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Heed the lessons of the first World War

This month, Americans observed the hundredth anniversary of the armistice formally ending hostilities in the Great War — or World War One, as it later came to be known. For many of us, the world of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires seems to hold almost no relevance to our own.
Yet even if the bygone age feels inaccessible and uninformative, the simplest facts about life a century ago ought to dramatically influence our attitudes today. The wholesale slaughter and chaos of 1918 did shape our world. But even in excess of that impact, World War One imparts broader lessons than the perils of ideology or technology: things have been worse than they are today; things could always be worse; and things will surely be worse, at least for a time, in the future.
A hundred years ago, Americans faced familiar domestic and international crises on a scale that dwarfs our own.
At home, political extremism was reaching a fever pitch on all sides. Four-time Socialist candidate for President Eugene Debs was jailed for sedition by his former competitor President Woodrow Wilson. As Wilson whipped the country into support for war with Germany, a wave of loyalty laws and a volunteer army of Americans who combed through neighbors’ homes and mail in search of traitors.
And abroad, the ideological territory was growing even more hostile. Off the eastern seaboard, the militarized Reich began a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare — threatening American lives and the American economy — that contributed to mutiny among the armed forces in the closing phase of the war. Communism fueled those insurrections against the government in Berlin, a sobering irony for a regime that had so recently shipped Vladimir Lenin into the Russian Empire to overthrow the royals in Moscow. These conflicts spurred the rise of fascism and Nazism, crippling the West’s efforts to impose a global peace in the 1920s.
In fact, the nominally victorious Western allies struggled even to maintain order in the aftermath of the War. An influenza pandemic killed even more worldwide than the military conflict itself, which continued well past Armistice Day. From the Russian Civil War, which also dragged in the Western allies, to Turkey’s brutal fight with Greece and genocide of the Armenians, much of Europe experienced only disaster and ruin between the armistice and the arrival of the continent’s new and even more dangerous despots.
Amid these punishing forces, international institutions faltered and failed. Congress rebuked Wilson by Related Articles





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rejecting US participation in the Treaty of Versailles. The League of Nations, which survived, swiftly proved itself toothless. The crushing reparations imposed on Germany, also seen as an enlightened act of justice, merely instilled a consuming sense of enmity and revenge. Even the manufacture of chemical weapons, which were banned after their horrific use during the War, persisted in contravention of international law right up to the present day.
All these traumas unfolded over less than a decade. In their wake, they had a shattering effect on the traditional institutions — religious, political, and cultural — that had upheld the Western world. So the next time war came, the consequences were even more punishing.
It’s hard not to think that, today, our response to the calamities of a century ago would be an even deeper breakdown. Remembering World War One, however distant, can help us maintain the perspective we need to avoid that fate.

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