Commentary Magazine


Ninety Years Ago Today . . .

. . . the greatest catastrophe for Western civilization since the Black Death six hundred years earlier finally ended. In four years and three months of mindless slaughter and stalemate, over eight million soldiers died. Half the men aged 18 to 34 in France in 1914 had been killed by 1918 and many more maimed. On the single day of July 1st, 1916, the British Army suffered more casualties than it had in the entire Boer War, which had lasted three years.

But beyond the human toll and material costs of the First World War was the psychological cost, one we are still paying.

Unlike the Black Death, Western civilization had accidentally brought this disaster upon itself. It followed, therefore, that there must be something fundamentally wrong with Western civilization and with what is at the core of that civilization, the faith in personal liberty, democracy, and capitalism.

Decades of experiments in alternatives followed, from fascism to communism to British quasi-socialism. All failed, often at even greater human cost than the war that had made the experiments possible.

The Cold War diplomat George Kennan called the First World War “the seminal catastrophe of the 20th century” and we, in the early 21st century, still live in its malignant shadow. “The idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone/All centuries but this, and every country but his own” has always been with us. But in Gilbert and Sullivan’s day, he was on the margin of intellectual life and political power. The First World War made him a central player, and in many ways he still is.

Therefore, what lies today in Flanders fields (where the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row) is not just a lost generation. Also buried there is the confidence of the West in the superior ability of its central political and economic tenets to improve the lot of humankind.