Veterans’ Day, November 11, 2018, passed with appropriate ceremony and commemoration: it was one hundred years ago, at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, that an armistice effectively ending World War I went into effect in the battle-scarred French countryside. Anyone who has had the opportunity to view the classic film, “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), starring Lew Ayres, based on a classic novel by German World War I veteran Erich Maria Remarque, will begin—but only begin—to fathom the barbarity of that conflict, the suffering, the slaughter, the mangled bodies, a whole generation of young Englishmen and Frenchmen, forcibly wrenched out their societies, lives extinguished. And in Germany: a nation and an historic and noble culture, with millions dead and maimed, held up as guilty of the ineradicable sin of “war guilt.”
But Austria-Hungary and Russia suffered even more severely. Austria, once one of Europe’s great empires and the center of much of Western culture, the land of Beethoven and Mozart, was literally castrated, huge swathes of its historic fatherland sliced away arbitrarily and turned overnight into quarrelsome petty states, none of which was satisfied with the treaties and boundaries that followed the Armistice: a powder keg for future war. The ancient and revered Habsburg dynasty, the inheritor of the old Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne, was summarily dispossessed, and Austria was left as a small rump state. As English Lord Curzon described it: “A major European capital [Vienna] ruling over a minor state, like Constantinople in the latter days of the Byzantine Empire.”
And the effects on and in Russia were even more incalculable. The world’s largest country, the seat of the 300 year old Romanov dynasty, the land of Peter the Great, of Dostoyevsky, of Tchaikovsky, of Tolstoy, the shield and buckler against the Mongols and the Tartar hordes, in eight short months fell to a fanatical clique, a monstrous cabal of violent Marxists intent of remaking that country, subjugating the Russian Orthodox Church, and spreading the Communist virus across Europe and the world. The vicious and criminal execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family at Yekaterinburg (July 17, 1918) and of the sainted Grand Duchess Elizabeth and several other Romanovs (July 18, 1918) in Alapayevsk brought home in chilling detail the unparalleled brutality that the war had unleashed. Elizabeth, who years prior to war had become a nun and who had engaged in numerous charitable activities for the poor (and later for Russian soldiers), was taken and, with her companions, cast down a dank and deep mine shaft.
The description of her martyrdom deserves to be told and repeated, for how many of us could meet impending death as she did? Here, in part, is how Wikipedia describes it:
That night the prisoners were awakened and driven in carts on a road leading to the village of Siniachikha, near Alapayevsk where there was an abandoned iron mine with a pit 66 feet deep. Here they halted. The Cheka severely beat all the prisoners before throwing their victims into this pit, Elisabeth being the first. Hand grenades were then hurled down the shaft, but only one victim, Fyodor Remez, died as a result of the grenades.
According to the personal account of Vasily Ryabov, one of the killers, Elisabeth and the others survived the initial fall into the mine, prompting Ryabov to toss in another grenade after them. Following the explosion, he claimed to have heard Elisabeth and the others singing an Orthodox hymn from the bottom of the shaft. Unnerved, Ryabov threw down a second grenade, but the singing continued. Finally a large quantity of brushwood was shoved into the opening and set alight, upon which Ryabov posted a guard over the site and departed [for fear that local peasants would come to save them].
Early on 18 July 1918, the leader of the Alapayevsk Cheka, Abramov, and the head of the Yekaterinburg Regional Soviet, Beloborodov, who had been involved in the execution of the Imperial Family, exchanged a number of telegrams in a pre-arranged plan saying that the school had been attacked by an “unidentified gang”. Lenin welcomed Elisabeth’s death, remarking that “virtue with the crown on it is a greater enemy to the world revolution than a hundred tyrant tsars.”
It is no wonder that the Russian Orthodox Church has canonized Elizabeth as a “New Martyr” who gave her life unselfishly for the Christian faith (and indeed, more recently Tsar Nicholas and his family have been sainted as martyrs as well).
After the conclusion of World War I various historians began to examine and sift through the records, the correspondence, and the documents regarding the war and its origins. And what became evident, if contested, was that perhaps unlike World War II, the First World War was a conflict that did not have to happen, indeed, it should not have happened. And that both the French and English foreign offices had just as much blame for its initiation as the Germans or Austrians, perhaps even more.
More recently, historians such as Bard College professor Sean McMeekin (in July 1914: Countdown to War, Basic Books, 2013) and Cambridge University’s Christopher Clark (in The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914; Harper, 2013) have overwhelmingly confirmed that earlier, if once hotly debated revisionist view. In the words of reviewer Eric Margolis:
`The Sleepwalkers’ shows how officials and politicians in Britain and France conspired to transform Serbia’s murder of Austro-Hungary’s Crown Prince into a continent-wide conflict. France burned for revenge for its defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War and loss of Alsace-Lorraine. Britain feared German commercial and naval competition. At the time, the British Empire controlled one quarter of the world’s surface. Italy longed to conquer Austria-Hungary’s South Tyrol. Turkey feared Russia’s desire for the Straits. Austria-Hungary feared Russian expansion.
Prof Clark clearly shows how the French and British maneuvered poorly-led Germany into the war. The Germans were petrified of being crushed between two hostile powers, France and Russia. The longer the Germans waited, the more the military odds turned against them….Britain kept stirring the pot, determined to defeat commercial and colonial rival, Germany. The rush to war became a gigantic clockwork that no one could stop. [Eric Margolis, “Are We Headed for Another Tragedy Like World War I?”, November 10, 2018, at: https://ericmargolis.com/2018/11/we-are-heading-for-another-tragedy-like-world-war-i/ ]
Back in 2014 the late Dr. Ralph Raico (professor at Buffalo State College), authored an excellent summary on the origins of the war [“And the War Came,” June 30, 2014, at: https://www.lewrockwell.com/2014/06/ralph-raico/wwi-revisionism/ ].In his conclusion Raico rightly concludes: “Britain’s entry into the war was crucial. In more ways than one, it sealed the fate of the Central Powers. Without Britain in the war, the United States would never have gone in.”
