Remembering the long war

It so happens that Remembrance Sunday in the First World War centenary year coincides with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Eric Hobsbawm called the period between the two The Short Twentieth Century, the century having been defined by the period of total war and extremism between 1914 and 1991. In his introduction to the book, published in 1994, he said:

There can be no serious doubt that in the late 1980s and early 1990s an era in world history ended and a new one began.

Over the years, I’ve come across war memorials in a number of different countries. It’s interesting to note the dates. We sometimes forget that other countries’ wars didn’t always start on the same dates as Britain’s. In Italy, for example, the start date of the First World War wasn’t until 1915. In the USA, not until 1917.

For Turkey, the First World War didn’t end until 1923, when they defeated a Greek invasion and finally made peace with the allied powers. The Chinese might argue that, for them, the Second World War started with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. The space between the end of the set of conflicts that made up the First World War and those that became the Second is only eight years. With the Italian expansionism in the 1930s and the Spanish Civil War starting in 1936, there is some justification for seeing both world wars as a single conflict with an eight year ceasefire.

Some might say it was even longer than that. A couple of Czechs I chatted to in a Prague beer garden told me that, as far as they were concerned, the Second World War started in 1938 and ended in December 1989 when Václav Havel took office as president. As they said, in 1945, they just went from occupation by one foreign dictatorship to another. Their war lasted 41 years. For the Baltic states, occupied in 1940, Russian recognition of their independence did not come until 1991. That gives us the end date for Hobsbawm’s Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991.

Even then, some could say that their war went on even longer. The First World War was preceded by a series of wars in the Balkans. After the fall of the Eastern Bloc, the Balkans flared up again. From a Serbian perspective, you might make a case for 1912-1999.

When you add all these different perspectives together, then, you could say that 1914-1991 (or thereabouts) was a long war. At the very least, it was a long period linked conflicts, mostly in Europe but affecting much of the rest of the world too.

Whatever dates we choose for the bookends of the wars that characterised the last century, 1914 and 1989 are as good as any. Tomorrow, then, we will remember both the start and end of the long war, or the Short Twentieth Century.

I will be in church. It’s one of the few times in the year when I can be relied upon to go. My faith in God varies from weak to non-existent but, for me, there is something about turning up on Remembrance Sunday, rather than watching it on the telly. All over the country, from great cities to tiny villages, people will gather around war memorials, keeping the silence and listening as Laurence Binyon’s words are read. Being there and being seen to be there helps to make sure that the tradition goes on, even as the number of those alive who fought gets fewer.

The Short Twentieth Century took a lot of lives, not just by bombs and bullets but by the prison camps, famine and disease that went with them. Tomorrow, I shall sit in church and say a prayer, as I do every year, for all the people killed, maimed, tortured, exiled, orphaned and dispossessed by wars around the world. After that, I shall say another one, thanking God that Europe’s long war is over and praying that it never happens again.

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8 Responses to Remembering the long war

  1. John says:

    I find these blogs among the best on the internet but this one is of rather dubious value.
    As a humanist, I find the role of religion in fomenting and supporting war and conflict ghastly.
    Churches, temples, synagogues and mosques all have fomented appalling war and conflict.
    The German army in both wars marched under the banner of Gott Mit Uns – God With Us.
    Churches and religions are the very last places for acts of remembrance.
    I also think there is a whole lot of nonsense talked about the men and women who die in war making the “ultimate sacrifice” or being “heroes” or – allegedly – fighting for their beliefs.
    Where the First World War is concerned, the main motivating forces were ignorance and stupidity, manipulated by power-hungry and crazed elites across Europe and other parts of the world.
    The whole saga was dirty, inhuman, inhumane, disgusting and grubby from start to finish.
    Don’t just take my word for it. Listen to what Harry Patch – the longest survivor of the First World War said – it was: “…nothing better than legalised mass murder” and “War is organised murder” and for him, 11 November was “just showbusiness”. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/jul/25/harry-patch-obituary).
    It is we living today who should be saying “Never again” and ensuring that is the case.

  2. John Wade says:

    I think I rather agree with John. I accompanied my son to a Remembrance Day service when he was briefly a Scout. There was something pretty unsavoury about children dressed in paramilitary uniforms being encouraged by adults to get all dewy eyed over “fallen heroes” at a flag draped War Memorial. I’m planning to go and sit in silence in the Friends Meeting House just up the road at 11am tomorrow to reflect.

  3. Andrew H says:

    Rick

    Good post reminding us it’s not all just 1914-18 – my own English town memorial goes to 1920 because of the western intervention in the Russian civil war.

    John(s)

    Sure religion has been responsible for war and conflict. But there has been plenty of this without any religious motive – Egyptians and Assyrians, Persians and Greeks, Romans (Caesar’s conquest of Gaul killed an estimated 1 million with no religious motive), Mongols, and so on. Sure, they all though their Gods were on their side – but who has ever gone to war without claiming that. But these wars (unlike others) were not fought because of the religion of one side or the other. And the great dictatorships of the 20th century – Hitler, Stalin and Mao – killed millions, but most defiantly not in the name of a God.

    I’ve just come back from the Western Front Association ceremony at the Cenotaph (round the corner from work). A Chaplain spoke, making it clear that we had a responsibility for what happened, and remembering the dead of every nation. That is the unique addition that the Christian religion can give; I don’t see any religion free national ceremony rubbing our noses in our responsibility in quite that way.

    And yes, war is an appalling business, but we seem not to be able to avoid it. And I really dislike the word ‘heroes’ for war dead. Some were heroes, some were cowards, most just did their duty. But they are all dead regardless.

    • John says:

      How can a chaplain say we have a responsibility for what happened?
      We were not even alive at the time of the First World War!
      Absolutely absurd !!!
      We can avoid war – but only if our politicians are good enough to avoid it.

  4. Huw Evans says:

    Andrew

    It should be noted that the Catholic church had its unsavoury fingerprints all over the killing of Jews in the second World War. I believe that Hitler never denounced his Cahtolic faith. Stalin, of course, was raised in an Orthodox seminary and Mao practised a cult of personality almost indistinguishable from religion.

    Having said that, relgion is the only organised moral guidance we have, so what better places than temples for acts of remembrance?

    • John says:

      The Temple of Reason (French: Temple de la Raison) was, during the French Revolution, a temple for a new belief system created to replace Christianity: the Cult of Reason, which were based on the ideals of atheism and humanism. This “religion” was supposed to be universal and to spread the ideas of the revolution, summarized in its “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” motto, which was also inscribed on the Temples. Further information at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_of_Reason.
      Shame it never caught on as we might have avoided having to have a remembrance day.
      Hitler paid his church taxes right up until the moment he blew his brains out in the Fuhrerbunker.
      Pol Pot was educated at a residential Roman Church college.

  5. Andrew H says:

    And of course Robespierre, whose was very keen on the Cult of Reason was, was a peace loving man who never harmed anyone.

  6. John says:

    You are wrong. Robespierre opposed the Cult of Reason, preferring what he termed the Cult of the Supreme Being. He had the leaders of the Cult of Reason sent to the guillotine and Napoleon Bonaparte eventaully banned both cults.

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