As part of a class exercise the other day, my journalism professor asked us to read and discuss the Baltimore Sun’s obituary of Robert C. Klein. As I read, I learned Mr. Klein had led a very interesting life, having been present as an American G.I. at the liberation of the Landsberg concentration camp in Germany. I enjoyed Mr. Klein’s story, but I was perplexed as to why the writer of the obituary made several asides explaining certain facts about the camp and the war that had nothing to do with Mr. Klein’s life. My professor posited that perhaps the writer felt the need to talk about the history of the war because as veterans like Mr. Klein grow older and pass away, there are fewer and fewer people to carry on the memory of the conflict. He gave World War One as an example. The last veterans of the Great War died decades ago, and there aren’t many millennials who can tell you who Gavrilo Princip was or what he famously did.
But I don’t buy that. 200 hundred years from now, when there is no one left who either fought or lived through WWII, I guarantee you Hollywood will still be making movies about Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the Normandy Landings. Why? Because it’s too good of a story. The Nazis, as far as their ideology goes, were evil. They wanted to take over the world, and even though we were horribly outclassed by the German-War-Machine, America challenged their evil and won. Beautiful. Simple. You can’t spin a better tale than that. It’s like Rocky IV but with Nazis. World War One on the other hand? Well, let me give you a very brief history of the war.
World War 1 begins in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo in 1914. Arch Duke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is shot dead by 19-year-old Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. Austria-Hungary is outraged. They declare war on Serbia. Russia, ally to Serbia, declares war on Austria-Hungary in return. Germany, ally of Austria-Hungary, is forced to take up arms as well. France and Britain join in too, siding with their mutual ally, Russia. Four years later, an entire generation’s worth of corpses would be sprawled across the fields of Europe. In the Battle of Somme alone, 1.1 million French, British, and German men would die. And all of this for what? Because a fading empire refused to forgive the actions of one naïve Serbian teenager. War is always horrible, but a war without a point is the most horrible of all.
So perhaps it’s understandable why this particular war has faded into the annals of history. It’s understandable, but also unacceptable. Because of its omnipresence in American pop culture, I think a lot of people if asked, would cite World War Two as the defining moment of the 20th century. It is, after all, the war that established America and Russia as the two great super powers, leading the world into a cold war that would give us everything from the space-race to Vietnam. But World War Two is the wrong answer.
Have you ever wondered how Hitler managed to convince an entire nation to declare war on the rest of the world? Well, it’s because the desperate aren’t that hard to convince. World War One ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which ultimately blamed Germany for the war and demanded the country pay for it in monetary and territorial concessions. These forced reparations would bring Germany to the brink of economic collapse, causing untold suffering. When Hitler came along and offered to restore the country to its former glory, many German citizens were willing to throw away their consciences for such an offer.
World War Two turned the Soviet Union into one of the two preeminent super powers of the 20th century, but why did the Russian monarchy collapse to a socialist uprising in the first place? Russia, just like the other powers of Europe, had incurred heavy losses from the war. The Russian people felt the war was grossly mishandled by those in power and ultimately pointless. A prime example of that gross mishandling is the Battle of Tannenberg, where an underequipped Russian army—many Russian soldiers didn’t even have guns—was routed by German forces. The Russian casualties from the battle numbered nearly 80,000, while German casualties were only around 12,000. On top of that, German forces had captured an astounding 92,000 Russian soldiers throughout the course of the battle. In the light of spectacular military failures like this, in February 1917, Nicholas II, Czar of Russia, was deposed and replaced by a provisional government. Later that same year, The Bolshevik revolution would take place, deposing that provisional government and establishing Soviet Russia in earnest.
So without World War One, there is no World War 2. Without World War One, there is no Soviet Union. Without World War One there is no cold war, which means there is no Berlin Wall, no Korean War, no Vietnam War, no Cuban Missile Crisis, and no space-race. The last century of human history has been shaped by this conflict, and yet it’s often depicted as some kind of forgettable prologue to the Second World War.
This is where I get on my knees and beg. I beg people to not let this war become a footnote in history. Obviously, I beg because this is the defining moment of the 20th century, and as the old adage goes, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” But do you want to know the real reason I’m begging, the real reason I took the time to write all of this? It’s because I’ll be damned if all the young soldiers who died during the course of those grisly four years are forgotten. This war laid the foundation for our modern society. Millions died so that the world we live in now could exist, and I refuse to let people treat those lives as if they meant nothing at all. There are no veterans left to carry on the memory of World War One, so I humbly ask that whoever reads this, carries it on for them. I understand how incredibly trite such a request must sounds, but if sounding cheesy is the price I have to pay to fight apathy, I’ll pay it gladly.