The Troubling Tensions in How We Remember World War I
The present is always present when we reflect on history, but sometimes it is too present. For many commentators, particularly in Washington, the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day on Sunday provided an opportunity to condemn both the militant nationalism that led European states to war in 1914 and the isolationist nationalism that led America to withdraw from the continent after 1918, thereby setting the stage for World War II. In their telling, the occasion served as a warning of what can happen when leaders become too complacent in the resilience of the reigning political order, and forget the tragic ease with which it can fall apart.
In other words, at a time of mounting concern over the future of American foreign policy and the global order, the legacy of World War I offered Washington another somber argument for why we must recommit ourselves to the principles of liberal internationalism. As former U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder told the Washington Post, President Donald Trump, in his “return to nationalism,” now risks replicating “America’s greatest mistake,” namely withdrawing from the world after 1918. And the stakes are high. As Oxford history professor Timothy Garton Ash told the New York Times, 1918 is a “sobering reminder that what seems like some sort of eternal order can very rapidly collapse.”
When the realistic alternatives to liberal internationalism being put forward are none too appealing and the risks to the global order are all too real, it seems dangerous to quibble with this confident reading of history. Indeed, the recent resurgence of far-right and even fascist movements on both sides of the Atlantic offers a reminder that people have drawn far worse lessons from World War I. Still, without rejecting this liberal internationalist narrative of the 20th century, it would be worth considering a few cautionary and contradictory notes as well.
Contemporary commemorations of the Great War reveal on ongoing tension over whether it was a senseless tragedy that could have been avoided by the proper application of liberal values or a bloody but necessary defense of them. It is easy to reject the ugly side of nationalism, for example. But was the problem nationalism in the abstract, rampant in all the warring states, or was it, as British and American leaders argued at the time, specifically militaristic Prussian nationalism that had to be defeated by force?
Similarly, it is comforting to conclude that Washington could have helped prevent World War II by committing to the construction of a liberal, rules-based European order after 1918. But that conveniently brackets the question of whether the horrors of the preceding war were also necessary for the construction of this order.
When British and American leaders plunged into World War I, they thought they were defending their liberal vision of the continent against the threat posed by an autocratic and revisionist Germany. Yes, we hated the Hun, but we also had to make the world safe for democracy and defend the rights of neutrals. Yet contemporary advocates of liberal internationalism are not quite willing to embrace the war on these terms. Among the many “takes” that appeared in the past week, few went with “the West sacrificed a generation of men to defeat German aggression and we must be ready to do so again in the face of Chinese aggression today.” Instead, Washington’s reading of World War I reflects the central tenet of all too many contemporary op-eds: A forceful policy of liberal internationalism will always prevent war, never require it.
This ambivalence over how to situate World War I in relation to our modern-day foreign policy values also emerges in the way many recent reflections treat isolationism. We are quick to cast the isolationist impulses of the 1920s and 1930s as a strategic mistake, and their re-emergence today as failure to appreciate the lessons of history. And yet one of the factors driving post-war isolationism in America and pacifism in Europe was the gulf between the noble ideals for which the last war had supposedly been fought and the more selfish national interests that appeared, in retrospect, to have lain behind them. Not surprisingly, a generation that had suffered enormously under the spell of exaggerated and nationalistic anti-German propaganda proved too slow to believe real reports of German atrocities two decades later.
Read differently then, the widespread disillusionment that followed the Armistice could also offer a cautionary tale about the crippling cynicism policymakers create when they sell the pursuit of national power in overly idealistic terms.
A number of recent articles have also argued that reflecting on the Great War can provide today’s leaders with a continued appreciation for the ever-present possibility of tragedy, and thereby reinforce their commitment to responsible international engagement. This is a compelling conclusion, but it risks overlooking the ease with which a “sense of tragedy” can also lead policymakers in opposite directions. Isolationism and pacifism, most obviously, were themselves reactions to the tragic possibilities revealed by the war.
But, more importantly, the decisions across the continent that led to war in 1914 also reflected leaders’ diverse fears about the fragility of their positions in the European order and what its breakdown might entail. In issuing their fateful ultimatum to Serbia, Austro-Hungarian leaders were driven by the fear that if they did not act forcefully while circumstances allowed it their empire would continue to crumble. Russia, for it part, sided so aggressively with Serbia because its leaders feared that failing to honor their alliances would leave them increasingly friendless and exposed. Germany, in turn, attacked France in order to avoid the risk of being defeated in a two front war fought on less favorable terms. Finally, among the many reasons Britain then joined was a fear that if Germany defeated France, the British homeland would be exposed to an invasion across the channel. What’s more, the popularity of social Darwinist thinking and often apocalyptic invasion literature on the eve of the war left many European statesmen with an all-too-well developed sense of tragedy that heighten these strategic concerns. In choosing war, many feared that neutrality would condemn their countries to geopolitical irrelevance and then destruction.
In short, while complacency played a role in the outbreak of a war whose horrors no one could fully imagine, fears of alternate catastrophes played their role as well. Thus in addition to the risk of stumbling blindly into conflict, the war could also be a lesson about the risk of taking precautions or enforcing commitments that end up realizing the dangers they were intended to prevent.
By all means take this anniversary as an occasion to reject the reckless rhetoric and policies of the current administration. But then pause for a moment to reflect on what warnings it might offer for our preferred alternatives. Perhaps the best way to honor the the Armistice would be to wrestle with the fact that, a century on, the lessons of the Great War remain troublingly unclear.
Nick Danforth is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He completed a PhD in Turkish history at Georgetown University and has written widely on Middle Eastern politics.
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