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.