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A century after the Armistice

The Great War destroyed Western confidence in traditional authorities and bred a deep skepticism of, and even contempt for, “the great and the good”.

Men of US 64th Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, celebrate the news of the Armistice, November 11, 1918. [Wikipedia.com]

I’m just old enough to remember when my elders still called November 11 “Armistice Day:” the armistice in question that which stopped the shooting in the Great War. As a military matter, World War I may have ended a century ago, on November 11, 1918, allowing my Grandfather Weigel and millions of other doughboys to be demobilized. The devastating cultural effects of the Great War are still being felt today, though.

Different nationalities remember World War I differently. Nostalgics mourn the fall the Romanov, Hohenzollern, and Hapsburg empires; Poles remember those as the imperial crack-ups that permitted them to regain independent statehood. France is, in some respects, still paralyzed by the memory of the Great War. (Look online at images of the inside of the Douaumont Ossuary near Verdun to understand why.) Canadians wear red poppies in their lapels to honor the dead at Vimy Ridge and elsewhere. Australians remember Gallipoli as the crucible in which their nation was formed. Satisfaction in the U.K. over a hard-won victory is severely tempered by the knowledge that virtually an entire generation of future British leaders was killed between 1914 and 1918.

No one has ever assayed the primary cause and long-term effects of the Great War better than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did in his 1983 Templeton Prize Lecture, “Men Have Forgotten God.” There, he argued that the 1914-18 war was the result of a collapse of moral imagination rooted in a practical atheism:

“The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century. The first of these was World War I, and much of our present predicament can be traced back to it. That war…took place when Europe, bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation that could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever. The only possible explanation for this war is a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power over them.”

In a 2014 essay, “The Great War Revisited: Why It Began, Why It Continued, and What That Means for Today” (reprinted in my book, The Fragility of Order), I surveyed the extensive literature on why World War I started, then asked an even more urgent question: Why did it continue, after it was clear that there would be no quick victory for anyone, only more industrial-strength slaughter? I ended that reflection on a note similar to Solzhenitsyn’s: there is no explaining this act of civilizational self-destruction absent a reckoning with the demise of biblical religion in the West. By 1914, Western high culture had come to think that it could organize the world without God: which was, in a sense, true. But what the Great War should have taught the West was that, without the God of the Bible, the only way the peoples of the West could organize things was against each other — and in the most sanguinary terms.

Three enduring impacts of World War I are worth flagging on this centenary.

The Great War destroyed Western confidence in traditional authorities and bred a deep skepticism of, and even contempt for, “the great and the good” that remains a factor in our public life.

The Great War eviscerated traditional cultural norms and boundaries, accelerated the development of the avant-garde, and stripped art in the West of its moral ballast; “art” became, in the main, a vehicle for expressing subjective feelings and passions, rather than an exploration of truths.

The Great War also deepened and intensified the secularization of the West, as one religious leader after another joined the parade of homicidal nationalists, jingoes, and social Darwinists whose bombastic appeals to base (and often racist) emotions helped preclude a negotiated settlement before the collapse of Romanov Russia and the exhaustion of imperial Germany made the Armistice inevitable.

One notable exception to this massive default in religious leadership was Pope Benedict XV, the most understudied and underrated pontiff of the 20th century. Had he been listened to by the great powers of the day, things might have been different. But Benedict was dismissed as an irrelevance, the carnage continued, and the question posed by Solzhenitsyn 35 years ago — Did World War I terminally sap the strength of Europe? — remains an open one today.


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About George Weigel 192 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). Mr. Weigel received a B.A. from St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore and an M.A. from the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto. He is the recipient of eighteen honorary doctorates in fields including divinity, philosophy, law, and social science.

5 Comments

  1. I do so wish that Mr. Weigel had mentioned that Pope Benedict XV had a collaborator, Blessed Emperor Karl I of Austria-Hungary. He was diligently searching for a way out of the war that he inherited from his great-uncle, Franz Joseph, from the moment that Bl. Karl acceded to the throne in 1916. Unfortunately, President Woodrow Wilson and his co-conspirators decided that all emperors must go, and that is what happened. It was a sad and crucial error.

  2. “By 1914, Western high culture had come to think that it could organize the world without God: which was, in a sense, true.”

    Not so. No one can do anything without the express or permissive will of God. Pere Lamy, the great French mystic, said that the Great War (I.e. WWI) was a punishment from God for putting the Catholic Faith on the same level as non-Catholic religions (I.e. indifferentism, which is a mortal sin against the theological virtue of Faith) and sins against the first three Commandments, in particular buying & selling on Sunday. He also said that keeping Sunday holy is what will save England during the next war (I.e. WWII).

    Most of all, God Himself and Our Lady were ignored. On June 13, 1929, in the Presence of the Most Holy Trinity, Our Lady said to Sister Lucia:

    “The moment has come in which God asks the Holy Father to order and make in union with all the bishops of the world the consecration of Russia to My Immaculate Heart, promising to save it by this means.” She later told +Sister Lucia that unless this was done, Russia would not be able to convert, nor would the world have peace.

    NO pope has done it *exactly* as God wanted. And until it’s done His way, there won’t be peace.

    How long, O Lord, how long? (Psalms)

  3. “This is analytic, not prescriptive,” Weigel says of the material in The Fragility of Order. “If you want to know how to fix this mess, you have to go somewhere else.”

    “To whom do we go”, when the members of the hierarchy, have elected a schismatic, who prior to his election, condoned certain same sex sexual relationships that he defined as private, did not include children, and are not called marriage, and thus denied The Sanctity of the marital act within The Sacrament of Holy Marriage?

    All your life’s work has been for the sake of Holy Mother Church, do you not see how this self destruction you refer to, has infiltrated Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church as evident by the fact that a man has been elected pope, who prior to his election, was not in communion with Holy Mother Church?

    “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity of The Holy Ghost.

    Every Faithful Catholic knows, one cannot remain in communion with Christ and His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, if you deny Christ’s teaching on sexual morality.

    God Wills that we choose Holiness, but Love is a Gift given freely from the heart. Evil exists because we choose to deny Love.
    God’s Will Is Perfect Love.

  4. When you deny The Unity of The Holy Ghost (Filioque), you deny that there Is Only One Way, One Truth, One Light (Life) of Love, Our Only Savior, Jesus The Christ, and eventually, you will end up creating a god in your own image.
    Our Lady of Fatima, Destroyer of all heresy, who through your Fiat, affirmed The Unity of The Holy Ghost, Pray for Holy Mother Church.

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