Thursday, January 26, 2012

Watching Downton Abbey

Like many of you, I’m sure, Joan and I have been watching Downton Abbey, the latest BBC “Upstairs, Downstairs”-style melodrama set among incredibly wealthy (and even more incredibly overdressed) Brits who are in many ways (although clearly not in all) closer to their servants than to each other. But it’s not the whole dressing-for-dinner thing I want to write about here—although it would be interesting in its own right, and not especially flattering to ourselves, to compare these people’s dining habits with our own—but the backdrop to the entire story to date, which is the First World War. At first, the war is safely distant from Downton Abbey: it is being fought “over there,” wherever “there” is at any given moment. Mostly, the fighting is in France. And it’s the kind of thing the lower classes support by putting their sons’ lives on the line, while the upper classes hold endless charity balls to support “our boys.” (No one seems ever to notice that “our” boys aren’t their boys at all for the great most part, but their servants’ sons and their less-well-off neighbors'.) But then, as the years pass, the upper classes do become involved in the real way that people become involved in war, and a good deal of the drama in this second season involves the tension that inevitably evolves from the realization that the rigid class system Britain has self-servingly set aside to allow young men of all classes and backgrounds to die side by side in the trenches is not easily going to snap back into place at the cessation of hostilities, that something permanent has changed in British society. And, of course, it is equally obvious that no one is entirely sure what that change will bring in its wake or whether that kind of massive shift in societal norms will turn out to be a golden opportunity for a nation to advance forward into a new future or a Pandora’s box that only looks like a treasure chest before anyone figures out how actually to open it.

Ken Follett’s latest book, Fall of Giants, is built around the same set of themes and also has the First World War as its background. I’ve read all of Follett’s books, I believe, and I look forward to the next installment in the trilogy of which Fall of Giants is only the first volume. But that single notion that animates both Downton Abbey and Follett’s book—that the First World War was one of those watershed events in history that altered society so completely that what followed was in many ways a complete break with what came before—is what interests me in both works. I recommend Follett’s book to you all. It’s clever, engaging…and, even at a cool thousand pages, a brisk read. I’m not sure when the second book will be out, but I’ll read it as soon as it appears and tell you all what I think.

The First World War, the backdrop for both works, is in many ways the forgotten war of our time. Both my parents were born while it was raging, yet in our home—as, I’m almost certain, in yours as well—“the” war without any further qualification meant the Second World War, not the First. In some weird way, the angel of death passed over my family in this regard: my father was an infant when the U.S. entered the war in 1917 and my grandfathers were in their thirties, so no one was called up and none of my relatives was among the 116,708 Americans who died during the conflict. But that’s only my own personal story…and the numbers themselves are shocking even by the standards of the Second World War.

Consider, for example, that on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, Britain lost almost 60,000 men. That’s more soldiers than America lost in the entire Vietnam conflict. This is not a number to pass quickly by: imagine, if you can, that the entire Vietnam War took place on a single day—except that even more soldiers died—and then, when it was all over, the sun set, then rose the following morning, and the battle simply recommenced. By the time it was all over, there were over 627,000 dead on the side of the Allies. The Germans and their allies lost about 456,000, but not the one that might have made all the difference: the young Adolf Hitler, serving with the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division, survived the battle after being shot in the leg. Together, that makes well over a million casualties. What’s stunning about the Battle of the Somme, though, is not only the almost unimaginable carnage, the uncountable dead. What’s amazing is that after months and months of fighting—the battle began on July 1 and ended in mid-November—the entire result gained by all that horrific loss of life was that the German line was pushed back about forty miles towards the east. It doesn’t sound like much. It isn’t much. Obviously, the men fighting the battle could not have known that, when it was all over, nothing at all would have been accomplished that even the most sympathetic military historian could possibly consider to have been worth the loss of life. There were endless acts of bravery, of selfless sacrifice. But it should be possible for people like ourselves looking back almost a century later to honor the sacrifice of the dead without losing sight of the fact that it was, in the end, a draw. No one won anything too much. Some strategic shifts were recorded. The Battle of the Somme was the first battle in which tanks played a major role; the tank itself was regarded by the British as a secret weapon that it was hoped (apparently incorrectly) would prove decisive in overrunning the enemy’s trenches. But in the end…it came down to a retreat for the Germans of about forty miles and a concomitant advance for the Allies of about seven miles, a distance once famously set against the number of people who died at the Somme to yield the conclusion that every single centimeter of advance cost the lives of two young soldiers.

