Sunday, November 11, marks the 100th anniversary of one of the seminal moments in World history. At 11:00 am local time on the eleventh day of the 11th month in 1918, an Armistice ended World War I. After four years of unprecedented carnage, the “Great War” was over. The Germans simply could not go on.
The 100th anniversary likely will not much be remembered, but it should be, and especially by Jews. The events 100 years ago started a chain reaction that resulted first in the greatest Jewish tragedy of all time, then in Jewish redemption and finally the creation of the modern Jewish State. The aftermath also provides poignant lessons for our present and future leaders as well as ourselves.
The Great War itself was fought for no discernable reason. While many of the statesmen at the time anticipated a major conflagration, looking back there is nothing that should have caused the world to destroy itself. Hindsight always is 20/20, but it still is difficult to escape the conclusion that millions of people died because of poor maneuvering by shortsighted, ambitious politicians. Collectively they backed themselves, and each other, needlessly into a corner. Are you listening Messrs. Trump, Putin and Xi?
After four years of stalemate and slaughter the Germans blinked first, but not by much. In fact just four months earlier, in June 1918, the German High Command was so confident of victory that it debated what surrender terms to accept from the French and the British. Now in November the German Army arose from its trenches and trudged home. While being treated as losers, the German soldiers returned to a country of unparalleled beauty that largely was untouched by bombs or destruction. What a confusing shock it must have been.
Conversely the “victorious” French Army saw much of their country in ruins. So thoroughly had the landscape of parts of Eastern France, Belgium and Luxembourg been destroyed that today, 100 years later, there are places humans dare not go.
Militarily the French might have been victorious, but their spirit was shattered. That complete devastation of French national will would manifest itself in front of Adolf Hitler in 1940. It is possible that no “victorious” nation ever lost a war as thoroughly as the French lost World War I.
Not recognizing this, the French politicians of the time acted with intense arrogance. They bled the Germans as much as they could. The results were disastrous. The ultra-nationalist camp in Israel should take note. It is very possible to win a war yet lose the peace. Might does not always make right, nor is it always the best policy.
In America, the aftermath brought a return to isolationism. For four years we had been fed a steady diet of supposed German “atrocities”. While the Germans were not angels during the Great War, many of the stories turned out to be wildly exaggerated. It only is possible to understand why the United States was so reticent to enter the fight against Hitler, and why we were so skeptical about the Holocaust, if one understands how distrustful the American people were of the politicians and press following the exaggerated stories of World War I. The concept of “fake news” is nothing new. The political and media excesses of a century ago had tragic consequences twenty years later, especially for Jews. It would be wise for Jewish Americans of all political persuasions to remember that.
After the Armistice, the nations met in Paris for the peace conference of 1919. The British and French took as much from the Germans as they could, then turned their attention to other parts of the world. When tackling the Middle East, British and French politicians listened as the Jews and Arabs each they made their claims. In truth, however, the British and French each intended to double cross both Arab and Jew, as well as each other, in the hope of adding to their respective empires.
While the 1920 Treaty of San Remo (which created the British Mandate of Palestine) contained language recognizing the “historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and … the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country,” by the mid-1920’s British policy shifted. The British would favor the Arabs but not give them freedom. They would pay only lip service to the Jews.
Unfortunately for the British, events soon got away from them. The same happened in Germany. The German public couldn’t understand how they were the losers, how their leaders had agreed to say that Germans solely were responsible for the Great War and why they were suffering to pay much of their national treasure in war reparations. German confusion turned first to bitterness, then resentment, then scapegoating. Nothing excuses the Germans for the Holocaust, but anyone wondering how a country with such a cultured past could be so captivated by a demagogue that it would follow him straight into hell needs to listen to the echoes of 1918.
War can be necessary, but victory on the battlefield is different from victory in the aftermath. The confusion and short-sightedness of 1918 led to the mass exterminations of 1941. The poppies may grow in row upon row in Flanders Fields, but there were no rows to plant poppies in Auschwitz. It is for all of us to remember that the military is just one arm of politics, not a substitution for it.
Ironically, the Great War started with an invasion of Luxembourg by a German Army Regiment commanded by a Jewish officer named Lieutenant Feldmann. Let’s hope the next century is the one that ensures the peace and security of Lieutenant Feldmann’s descendants, if any survived the second war which began twenty years after the Armistice we remember on Sunday.