As we commemorate the First World War this weekend, the question still remains: how are we to understand it?
Philosophical and historical views often align in thinking that it was an apex of violence in a whole century defined by conflict. Another view, perhaps more ominous and certainly very pertinent today, is to see the horrors of war as a culmination of unprecedented technological development.
After 4 years the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the First World War will shortly be coming to an end. The many activities and projects commissioned over the last four years have done a great deal to remind people of the enormous importance of the war in determining the whole shape of the 20th century. It is commonplace now (following the historian Eric Hobsbawm) to regard this century as an Age of Extremes, and as a period characterised by global mechanised war and conflict. It has also become clearer over time how the Second World War functioned to some extent as a mere continuance of the global conflict initiated in 1914, its horrors determined to a great extent by the unfinished business of that first catastrophe. For many people the Second World War did not end in 1945 either, and a form of cold war and a militarised society continued to dominate the lives of millions of people until the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Looking at still photographs of the Romanian Revolution in that year is like looking at pictures taken in the final years of the Second World War, as though much of Eastern Europe had been in suspended animation for the previous 45 years. Many of the ethnic rivalries, political tensions and nationalist problems frozen by the Cold War subsequently emerged in a series of vicious and unpleasant conflicts, notably in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Only now, over 100 years after the beginning of the First World War, do we see the 20th century world beginning to dissolve.
And yet, even with our new perspective, and with all the reminders of the change the First World War represented, it is still worth noting that it was a war that changed everything. The 19th century was the first age of globalisation and it was characterised by extraordinary developments in technology and industrial efficiency, and in the burgeoning growth of prosperous and sophisticated societies. It was an age characterised by colonialism and racism, but also gave birth to a detailed internal critique of these phenomena. Indeed, I do not think we properly understand the 19th century unless we recall the enormous social and political optimism, religious enthusiasm, and the nation building energies which marked it out as a century of progress. In fact 19th century Europeans came dangerously close to regarding such progress as inevitable. Only the radical fringe artists and poets of the Decadent Movement questioned whether human beings were really capable of progress in the long run, and sought to highlight the sordid and the hypocritical aspects of the glorious Belle Epoque. It was this great age of globalisation, prosperity and development which was brought to a shattering end by the First World War, and it is possible to argue that our sense of ourselves as human beings, our belief in God, and our faith in democracy and in social progress has never recovered from the ensuing catastrophe.
The Czech philosopher Jan Patočka, writing in the 1970s, made a particularly important contribution to our understanding of the First World War in his Heretical Essays on History. In the sixth and final essay in the series he describes not only the Wars of the 20th century but also the 20th century understood as war. Rather than the global conflicts which dominated the century being aberrations from the norm of peace, he argues, they were in fact just the most extreme periods of violence in a century characterised on every level by conflict (polemos). He notes how the nature of the First World War changed dramatically in 1916. Until then the European nations engaged in the conflicts continued to operate as though they were fighting for 19th century strategic objectives. It was a war of empires, a great test of national character, and a vital means of preserving the foreign policy interests of the state.
The year 1916 changed all of that. In the case of the British Empire, the Battle of the Somme and the Dardanelles offensives resulted in such a staggering loss of life for no appreciable gain that the whole nature of the conflict changed. The French experienced a similar existential change at the battle of Verdun, where the loss of life was so high that it began to throw into question the entire rationale of war in the modern age. Indeed, with the gimlet eye of the philosopher, Patočka notes how the First World War changes its nature in that year into an existential battle for survival between the competing powers. It was apparent that no-one could now emerge ‘victorious’ from such a catastrophe. The aim was only one of survival. And events such as the Easter Uprising in Ireland and the Russian Revolution made clear that the war had acquired a momentum all of its own, and that it had decisively destroyed the certainties of the 19th century world. And yet the slaughter continued, even though it was clear that no-one could possibly ‘win’ a war in which every nation had now sustained unbearable pain. This distinctively philosophical view accurately mirrors the views of leading historians of the First World War, who similarly note a complete change in the nature of the conflict in the year 1916.
Patočka does not stop there. He notes that, far from being a major rupture with the preceding age of technological advancement, the First World War represented a rapid acceleration in the rate of change commenced by it. Indeed, in Patočka’s striking image the front, with its trenches, mud, barbed wire and ceaseless slaughter, represented the breaking wave of a surge of technological change which catapulted humanity from a largely agrarian and conventional social organisation into a world of social dislocation, mass mobilisation, long-distance communication, high-speed transportation and weapons of mass destruction. In other words, only through war did humanity achieve the full realisation of the technological inventions born out of the 19th century. Far from being a species characterised by progress and peace, human beings are a species characterised by war and conflict, and technological change on the scale experienced in the 19th century was bound to result in the trenches of the Western Front, the armoured trains of the Bolsheviks, the chattering machine guns of the Dardanelles and the uninhibited massacres of the Armenian genocide. Only by understanding our relationship with technology, he says, can we understand the catastrophe that human beings unleashed on themselves in the First World War, a disaster that continues to haunt us to this day, leading directly to the development of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, to the unimpeded exploitation of the world’s natural resources, and thus to ecological crisis and the possible end of human life on earth.
Sometimes, when we pass through a great Victorian Railway station, visit the faded magnificence of a 19th century health spa or resort, or see black-and-white photographs of ordinary bourgeois citizens of the period dressed up in their Sunday finery, we get a privileged glimpse of a world in which it was still possible to have an uncomplicated vision of human progress and civilisation. Thanks to the cataclysm unleashed by the First World War, Europe definitively lost any claim that it might have had to be a superior human civilisation.
However, in the hundredth year after the end of that war, perhaps the most salient message is that technological change creates great disruptive forces which (if unchecked) could very easily result in new and uncompromising forms of war and conflict. By this measure, the digital disruption and the cyber-attacks which characterise our new age are merely the inevitable consequence of a rate of change which is unprecedented, and of a human desire to grasp and control, to win and to rule, that has already posed great threats to our survival as a species. Technology is not a neutral thing, and nor are its effects ever one dimensional. In shaking our certainties technology may be the midwife of new destruction. In his strange and mysterious novel Austerlitz the late WG Sebald described the splendid Victorian railway station in more poetic and existential terms as a great transition space for the millions of human beings who have passed through its waiting rooms and across its platforms and concourses. Flowing into trains and metro stations, carried away by time, they all disappear under the ground, providing an overwhelming metaphor for 20th century destruction and loss.
Graham Henderson is the Founder and CEO of The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation.