Farce and Tragedy

We wait for the tolling of the bells. Here, it is Remembrance Day. We had to check our calendar to be sure, for there is no mention in the press. We wonder whether the bell ringers will remember.

The Great War began as a gigantic farce and ended as a monumental tragedy. No one could quite figure out what it was all about. But politicians on all sides soon had everyone’s blood up. Victors write the history books. In the West, we are used to hearing that somehow Germany was at fault. But both France and Russia declared war on Germany before the Huns had done a thing. The Germans saw themselves faced with war on two-fronts. Their only hope, they thought, was to knock France out of the war quickly. They might have done this, except for the decision by General von Kluck who decided to chase French troops down the Marne instead of attacking Paris directly. He thought the French were beaten. He was just going to deliver the coup de grce. But when an army is beaten, it typically breaks up. Attackers usually find themselves with thousands of demoralized prisoners. General von Kluck’s subordinates wondered: Where were the prisoners? There were but few prisoners, because the French weren’t really beaten at all; they were merely retreating in good order.

It as at this point, the entire history of the 20th century took a terrible turn. The old French general, Gallieni, called back from retirement to defend Paris, noticed the Germans advancing, not on the city, but adjacent to it, along the Marne. He turned to his staff and remarked:

"Gentlemen, they offer us their flank."

The Battle of the Marne drove the Germans back. From that point forward, the war was a long pointless slaughter. By 1916, the European powers were exhausted and disgusted. But then, along came Woodrow Wilson with an idea. He believed he could give the war meaning, by turning it into a struggle "to make the world safe for democracy." All he had to do, he thought, was to prevent an early settlement of the war… giving him time to help the French and English win a total victory rather than a negotiated peace. Then, he believed, he would be the true victor. He could come to Europe like an archangel at a Catholic-school picnic. He would then impose his "14 Points" on the world as if they were written on clay tablets and had been handed to him by God himself.

Wilson’s meddling was disastrous from practically every point of view. The war continued for another 2 years. Millions more died. Not a single major government in Europe survived. And in the wreckage of European civilization hardy new menaces emerged — first in Russia, then in Italy and Germany.

After the fighting was over, the French and English laughed at Wilson and ignored the 14 points whenever they conflicted with their own interests. The American president was so appalled and humiliated; he suffered a stroke and never recovered.

Instead of making the world safe for bourgeois democracy, Wilson had made it more dangerous than ever.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century.