The German historian Ernst Nolte [d. 2016] has made the case [in his yet untranslated volume, Der Europaische Burgerkrieg (1987) – The European Civil War] that in a certain manner the Second World War was a continuation of the First, that it was, in some ways, a justifiable reaction to the extreme injustice and unresolved issues produced by the imposed “peace” of 1919. While in no way legitimating the concentration camps or executions committed by the Nazis, Nolte has argued that the German reaction in the 1930s was both predictable and understandable, and that the crimes perpetrated were comparable, perhaps even pale in comparison, to those that can be laid at the door of Josef Stalin.
Be that as it may, over 117,000 American “dough boys” died during the First World War and another 204,000 were wounded (figures that pale, however, in comparison to losses suffered by Russia: nearly four million dead, another five million wounded; and the United Kingdom, over one million dead, with another 1.7 million wounded).
Europe—and the world—would never be the same, and in so many ways historic European, Western Christian culture, would never really recover. After surviving the French Revolution and the various violent upheavals of the nineteenth century—after the assaults of scientific and social Darwinism—after the challenges of industrialism and tremendous social dislocation—after absorbing the effects of triumphant political liberalism—after all these hurdles, in a real sense, World War I effectively dismantled the fragile remaining scaffolding, the structures in those nations, those empires, where something of the older framework of what had been “Christendom” still remained.
The “total war” devastation of the Second World War completed that process, smashing to smithereens the remnants of the old order, and more ominously, freeing triumphant and victorious the unfettered spirit of universalized Progress. Sure, the Communists participated in this triumph, but their interpretation of victory was at odds with that of what became known as “the West.” For forty-five years the forces of NATO looked wearily across the demarcation lines, across the Iron Curtain at the forces of the Warsaw Pact.
We had defeated one form of ferocious tyranny, but had replaced it with another just as bad, and maybe even worse. Yet, both the West and the Soviet Bloc proclaimed their progressivism and their belief in equality and democracy, albeit with vastly different interpretations of that progressivism.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the virtual defenestration and final defeat of the KGB commissars in August 1991 (for which Vladimir Putin, then vice-mayor of Leningrad, deserves our eternal thanks, but won’t get it from American mainstream media) should have signaled the real end of the Second World War, but it only opened a new phase of world turmoil in which the forces of global progressivism now proclaimed their inevitable triumph: the Communists, you see, had become “old fashioned,” “reactionary,” “too stodgy and not revolutionary enough.” But international progressivism, with its handmaidens of “world democracy” and “global equality,” was only emboldened by the whimpering disappearance of the Communist bureaucracy.
Neoconservative writer, Francis Fukyama, in his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992) argued that the worldwide spread of liberal democracies and free market capitalism of the West could signal the terminus of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and become the final form of human government. Fellow Neoconservative Allan Bloom, in his The Closing of the American Mind (1987), counselled the “imposition” of “American democratic and egalitarian values” on the rest of the world; after all, we had won the war, so it was for us to dictate the universal peace, indeed, “to force those who do not accept these principles to do so.”
But is this what the millions of American men went off to battle for in 1941-1945, and why over 400,000 died in remote places like the beaches of Anzio or in the Hurtgen Forest? To impose American-style democracy and values over the far-off desert oases in Libya or in the jungles of South Sudan, for what in effect has become “perpetual war for unobtainable peace”?
I don’t think so. Whether American intelligence or even Franklin Roosevelt knew about the impending Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor, or not, once it occurred America was in World War II, and nearly everyone, from pre-war anti-interventionists like Charles Lindbergh to the most rabid Anglophile pulled together for the war effort.
I can recall numerous conversations with my own father, a veteran, who served in the 101st Cavalry, a light tank reconnaissance unit, and who was wounded in the Saar basin in 1945. Normally a gunner in his tank, he had just traded positions with his close buddy, Dale Lackey, and piloted the tank which then was hit by a Wehrmacht projectile, killing Lackey then in the gunner’s position. If my dad had occupied that role, it would have been he who was killed.
After the war my father and mother both made a kind of pilgrimage to the site of Dale Lackey’s grave in Granite Falls, North Carolina, to pay respects to my dad’s fallen comrade and his family.
And when I was born a few years later, I was given the middle name “Dale” to honor that comradeship and that memory.
Like hundreds of thousands of soldiers who fought and died in World War II, or in Korea, or in Vietnam, my father fought for his country when his country called him to do so. He asked few questions, he did his duty, like millions of other soldiers from time immemorial have always done.
Frenzied visions of imposing global democracy did not figure in his thinking; he did his duty for love of country, he fought for his homeland, for his family, for honor, and, also, for his comrades at arms…for Dale Lackey, and so many more like him.
And, so, for this Veterans’ Day I honored my father’s service and the service of millions of other Americans who went off to war, wars not of their making and sometimes highly questionable in both origin and objectives. Yet they did their duty before God. Some never came back and now rest in faraway cemeteries, some in unmarked graves. We honor them and show them our respect and our appreciation for their unforgettable sacrifice.
Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in history from the University of Navarra (as a Richard Weaver Fellow), in Pamplona. Spain, and an MA from the University of Virginia (where he was a Thomas Jefferson Fellow). He is also former assistant to Dr. Russell Kirk. His anthology of essays about the South, The Land We Love , will be published later in November.