The Calamity of the Great War

The Calamity of the Great War
Munitions workers packing shells for field guns, in the packing room of a munitions factory during the First World War, circa 1916. (Keystone View Company/FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Jeffrey A. Tucker

Earlier this year, a meme emerged that lots of men were thinking about the fall of Rome. It’s very likely true. I was certainly thinking about it, as inflation raged, decadence and dependence swept the population, criminality took over cities, and immigration created the feeling of a nation being sacked.

But we shouldn’t stop our historical reflections there. The bigger picture about the gradual fall of civilization certainly must look more recently in time to the Great War, later dubbed World War I, that ended a century and six years ago. It was a turning point in politics, art, migration, economics, science, and every other area of life.

The old empires died the death and new ones emerged, carved out of the remnants of what came before and entirely at the discretion of the victors. Everything else changed, too.

The Great War inaugurated the era of total war, plus central planning, socialism, fascism, and the deployment of science for purposes of political manipulation. The war used all the new technologies: telephone, flight, internal combustion, steel, bomb-making, gassing, and munitions generally. The result wasn’t only the Bolshevik Revolution but the enslavement of the West by a new model of governance.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The World’s Fairs of the many decades previously had put on display all the glorious innovations in service to human welfare. With the war, they were used with the demonic aim of human slaughter on a scale never before seen.

I was fully into adulthood before I realized that I had no real story in my head about the Great War, either how it came to be, who were the major players and why, what was at stake, and what came out of it. In this way, this war is unlike World War II, which we generally think we understand. So, in search of such a story, I started reading.

That’s where the confusion began. It turns out that there is no clear and clean story. We think we know that Germany was a bad actor but that impression is mostly derived from what came later. While the Kaiser (German for “Caesar”) was demonized at the time, there is plenty of reason to think that this was wildly exaggerated as useful war propaganda.

The best book I found was Hunt Tooley’s “The Great War: Western Front and Home Front.” It’s a brilliant book with a conclusion that is as unsatisfying as the war itself. He blames the entire calamity on a failure of diplomacy, political arrogance, intellectual recklessness, and war profiteering. Not one state was to blame as the aggressor; rather all states were to blame for abandoning efforts at peace.

From reading, I gained a strong impression of many governments in the world anxious to try out their new fun toys on some grand adventure under whatever excuse. These new tools included central banking, the power to conscript, communication strategies, new types of weapons, poison gas, and tanks. How could they resist? They could have and should have.

Women working in a shell factory to aid the war effort in Britain during World War One, Great Britain, circa 1914–1918. (Press Illustrating Service/FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Women working in a shell factory to aid the war effort in Britain during World War One, Great Britain, circa 1914–1918. (Press Illustrating Service/FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The years of 1914–1918 have been on our minds lately, simply because we just lived through a similar experience with the COVID lockdowns. Governments want to try out their powers, deploy new technologies, play with online learning and commerce, and attempt a wild experiment on humanity. The result was nothing but a disaster, something quite similar to the Great War.

The scale was different to be sure. If you doubt it, have a look at the astonishing movie “They Shall Not Grow Old,” built entirely of restored and colorized footage with first-hand accounts of life for the enlisted kids, many as young as 15 and 16. An experience like that rocks all settled expectations, traditions, and morals.

That shift in the way we conduct statecraft was reflected in the art at the time. Please allow me a self-indulgent shift in gears over toward the serious music of the time. I’ve always used music to understand history because it is so revealing. Change was in the air, and this was reflected in the higher arts at the time.

Three pieces of the period stand out to me. They are Gustav Mahler’s “9th Symphony” (premiered 1912), Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” (premiered 1913), and Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” (premiered 1918). Each reveals something important about the times from which we can learn.

The 9th was Mahler’s last completed symphony. He delayed writing it as long as possible because he was sure it would precipitate his death as it did for Beethoven (Mahler did write an Adagio of a 10th and some melodic sketches of later movements and then died).

Some say his 9th is his greatest. It covers all things, time and eternity in four movements of breathtaking scope and sophistication. He was only 50 when he wrote it but had lived a huge life of love, heartbreak, death in the family, a shattered marriage, and then terrible sickness, plus he endured a Europe-wide reputation as a symphonist to compete with Wagner in the realm of opera.

