Saturday, April 12, 2014

As the Sad Centennial Approaches

It is seldom that I have occasion to quote George Weigel, but this is one. The right-leaning, but intellectually serious journal First Things' May issue includes an article by him, "The Great War Revisted," that is well worth reading in this centennial year of the start of World War I, known to its shell-shocked contemporaries as "the Great War."

Of the greatness of that war, there can no doubt - some 20 million dead, an equal or greater number wounded, to which must also be added (as Weigel wisely recognizes) the casualties of the 1918 influenza pandemic the spread of which the war certainly facilitated. It was great also in the scope of its moral descent into depravity. Twice, Weigel quotes Churchill in this regard: "Neither peoples nor rulers drew the line at any deed which they thought could help them to win" and "Every outrage against humanity or international law was repaid by reprisals often on a grander scale and longer duration." And, of course, it was surpassingly great in the extent and long-lastingness of its consequences. For Weigel, the world that war created only "ended when one of the Great War's more consequential by-products, the Soviet Union, disintegrated in August 1991." Personally, I would date the end of our modern Hundred Years' War no earlier than the resolution later in the 1990s of the Serbian-centered conflicts among the peoples formerly forced to coexist in Yugoslavia (itself a consequence of World War I and of the extreme Serbian nationalism that provoked that war in the first place). Recent events in the Ukraine, however, have convinced me that even that late end-date may have been premature. For the current conflict in and around Ukraine also has its roots in the Great War's witless destruction of the Hapsburg and Romanov empires.

Like everyone else, Weigel considers the causes of the war. But his greater contribution, I believe, lies in his raising the less common - but ultimately more important and more revealing - question: "Why did the Great War continue?" In other words, "Why, at the end of 1914, when the military situation had ossified on both the western and eastern fronts, did Europe find it impossible to call a halt?" Allowing a local Balkan crisis (one of many that had disturbed that region) to escalate into a Europe-wide war was surely folly - idiocy even. But to allow it continue after the initial campaigns had led to an impasse  - an impasse that would continue at increasing human cost until 1917 on the eastern front and until the fall of 1918 on the western front - remains the amazing puzzle of the war.

Here Weigel invokes familiar and frequent ideological foes. But the fact that they are familiar and frequently invoked does not diminish the relevance of his analysis. Underlying the peace, prosperity, and apparent contentment of Edwardian Europe, Weigel unearths  a complex of "distorted ideas and virulent passions." Among them, Weigel argues, were Social Darwinism, Nietzschean Promethean irrationalism, xenophobic ideas about nations and races, a certain sense of historical fatalism, and what 40 years ago Owen Chadwick labeled the 19th-century's "secularization of the European mind." Weigel focuses in especially on the latter (which in a sense, I think, sums up and incorporates all the others) as having eroded "any sense of rules or restraint in world politics or the conduct of war."

As a counter-point to the received modern wisdom which sees the rise of modern forms of political authority as an historical alternative to the destructive religious warfare which preceded, Weigel argues that  it has been "the erosion of biblically informed concepts of the human person, human communities, human origins, and human destiny" which "created a European moral-cultural environment in which politics was no longer bound and constrained by a higher authority operative in the minds and consciences of leaders and populations." 

How to respond - morally, culturally, and politically - to this overwhelming challenge is anything but obvious, and would likely get us into the territory of contemporary politics where many (myself included) might quickly part company with Weigel on any number of particular proposals. But, I think, his analysis of the spiritual causes of our contemporary hundred years' malaise is a legitimate foundation for future moral, cultural, and political deliberation.

Last week, on the 25th anniversary of her state funeral in Vienna, I watched the YouTube videos of the Austrian coverage of the Empress Zita's funeral and burial. On one level, of course, the whole event was an exercise in imperial nostalgia (something Vienna is naturally quite good at). But, beyond nostalgia and all that, it offered an opportunity for ritualized reflection on the 20th-century tragedy that began in 1914. One particularly virulent phase of that - the Cold War - was dramatically coming to an end in 1989, even as Zita was being laid to rest among previous Kaisern and Kaiserinen with all the traditional Hapsburg ceremonial. But the corrosive ideas which Weigel highlighted as having animated secular modernity continue even now to erode the bases of social life and continue to pose novel challenges which cannot be easily evaded or escaped. 

No comments:

Post a Comment