But what is true of the Somme is true of the First World War itself. The losses were staggering. On the Allies’ side, about 5,525,000 people were killed and almost 13,000,000 wounded. On the side of the Central Powers, there were over four million dead and well over eight million wounded. The number to consider, though, is this: on both sides, when the guns of August finally fell silent, the total number of people killed, wounded, or missing in action came to about 38,880,500. It’s a staggering number. And what did those people die for? That, actually, is the real question I would like to put forward.

I can remember sitting in Mrs. Gore’s American History class in eleventh grade in Forest Hills High School and, as I listened to her teach about the First World War, thinking even then that I had no idea what she was talking about, that she kept falling back on explaining how the war got started—the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in June of 1914 was the trigger, as we all learned somewhere along the way—without explaining how exactly someone shooting someone else could possibly have led to the deaths of almost ten million people. Worried about the Regents Exam in American History I would have to take in June (I was that kind of student), I duly memorized all the alliances and intricate treaties that brought nation after nation into the conflict. Barbara Tuchman’s great book, The Guns of August, had just been published a few years earlier—I started eleventh grade in 1968—and I remember reading it with great interest and still being unable to understand what the whole thing was about. One of the young men depicted in Downton Abbey as going off to war says that he’s willing to put his life on the line because he truly believes in the cause, by which he presumably means that he believes in it enough to risk his life in its service. But what exactly was the cause? He didn’t say. And that’s the question I’ve never been able to answer for myself with any degree of satisfaction.

As far as I can see, the war ended and everybody went home. There was no invasion of Germany. The survivors picked up their lives. France went back to being a country, not the world’s battlefield. The Kaiser was deposed and Germany became a republic. In the end, though, I think it could be reasonably said that this massive paroxysm of inexplicable violence that cost millions upon millions of people their lives led to some political changes in some of the participating countries, to some social changes in others, and to almost nothing meaningful in still other participating countries (like our own, for example). Yet the bitter legacy of defeat in Germany led to the rise of Nazism, which eventually plunged the world into an even more violent war, one that cost the lives of over 24,000,000 soldiers and another fifty million civilians. The numbers are beyond staggering. If there hadn’t been a First World War, would there have been a Second? That’s the question to ponder—and I say that both as an American and also as a Jew who has not known a single day since adolescence not at least partially devoted to contemplating the legacy of the Shoah. One could certainly make a convincing case that the Germans would never have embraced Nazism had their economy not been on the verge of collapse, a disaster that was a direct result of their defeat in the Great War. Is it pointless to ponder these questions now? It isn’t if such ruminative thought inspires us to consider how impossible it is to know the consequences of our actions—and I’m thinking here principally on the national level—in advance. Could Woodrow Wilson sailing to Europe to attend the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 (for which effort he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize) have imagined Treblinka in his worst nightmares? I feel certain that he could not have even begun to imagine the horror that the world would experience within a few short decades. Nor, therefore, could he have imagined the consequences of being party to a treaty that insisted that Germany alone was to blame for the war, a contention that a historian like Wilson should certainly have understood was only slightly true, or that the ultimate price of paying for the incalculable devastation should never have been Germany’s alone.

In the end, no one can see the future. But as we move forward as a nation, we should have the lesson of the First World War always in our hearts. Fought for no reason anyone has ever been able to identify clearly to me, it led, circuitously but eventually, to horrors that would have previously been considered unimaginable. Actions have consequences. We just can’t ever quite know them in advance. That thought need not paralyze us, however. Instead, it should instill in us a deep obligation to consider our actions as carefully as possible before going off on adventures that could conceivably lead us to places we haven’t even thought yet of going or having to go.

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