The 9th might be his most contemplative piece but it is packed with shattered hopes and deep torment. It begins quietly and ends in emergent silence, but what happens in between takes the listener on an impossible journey through all times and places.

What I hear in this piece, again premiering before the onset of war, is the last gasp or perhaps summing up of what we might call the Old World, the very height of all civilization until the moment in time or perhaps of all time. In that way, there is a sadness about the piece but also an inspiring window into what humankind is capable of creating and achieving. To me, it is the culminating musical closure on everything that had happened since rebuilding after the fall of Rome.

A year later came the premiere of the “Rite of Spring,” a piece radically different from anything that came before. Even today, the piece remains profoundly disturbing. I’ve been listening to it since I was very young, perhaps 9 years old. It shook me then and shakes me now, and I cannot say that I like listening to it all. In fact, I can listen to it anytime in my imagination, and play it nearly from beginning to end. That’s a curse so far as I’m concerned.

That’s not to say that the music is not brilliant. It is. Even 111 years later, it sounds extremely modern by any standard. The legend is that in the first performance, many people walked out in outrage at what they were hearing. That’s not quite true: It was initially staged as a ballet but the choreography was so awful that many people just walked out in disgust.

No question that the piece holds up but as what? The driving purpose was to present pagan ritual and probably human sacrifice. But what makes it uncomfortable was that the pagan ritual was on the verge of being conducted on a global scale by governments calling themselves civilized. In that sense, this piece knew something huge was coming just around the corner.

Stravinsky foreshadows not some mythical triumph of democracy over authoritarianism but the ritualized massacre of innocents. That’s what the piece reveals, first in art and then in reality. In that sense, it is the soundtrack for the turning of one chapter of human life to another, one which would be soaked in blood.

The third piece is Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” written between 1914 and 1917, and hence during the war itself. It is a beloved piece by audiences who like their music less abstract. The composer allows us to hear musical versions of what we observe in the sky with the aid of science. It is mostly today known for the hymn that emerged from the middle section of the movement called Jupiter, which is sung as “I Vow to Thee My Country.”

It is a brilliant hymn no doubt. All of the movements are wonderful if very edgy for programmatic music.

The most musically influential piece in the suite is no doubt the opening, “Mars.” Oh yes, the Roman god of war. Set in a 5/4 time signature, unusual for the time, we have on display here huge armies on the march but not a march like John Philip Souza composed in the 1890s. The war was promised to be patriotic and thrilling but it turned out menacing, destructive, and murderous, despite how states around the world (including the UK) tried to market it as a patriotic struggle for freedom.

This movement tells more truth.

The thematics of this movement in particular stood the test of time. It became the template for countless war themes later in the century, including of course the Darth Vader theme from “Star Wars.” Holst had really captured the feeling of modern warfare, not just disciplined soldiers on battlefields but whole societies drafted and wrecked, complete with mass poisonings and civilization-wide trauma.

As the lockdowns of 2020 and following consumed the globe, we all reached for historical analogies about what was happening to us. The Great War is what came to my mind. It was planned wreckage, conceived out of an optimistic desire to see how science and power can combine to force the world into a new shape. It ended in disaster for everyone.

Have you noticed how no one today is ready or willing to defend what happened in that war? Hearings followed, and the war profiteers developed a bad reputation. But there never was any justice. The wreckage was never really fixed. It was the end of one world and the beginning of the new, and we’ve struggled ever since to regain what we lost.

It will be the same with our times. We are all still in shock and awe at what has happened to our societies, laws, and liberties. There is already growing regret and sadness all around, even admissions that elites went way too far. There seems to be a quiet repudiation taking place.

Probably, if we listen carefully, we can hear this also in the art of our times.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Jeffrey A. Tucker is the founder and president of the Brownstone Institute and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press, as well as 10 books in five languages, most recently “Liberty or Lockdown.” He is also the editor of “The Best of Ludwig von Mises.” He writes a daily column on economics for The Epoch Times and speaks widely on the topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.