The Cemetery After a Century: Thoughts on WWI
Ultima ratio regum, or, the ultimate argument of kings, isn’t nearly so final a phenomenon as the phrase might imply. Rather than an end, it’s more often a troubled start. That “final argument”, so inscribed on the cannon of Louis XV (who was, as Bourbon king of France, equal parts profligate and militant), tends to be an inauguration of pain and an entrée to grief. That’s because that argument—the one to which so many monarchs resort as an ostensible last choice—is none other than war. And while war indeed might be the argument to end all arguments amongst kings, it remains an uninvited plague that visits the people below. It’s the everyday person upon whose quiet life the crown’s weighty shadow falls. Far from it being something final, war becomes for all people a morbid list of beginnings: a beginning of rivalries, of hostilities, of atrocities, and finally of histories yet to be told.
Such telling is required of the First World War, and yet so seldom is it heard. This, I’ve concluded, is not the poor historian’s fault; blaming her would be to dodge our responsibility as learners. Instead, we pass the onus around a circle of the voluntarily ignorant, as if it were a hot potato falling in our lap. The twentieth century’s inaugural world war isn’t easily understood and our current appetite for seizing upon its complexity is absent, to say the least. The wise and learned professor can combat the impediment raised by the former, as is her job. But no physician can remedy the disease of the latter.
We Americans are insatiable, but in other, less nutritious regards. The silent contemplation of the past, which ought to be fulfilling, doesn’t quiet our stomachs. So too are we distractible, and we prefer grand concepts administered in small, tasty, preferably pictorial or computerized bites and we won’t suffer to wait. The problem is, these morsels can’t sustain us. World War I doesn’t lend itself to such hasty nibbling and spitting out and moving on. A war spanning four years, it must be approached as if an eight-course meal.
But even if it’s ingested slowly and with the most minute attention paid to every breath of flavor that flies off the page, many of its aromas risk escaping. And, as they flee, so too does our fullest grasp of this war.
On this centennial marking the end of World War I, you’ll read many authors who claim to be uniquely possessed of that grasp. All the better for them and, should we exhibit the requisite patience to lend their words our time, for us as auditors as well. My grip on the subject, I’ll admit, isn’t nearly so strong. You’ll not hear a declaration of erudition uttered by me on this somber and hopefully unforgettable day. But still, I think my comprehension of the War can be useful in a small, albeit exceedingly humble way.
Beside the phrase with which this article began, I think of World War I in the following manner: it was an event, obviously international in scope (and perhaps for that reason, foreign to us today), whose etiology remains ambiguous and whose aftermath appears manifestly noxious. Search though we may, we who enmesh ourselves in the nets of history can’t find a unifying answer as to exactly why this war began. On that same note, we immediately perceive and agree upon the destructiveness of its end. We’re equivocal in regard to its build-up and eventual outbreak, yet we’re quite assured of what its results portended.
Every educated person the world over knows the wrenching story of Franz Ferdinand and his beloved wife Sophia’s shared fate. Smitten by the “Black Hand” (due to the mischance of a wrong turn), the couple was assassinated by a teenager with a reliable pistol and a considerable gripe. Gavrilo Princip, a rambunctious and ultimately murderous Serbian youth, aimed at the wayward sedan as it plodded into sight. Having deviated from its cavalcade onto an unfamiliar street, the pair hadn’t a chance. Fish aren’t so easily shot in barrels, and in an instant, with nothing to notify the world but a few bangs and a flash, the heirs to the Habsburg dynasty lay in waste.
This, as it turned out, would prove to be the very “damned foolish thing in the Balkans” that years earlier had kept awake Otto von Bismarck at night. Having died before the century’s turn, the burly German statesman didn’t live long enough to see his prophecy come to life. Pity, as he would’ve relished the fight. That said, though, his wasn’t an entirely unique premonition; most political leaders who had their ears fixed to the cobblestone knew and felt and heard the rumblings of empires in decline. He simply captured the feeling in the most memorable way. The region was a tinderbox, and Princip’s shot was the lighted match. The whole continent was soon to be engulfed in flame.
Even after the assassination, gruesome though it was, four years of worse slaughter might’ve been avoided. An ultimatum was issued, but declined. Probably, Austria-Hungary never really craved peace. Alliances then began to stiffen their spines. Now was the time to prove their worth by the sword rather than the word. Even still, at the eleventh hour before the August rush, they might’ve reconciled their differences and laid down their arms.
It wasn’t to be so. Russia mobilized her troops and the Germans did the same. Rations were doled out, war bonds saturated the market, boys were recruited or taken from their farms, mothers were assuaged they’d be home soon, and four empires—which required centuries to build and four years to destroy—signed their death certificates. This, you see, was the last of the final arguments of the kings—the ultimate ultima ratio regum. After this argument, addressed but not quite answered by the world’s first Great War, the monarchies as we’d known them fell. The Habsburg of Austria-Hungary, the Hohenzollern of Prussia and now Germany, the Ottoman of Turkey, and the Romanov of mother Russia—all toppled at war’s end. This was, in effect, the kings’ last word.