Bloody Battle On Peace Day

Eighty years ago on November 11, 'The War to End All Wars' ended--with the signing of a peace to end all peace

Time plays strange tricks on history. In 1914, most Americans did not want to become involved in the war that was sweeping across Europe. After the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, however, few able-bodied American boys wanted to miss being part of the struggle to make the world safe for democracy. Then, on November 11, 1918, the blessed day came: Germany signed the armistice that brought World War I, then called "The War to End All Wars," to what Americans and soldiers of the victorious Allied nations regarded as a happy end.

Eighty years later, one may tend to look back with the benefit of hindsight and sadly shake one's head at the euphoria that briefly attended the German surrender at Versailles, France. In fact, the cynicism may have begun to manifest itself on that very day. Certainly the irony of Armistice Day could not have been lost on the American and Canadian soldiers who spent that day fighting for their lives against attacking Bolsheviks in the north Russian town of Toulgas. Their principal reason for being there, after all, had been to aid anti-Bolshevik Russian forces in regaining control of the government from the Communists, bring Russia back into the war on the Allied side and defeat Germany. Now it was November 11, Germany had been defeated without Russia's help and the Allied troops were still fighting--against the Russians.

Looking back, historians can now see that the treaties with Germany at Versailles, with Austria-Hungary at Trianon and with the Ottoman Empire at Lausanne did nothing to make the world freer or safer. The toppling of the autocratic but relatively orderly Hohenzollern, Hapsburg, Romanov and Ottoman monarchies only served to unleash a multitude of new nationalistic and political forces. Communism became established in Russia, to spread to other countries in the years to follow. The conservative reaction would breed a number of countermovements that were often just as oppressive as the communist system they opposed.

Adding to a more complex world were the nationalist movements that emerged from the remains of the shattered empires--Polish, Greek, Turkish, Hungarian, Romanian, Finnish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Ukrainian, Arab and Jewish. More would be heard in the future from men such as Józef Pilsudski, Josip Broz (later to be known as Marshal Tito), Mustafa Kemal (aka Atatürk) and David Ben-Gurion (originally David Gruen). Even within the victorious Allied powers, Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera maintained the pressure on a war-weary Britain to attain their goal of an independent Irish republic. Meanwhile, the first appeal by a Vietnamese named Ho Chi Minh for the independence of his French-dominated homeland was being dismissed by major powers such as Japan, France and the United States (all three of whom would regret it later).

While new nations struggled amid the rubble of shattered empires for their place in the new world order, at least one of the defeated powers had already begun to stir with renewed resentment. Hapsburg Austria-Hungary had commenced hostilities back in 1914, and Ottoman Turkey had arguably committed the single most heinous wartime atrocity with the mass slaughter of its own Armenian populace. But with those multiethnic empires dismantled, it was Imperial Germany that was singled out by the Allies for condemnation and punishment. Given impetus by the sinking of the steamer Leinster by a U-boat, the Allies subjected Germany to occupation and a series of humiliating treaty conditions that were meant to prevent her from ever re-emerging as a significant military power. German officers chafed under the treaty restrictions and sought scapegoats for their defeat. And while German officials reluctantly accepted the Allied terms of surrender, an Austrian-born lance corporal from a Bavarian infantry unit lay in bed, recovering from burns and blindness caused by mustard gas, alone with his thoughts, laying plans for the future. His name: Adolf Hitler.

Such was the state of "world order" that followed The War to End All Wars. Since then, there has been a second world war and more than 400 lesser conflicts--including the Hungarians' uprising against their Soviet overlords in 1956 and the Yom Kippur War, which occurred just 25 years ago this month.

Hindsight can play tricks with history, but it can also be a useful thing, provided people and governments learn from it. About 70 years after World War I, the Cold War saw the breakup of another unified empire with the fall of communism in Russia and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. The result, once again, has been the unleashing of more diverse, unpredictable forces throughout the world. Only our ability to understand such forces, and our ability to apply the experience of the not-so-distant past to the strikingly similar situations that exist today, may prevent the euphoria of the Cold War's end from being replaced by another peace to end all peace--and a new world disorder.

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