Tag archives: World War I

Why World War I?

by Robert Morrison

February 7, 2014

World-renowned scholar George Weigel addressed a large gathering at Washington’s elegant Mayflower Hotel last night. The biographer of Pope John Paul II spoke on the approaching Centenary of the outbreak of World War I. That struggle consumed some twenty million combatants’ lives and even more, twenty-one million, of non-combatants. Think of any of the mass movements—especially violent mass movements—of the past century, and we can see their origins in the 1914-1918 catastrophe. Winston Churchill had prophesied that the wars of peoples would be far more terrible than the wars of kings. So this one proved to be. Describing bombing cities from the air, shelling cathedrals and universities from railroad cars, using poison gas against defenseless troops huddled in fetid, rat-ridden trenches, strangling enemies with naval blockades, or sending women and children to the bottom of the ocean with torpedoes, Churchill said the only depths of savagery not plumbed by the rulers of  “civilized” Europeans were cannibalism and torture. And these, Churchill ruefully wrote, were not employed only because they were not found useful.

Weigel, a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, delivered the William B. Simon annual lecture in a polished style and with a thorough mastery of the literature. And there will be a Lusitania hold of new books on the Great War, as evidence of Europeans’ keen interest. They follow World War I with the same avidity and intensity that Americans show for the Civil War.

From the unresolved issues of this war, and from its most uneasy Armistice and dispiriting Paris Peace Conference, we can see the origins of Communism, Nazism, pan-Arabism, Islamism. The attempts to counter or contain these “isms” can be seen in the League of Nations and its successor body, the UN.

Zionism and the British Balfour Declaration of 1917 that promised a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine were given a great boost by the exigencies of this vast struggle. Britain needed the help of Jewish troops in the Mideast and Jewish supporters at home and in the U.S.

George Weigel is strongest where the conventional historians are weakest: He shows how the collapse of religious authority contributed to the breakdown of comity among nations, neighbors not loving, but deeply hating neighbors. He described a sorrowful scene where the College of Cardinals assembled in Rome in September 1914. A German Cardinal said to his brothers, “I hope no one will talk of war.” His Belgian counterpart shot back: “I hope no one will talk of peace.”

Neutral Belgium had been that summer overrun by the Kaiser Wilhelm II’s troops and the world was shocked by the atrocities German soldiers committed. The mercurial Kaiser  had once urged his soldiers to play the Hun, and the Hun they soon became in Western eyes. “The Rape of Belgium” was said to be the inevitable result of the Germans’ avowed policy of shrechlichheit (frightfulness).

Weigel described the previous century’s philosophies that had taken the place of religious commitment in a Europe once known as Christendom.

Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” evolutionary doctrine was translated into Social Darwinism. Germans adopted this view of nature “red in tooth and claw” as they demanded their own “place in the sun.”

Not content with colonial expansion, Germany’s Kaiser soon began to view the Japanese as a racial threat. He coined the term “the Yellow peril.” Even fellow Europeans were seen in racial terms as Slavs and Latins began to be described by pseudo science and eugenics as lower orders of humans. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche notoriously said “God is dead” and substituted for Him the “will to power” of the Super Man, or Ubermensch. A great blond beast, remorseless and irresistible, was the ideal. Again, Germany’s famous institutions of higher education promoted the idea of Weltmacht oder niedergang (a stark choice of world power or decline).

These same universities had given rise to German Higher Criticism, which immersed words of Holy Writ in an acid bath of skepticism.

So, why? We will see oceans of ink on the Who, What, Where, When, and How of the Great War. We will all go a long way to Tipperary for answers. But George Weigel firmly locates the WHY of the First World War in the 1983 Templeton Address by a Russian Nobel Prize Laureate. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn told us why this Cataclysm of Western Civilization happened. It happened because “Men have forgotten God.”

This writer was led to faith by the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

May 10th—World Freedom Day

by Robert Morrison

May 10, 2010

Left wing folks are forever proclaiming world days for this and that. World AIDS day is December 1st. Earth Day, of course, is April 22nd. Id like to propose May 10th as World Freedom Day.

