred Jewish veterans from the association of Iron Cross winners, the family moved to France. The invitation to Grosser was in recognition of his tireless work for reconciliation between his two homelands, strengthening the defences of peace in the minds of men.
Early last century the churches were more influential than today in shaping people’s minds, and usually finished up being co-opted by the spirit of the times. Former Oxford history professor Herbert Butterfield showed how subtly corrupting it is when foes enlist God, as they usually do, and proclaim their conflict to be “a war for righteousness”.
In 1914, he says, German churchmen were convinced on the information available to them that Germany was innocent of blame – “but there is not the slightest doubt that British churchmen were in exactly the same case”. God, King (or Kaiser) and Empire made up a powerful brew.
Germany’s Catholic bishops last month acknowledged the guilt churches shared for the war. “Many bishops, priests and faithful took the side of those welcoming the war as a chance for spiritual and moral renewal,” they said. But in the national blindness they failed to perceive the suffering of the war’s victims, “and realised too late the consequences of absolute loyalty to their respective nations.”
In England philosopher Bertrand Russell, jailed for opposing the war, condemned it as “trivial, for all its vastness”, adding: “No great principle is at stake, no great human purpose is involved on either side.” Lacking those, the war was essentially about redistributing power. And for that, 9 million servicemen and 7 million civilians died, 21 million more were maimed or wounded, and millions of families suffered the trauma of loss.
They will be remembered as war cemeteries are spruced up, lawns sprout white crosses, vigils are held and, in a dramatic gesture, a sea of red ceramic poppies covers the grassy moat of the Tower of London.
A hundred years on it is right to remember their sacrifice, question the reasons for it, discern the modern-day parallels – and then resolve to strengthen the defences of peace in the minds of men and women.