by Ryan Haecker
“From all sides, wounded men were making tracks towards it from the shelled woods. The trench was appalling, chocked with seriously wounded and dying men...This was the home of the great god Pain, and for the first time I looked through a devilish chink into the depths of his realm. And fresh shells came down all the time.” - Ernst Jünger, “Storm of Steel” (1920)
The Great War, which lasted from the mobilization of muscovite arms in the year 1914 until the abdication of the Kaiser Wilhelm II in the year 1918 was the last and greatest of the European great power conflicts which had, since the treaty of Westphalia 270 years prior, periodically ravaged the European continent. The Great War burst forth on a heretofore unimaginable scale in which upwards of 70 million Europeans were mobilized and 40 million lost their lives. Despite the irretrievable multitudes who perished in this war, the greatest casualty of all was European civilization. The integrated tradition of dynasty, nobility, and caste which conservative vigilance had diligently preserved from revolutionary republicanism would be brought crashing down with the conclusion of the War.
Never again would the youth of Europe be so aptly spent to safeguard the majestic dignity of ancient dynasties. The heraldic banners of the Romanovs, the Hapsburgs, the Osmans, and the Hohenzollerns would never again fly proudly upon the battlefield. Neither would the privileged pride a hereditary nobility inspire the populace to martial feats to equal their illustrious forbears. The old order of princes and nobility which martial valor had violently hewn from the plebeian forests of antiquity would meet their fiery end in the holocaust of industrial warfare. Republics were born which would replace the anointed sovereigns of Europe with democratically elected officials. Statecraft would henceforth be shaped not by the honorable aspirations of a hereditary gentry and a pious clergy but by the guiding hand of the bourgeois capitalists and the vulgar workers. In an age when rifelry and cannonry had replaced chivalry on the battlefield, merit and lineage would be forgotten as the vote was extended to all persons.
How are we, the inheritors of this irredeemable tragedy, to find meaning in the immeasurable suffering of the Great War? If this calamitous suicide of Europe was inevitable, was it also bereft of meaning? Or might there be some immortal value for which the heirs of Leibniz and Descartes soiled their hands in Christian blood. If the Great War is to have any meaning, any cause for which so ghastly a sacrifice might be held as fair compensation, it must lie in the preservation of the hallowed traditions of Western Civilization which restrained action and prudent council had over one thousand year been wrought. These traditions, enshrined in both religious dogma and the socio-political structures of Old Regime Europe, preserved undiminished the sturdy vigor and cultivated character of a more virile agrarian past.
The integrated traditions of Old Europe had grown into the full of their majestic splendor in a past which was uncorrupted by the pollution of industrialism or the demands capitalism. These traditions had been wrought in a prior age, before workers were uprooted from their family farms and the aristocracy had been reduced to an effete and complacent bourgeois. The long struggle of agrarian peoples to find harmony and salvation in a pitiless world would be abruptly interrupted by the technological innovations of steam, steel, and rail. The ruinous plundering of the natural world would foreshadow the forthcoming devastation of the old societal order. For the sake of military preparedness, Hapsburg and Romanov princes, ignorant of their doom, would eagerly cultivate the very instruments of their demise. For a landed aristocracy could not hope to survive the proliferation of the printing press, the factory, and the rifle.
What hope remained for the old order was to be found in the authoritarian military tradition of Sacred Germany. In her lands alone had the vulgar demands of industrialism and capitalism been faithfully reconciled with the dignified requirements of an aristocratic gentry. The heirs of the Holy Roman Empire had found in industrial production a fitting outlet for their creativity, industriousness, and discipline. The military elan of the Teutonic Knights was still retained undiminished in the martial tradition of the Kaiser's armies. The lean successors of Bismark were the envy and terror of a continent which had grown fat on the surpluses of empire and industry.
Arrayed against this power were the Revolutionary Republics of America and France as well the maritime leviathan of British Empire. Both America and France had rejected as false the integrated traditions of European civilization in their respected revolutions, and what tradition was retained in England had been corroded by the acidic conditions of the first industrial revolution. Against the full weight of these combined powers, even Germany's militant spirit could not prevail. And in the year 1918, the Kaiser's navies mutinied, his armies surrendered and his people revolted. In fear the Kaiser fled to Denmark while an iconoclastic republic was proclaimed at home, forever abolishing the hallowed heritage of kingship and nobility. The fighting spirit of the German people had been in this war spent for the foreseeable future, and none would suspect the looming danger which would soon befall the next generation.
The story of the Great War is doubly a tragedy, both for the irreplaceable lives spent and hallowed traditions marred. Tens of millions had died in the war and tens of millions more would perish in the successive wars, revolutions, and mass starvations which would follow. Military necessity required that the gentlemanly manners and innocent optimism of Victorian society be traded for calculated endurance when faced with the grim realities of attrition warfare. Philosophical nihilism, economic collapse and social unrest would erupt from the festering wounds of this great conflict, shaping the remainder of the bleak 20th century. By 1920, the suicide of Europe and the end of an age were complete.