World War I dealt Europe a huge body blow. It wasn’t just that it was a war, or even that it was a major war. After all, Europeans had been fighting wars with each other since before Europe was Europe, and many of them were very large wars, indeed (the Napoleonic conflicts, for example).
What made World War I so extraordinary was its unexpectedly destructive nature and its apparent lack of purpose. World War I was an incredibly ferocious conflict, destroying the flower of European manhood, thanks to technological advances made during the Industrial Revolution. In addition, the war seemed to have no compelling rationale. Even today no one is quite sure why the war started or what was gained by it. This combination – horrifying destruction wreaked on the Continent to no purpose – riveted the attention of Europeans.
World War I may have dealt a large blow to Europe, but it didn’t destroy European civilization. Indeed, immediately after the war, Europe turned to the task of preventing the next one. Internationalist organizations like the League of Nations were organized and the Kellogg–Briand Pact was devised to outlaw war as a means of resolving international disputes. Major signatories included Germany, France, the UK and the US.(1)
Over the next twenty years Western Europe continued to be viewed as the headwaters of Western Civilization. See, e.g., Hemingway’s A Movable Feast, which describes the allure of Europe – and especially Paris – to American writers, poets, artists and so on. Just in that one book a great many of these creative folks are mentioned, including Ezra Pound, Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis, and Gertrude Stein.
But then along came World War II, and it’s only a slight exaggeration to claim that that conflict destroyed European Civilization as it had been understood since the Renaissance. The war had such a devastating impact for a host of reasons, but we’ll mention just four of them here.
First was the mere fact that it happened at all. The best minds of Europe had devoted themselves to preventing another destructive war and they had failed miserably. Within two short decades after the end of World War I, World War II had started.
Second, World War II was even-more destructive than World War I had been – technology had continued to advance apace. In the first war, about 17 million people died, including more than 6 million civilians. But in the second war the total casualties were an unimaginable 60 million people,(3) roughly 3% of the world’s population.
Third, the Second World War seemed to have been fought in a very large moral vacuum. Many atrocities were attributed to German forces during the war, but the Allies were hardly blameless. Indeed, if the Allies had lost the war a great many US and British heroes would likely have been hanged as war criminals. Consider the forced repatriation of Soviet citizens who had cooperated with the Axis powers, the night bombings of German cities, the firebombing of Dresden. Or consider that the most destructive weapon of war ever devised, the atomic bomb, was not merely devised, but actually used, twice.(2)
But on top of all this, of course, the very worst aspect of the war was an event that had nothing directly to do with the conflict itself: the Holocaust. World War II was a savage event that would have rocked Europe no matter what, especially coming so hard on the heels of the First World War. But the Holocaust caused Europeans to question everything their forebears had held dear. And while it was true that the murder of Jews was instigated by the Nazis, much of Eastern and Western Europe was either an enthusiastic participant in the killings or acted as compliant handmaidens.
If you grew up in Europe before World War II you read Dante and Shakespeare and Goethe, you listened to Beethoven and Vivaldi and Debussy, you puzzled over Kant and Rousseau and Kierkegaard. To you, that was European culture at its finest. But if you came to adulthood after the war, as every important leader in Europe today did, what you learned about was the Holocaust.
What good, you learned, was even the most brilliant civilization if, in the end, it led to the camps? “Ethnic cleansing” was hardly unknown, of course, but it was supposed to happen to faceless kulaks in Ukraine, to faceless peasants in China, to faceless tribes in Africa. It was most definitely not supposed to happen to middle class Europeans who happened to be Jewish. And it was most certainly not supposed to be orchestrated by the parents of today’s postwar Europeans.
A shocked and chastened Europe withdrew into an emotional and intellectual shell, narrowing its field of vision to middlebrow endeavors. There would be no more plumbing of the depths of human experience, because we now knew where that led. The mind of Europe, for centuries the most powerful in the world, shrunk to fit, on the formerly massive emotional and intellectual continuum, roughly between indignation and pity. On a scale of 1 to 100, it ranged all the way from 48 to 52.
And this would have startling consequences for a part of the world that, right up until World War II, had driven and dominated the intellectual and artistic life of the species. Jean Raspail’s question, “Is this civilization worth defending?” would become so difficult to answer that, like so many other crucial questions, it couldn’t even be asked.
(1) The Pact was named for US Secretary of State Frank Kellogg and French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand. In addition to the major signatories listed above, the Pact was adopted by Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, India (still British at the time), the Irish Free State, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, and South Africa.
(2) Technically, these terrible bombings, targeting civilian as well as military targets, couldn’t be considered war crimes because there was no specific international law governing aerial warfare at the time. Thus, for example, no Germans were prosecuted at Nuremburg for the London Blitz.
(3) Counting war deaths is a highly uncertain enterprise. Here, however, are some rough estimates for selected countries:
Soviet Union – 10 million
Germany – 6 million
China – 3 million
Japan – 2.5 million
US – Over 400,000
UK – Just under 400,000
Italy – 300,000
France – 200,000
Next up: The Camp of the Saints, Part 4
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