Thats the day in 1940 that Hitlers panzers crashed through weak French defenses and began a powerful drive that would bring them into Paris itself in less than six weeks. The German army had bled and died for four years in World War I, unable to achieve that goal. The world was stunned by the speed and ferocity of the Wehrmachts attack in 1940.

So what has this to do with World Freedom? It so happens, in a coincidence that historian John Lukacs calls a spiritual pun, that Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of England also on May 10th. He was, in a sense, the last man standing.

Exhausted, disheartened, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was forced to resign that fiery May 10th. He had seen his hopes for appeasement go up in smoke. He had been dragged with great reluctance into declaring war against Hitler on September 3, 1939.

Chamberlain had followed that half-hearted move with months of a phony war in the West while Hitlers forces crushed the brutalized Poles. Hitler was determined to wipe out Polish resistance. His dive bombers pulverized beautiful Warsaw. The brave Poles fought fiercely, but their outmoded equipment was no match for Hitlers Luftwaffe. He had even equipped his Stuka dive bombers with sirens on their wings—to sow terror among the panicked civilians he made his special targets.

But instead of striking boldly into Germany across a weakly defended border while Hitler was busy murdering Poles, Chamberlain contented himself with dropping leaflets on Germany. Once, when a Royal Air Force bombardier failed to cut the twine that bound a bundle of leaflets, he was reprimanded. That heavy bundle might have hurt someone on the ground—in Germany.

When Chamberlain thought he might get to Norway first and head off a threatened invasion of that neutral Nordic country by Hitler, he boastfully told the House of Commons Hitler has missed the bus. Hardly a war cry. Hitler rallied and beat the British to Norway, marching almost unopposed into Oslo. Hitlers shock troops invaded—behind a German oom-pah band. Chamberlain was doomed. A clamorous debate in the House of Commons revealed that he had lost critical support in the ruling Conservative Party.

Forced into resignation, Chamberlain would have preferred handing off to his equally appeasing Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax. The King and Queen, the majority of the Conservative Party, and the entire British Establishment vastly preferred Halifax, too. But Halifax recognized that, as a Member of the House of Lords, he could not effectively direct a government whose Cabinet sat in the House of Commons. In an outdoor meeting in the garden of No. 10 Downing Street, Halifax took himself out of contention. For once, he later wrote, Winston was silent. The Prime Ministers red leather box would come to him, almost by default. Winston had been in the political wilderness for a full decade. He was now sixty-five years old. Many people in England—and America—thought his time had passed.

I felt was if I was walking with destiny, Churchill later wrote, that all my previous life had been but a preparation for this hour and trial. Soon, Churchill would preside over the Miracle of Deliverance we know as Dunkirk. There, over a week in late May, more than 340,000 British and French troops were evacuated, saved from destruction by the rampaging German army. The English Channel, normally stormy year `round, was a smooth as a mill pond. Halifax had asked for a National Day of Prayer. Churchill, still unsteady in the saddle, had to give in to him on that.

Leaving all their equipment behind them, the evacuating troops clambered aboard warships, fishing boats, ferry boats, sailboats, anything in England that could float. When they came home to Old Blighty, their island home, they refused to act whipped. They were cheered as if they had won a great victory. Behind them on the beaches of France was all their equipment.

Throughout that summer of 1940, Churchill rallied the British people with his stirring rhetoric.

Invasion seemed imminent. Then, in July, the German air force began its raids. They would come almost every night for nine months. Blitzkrieg killed 60,000 civilians in Britain in World War II.

Still, Churchill remained defiant. There would be no truck or parley with Hitler. Halifax hopes for a negotiated settlement would be quietly voted down then cast aside. In defeat, defiance, was Churchills watchword, In victory, magnanimity. It would be five long years until total victory. Churchill and Britain would survive. He would walk over the charred remnants of Hitlers bunker in occupied Berlin.

Americans that summer of 1940, separated by 3,000 miles of ocean, watched all this in wonder. Britain had seemed so weak, so decadent in the 1930s. But when the life of the nation—and the freedom of the world—was at stake, Winston Churchill spoke to the hearts of the people. As President Kennedy would later say: He marshaled the English language and sent it into battle. Today, May 10th, which deserves to be memorialized as World Freedom Day, we Americans can thank God for the life and work of Winston Churchill. He saved our freedom, too.