I don’t think I need to go into a discourse of any great length on what a tragedy the twentieth century was for war. Indeed, war continued to be Hell as we witnessed a great slaughter unparalleled in human history. A Dante-like descent into the lower circles unfolded in unison with Superpower Statism desirous to export and preserve its way of life.
Wannabe tin pot dictators queued up eagerly to create their own little infernos worldwide, as they became geographical extensions of imperialist super-egos nourished by taxpayers' dollars and satiated by innocent blood.
Add the two ingredients of more destructive weaponry and an amoralism that redefined human life as merely advanced animal life and the poisonous potion was complete.
The century that began with the slash of the sword finished with the fireball of the atomic bomb and the bloody principle behind them remains with us to this day the pursuit and retention of power.
But, quite often, it is the little events, which either chill or warm the human heart. Go back to the early stages of that doleful century and witness an age that was still looking back and up to nobler principles of spirituality and the ethic of the self-reliant man under his God.
Now witness the scene of the assassination of the Hapsburg heir, Archduke Frank Ferdinand, on 28th June 1914. Neither king, nor president, his death should have been a footnote in history. However, the complex web of European treaties at that time combined with oafish rulers not wishing to lose face ensured World War One.
The carnage ensued and became a monster that did not run the expected number of months but rather years and beyond as it spawned children such as the Bolshevik Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles that ensured a century of woe.
But it is to a simple game of soccer which promotes a different view of man and which transcends the canon fodder view of man held by the rulers of the day. I am talking about the Christmas truces of the selfsame war triggered by Sarajevo and which are so stirringly brought to life in Stanley Weintraub's book Silent Night. Expertly, he assembles and examines first hand sources such as letters and diaries to form a true picture of what really happened in those death-filled battlegrounds long ago.
As Christmas approached, we read of a diminishing of violence and an increase of the spirit, which says "Peace on Earth and goodwill towards men!" We read of idle and playful jibes being hurled between trenches straddling no-mans land growing into lulls between battles to allow the wounded to be rescued and onto the raised gestures of peace.
Eye contact is made and as one of old may say "I too am a man like yourself!" Greetings are exchanged in almost surreal circumstances as what gifts can be offered are offered and a common culture and history stands astride the plans of generals as candles are lit and carols are sung to each other.
The State bellows the orders "Kill! Maim! Conquer!" but a deeper instinct within the individual does not readily put a bullet through another who has done no great offence but rather says with them "What am I doing here?"
A good question. What had improbably started in the first place saw thousands sign up in Great Britain to "teach the Hun a lesson" and be back in time for Christmas. Now they were sharing their muddied tobacco with the sworn enemy at Christmas and kicking a football around!
Such a series of episodes should teach us that the State and individual are two different entities indeed. When the State, embodied in its generals, heard of these events, they were prohibited vigorously on the grounds that it "destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks …". How right they were, but how wrong to think these "lions led by donkeys" were like themselves safely hidden miles from the front line.
The State got its way eventually and this small flame of humanity was muffled but not extinguished as millions walked the march to death. The milk of human kindness would flow in other areas but warfare never looked back as new degrees of slaughter evolved to finish the portrait of the century of blood.
Let us not forget what may have happened if these individuals had thought through the implications of their libertarian spirit if they had seen what lay ahead for four sanguine years. But then again, we have the finished canvas, what have we learnt?
December 29, 2001