I’m writing this in the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 2012. This is the time to remember the 1918 Armistice that ended the First World War.
It’s a time to remember the many millions who died in the preceding four years, from machine gun bullets, shells, bombs, and bayonets, from starvation, and from the influenza pandemic. The four horsemen roamed the face of the Europe and the Middle East.
It’s time to remember the brave soldiers who volunteered to kill or be killed for their countries. It’s time to remember those who were conscripted to fight, and those who were innocent victims as their towns and farmhouses were chewed up in an argument they didn’t start.
It’s also time to remember the countries born from the ashes of the conflict. In Australia, we like to think of WWI as the time that forged a national identity, but for many countries this was far more literally true. Australia existed as a legal entity before WWI, we elected most of our own leaders, we learned our own language in schools, we had our own army and navy. A great many of today’s nations didn’t have any of those freedoms in 1914.
For the Great War was extraordinarily destructive not just of people but of empires. Four of the biggest 7 combatant nations started 1914 as large, prosperous and aggressive empires and then limped out of 1918 as defeated, exhausted, and massively shrunken republics. The territories lost in Eastern Europe and the Middle East gained their own lives as their own nations.
If they could have foreseen the outcome, would those four emperors have gone to war in those crazy thirteen days after the assassination of the Archduke? Or would Wilhelm, Franz Joseph, Nikolai, and Mehmed have calmed down and sought a better solution? Maybe not. A mere twenty-one years later three of those shrunken republics were back again. Angry, puffed up and overconfident, they hoovered up lost territories and went straight back to slaughtering anyone they could reach for dominion over their neighbours.
This makes me think that in the long run we won’t as a species learn from history. Aggression and overconfidence way well be inherent characteristics of the way we organise ourselves into groups. Yes, even democracies.