Thursday, August 07, 2003

Iain J. Coleman brought up something in the comments thread for this post about the First World War.

Demosthenes, the Great War may have faded from the North American mind, but I assure you it still looms large in Europe. It's continually revisited in popular history, popular drama, and even one excellent comedy series ("Blackadder Goes Forth"). The memorials are still places of pilgrimage.

If anything, the First World War is more culturally important in Europe than the Second. Indeed, one will sometimes hear people refer to the 1914-1945 war.
This is something I had meant to mention, and didn't, and I'm grateful to Iain for reminding me. Yes, attitudes towards the two wars are different in Europe, very much so. Europe and the United States took two different lessons away from the Wars. Europe took away the lesson that nationalism (and even it's more positive counterpart, patriotism) can be suicidal and fatal, especially on a crowded supercontinent where nationalisms can push against each other like punks in a mosh pit. It had almost killed them; if one looks at the damage it did to the continent and the ease with which the Russians mopped up the remains of Central and Eastern Europe to build their network of satellite states, one could even say it had.

The United States, on the other hand, due to its popular mythology of having singlehandedly won the Second World War (and collective amnesia about the first, except for a similar belief of singlehanded victory), came away with the idea that nationalism and patriotism are not just important, but absolutely vital. When this was paired with the reality that American nationalism has always been tied to certain laudable ideas about freedom, society, business, and civil and human rights and faced with another superpower that America believed was a dire threat to all of those, "rallying 'round the flag" to an extent that most Europeans would find distasteful and dangerous only makes sense.

(In this case, the "North American" label doesn't apply. Canadians took away a much different series of lessons, and I'm honestly not well versed in the Mexican WWII experience.)

Now that the Cold War is over, and the United States is the single hegemonic power, those lessons are conflicting with one another. The Europeans see America's nationalism as mirroring their own, and constantly see a replay of the Great War in the offing. Americans, on the other hand, see WWII in whatever they do, wherever they go, and whoever they see... it always comes back to Hitler, and Stalin, and Roosevelt, and Churchill, and Chamberlain, and the so-called "Greatest Generation".

(That term always grates against my ears; even though I have deep respect for those that lived through WWII, I have just as much respect for the forgotten soldiers of WWI.)

In any case, thanks again to Iain. And to Ed Fitzgerald and his insights into how the current conflict(s) echo the opening of the Great War. Which is what I worry about, because we've become much, much better at killing people than they were.

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