“Nulla è cambiato, la terribilità della tragedia è identica, tutte le apparenze effimere con cui la civiltà maschera e diversifica nei tempi il puro istinto umano sono qui abolite; l’uomo modern, l’uomo del secolo ventesimo, l’uomo che possiede cannoni e torpedini si ricongiunge al suo progenitore selvaggio, al suo antenato remoto armato soltanto del suo rude vigore e del suo coraggio feroce.” -Mario Morasso, writing of the Russo-Japanese War, April 3, 1904
This is my last article during my first year as a student at Cornell. I normally avoid personal pronouns and excessive self-reference in my articles; today, however, calls for a break in that routine, hopefully not to the displeasure of my readership of one and a half. I have a contention to make: 1916 was the year Germany should have won the war. The world would have been a better place if the apish “Mad Brute” of American wartime caricature, if the perpetrator of the Rape of Belgium had carried the day at Verdun and at the Somme. This is, I am aware, as argumentum ex silentio as it gets: bear with me.
The greatest crises of European history have pitted the powers of France and Germany against each other, in any combination of alliance. The early modern wars of religion and the firestorm from 1789-1815 pitted the spectre of an inflamed, levée en masse-d Imperial France against the tiny German confederacies. The latter emerged victorious out of Napoleon’s shadow at Leipzig and Waterloo to water their Prussian horses in the Seine. Fast forward six decades later to 1871, and the greatest continental war of the 19th century would end with the Parisians under German cannon fire and the murderous, self-defeating excess of the Commune. 1916, then, was the next act in this multitiered dramatic cycle, save that this was the first time Germany would lose. The first conception of Europe was a nexus of France, Germany and Italy united under the crown of Charlemagne and his Carolingian successors. Now, these limbs were against each other, as if an armed Sicilian triskelion suddenly lashed out at the hand beside it. It is unnatural. This should not have happened.
It did, however. A war needs a winner. This is is as much an aesthetic argument as a bluntly political one. Germany, the Germanophone heart of Europe, stood wedged in rigid defiance upon the chalked-in scars that the trenches ran across French meadows and Russian marshland. And yet the catchphrase “On ne passe pas,” was the refrain of the unofficial 1916 anthem of Verdun by the same name. They shall not pass. Of course they shall not. They cannot; Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, in his postwar political memoir Mesure de la France, portrayed a Germany strangled by the cacophonous writhing of the Allied multitude. France has committed a crime, says Drieu la Rochelle: “Nous n’avons pas couché seuls avec la Victoire.” We have willed our own destruction, we have let our vigor drain away. Drieu la Rochelle goes further: how could the joyous oath of “Plus de morgue, plus d’arrogance” ring out with anything other than hollow hypocrisy when the bloody farce of the century was snatching away a young male life every second? Debout, debout les morts!
What theatre of cruelty, what barbarity. Germany hurled the first stone, a-ha!, Belgium went under, und so weiter, und so fort, let us therefore pick up apart Europe, abolish Kaiser-dom and do our best to keep Europe safe from the Bolshevik menace that our colonial war has unleashed upon the world! The High Priest of Verdun, the Maréchal Pétain will, within three decades, become your ersatz crestfallen Napoleon, the humiliated fascist locked up on a miniature St. Helena. How humanizing and honorable a victory for France and Britain, to be able to dangle reparations like snake’s venom over the imprisoned Loki and trample the Ruhr as if before a misbehaving child, too ungrateful for honorable peace, too cowardly to enforce your terms. Drieu la Rochelle: “Il y avait une immense foi dans le génie allemand qui sombra tout d’un coup.”
If Germany had won, if Verdun had buckled, if the Somme had been a mere Rubicon on the way to Paris, what would have happened? Lenin would not have been given a locomotive voyage to Russia, would not have been privileged with the Kaiser’s stamp of approval on his little pet project of property destruction and civil carnage. A certain young mustachioed Austrian lance corporal might have remained just a voice in the wilderness. Two years of further European bloodshed, gone, and at least the hope that a continental power would not dally with the pretensions to democratic equanimity so bandied about at Versailles in 1919. Anything but what actually happened. This is wishful thinking. I am irrational. Oh well, vae victis, the greatest rhetorical shrug of indifference ever uttered.
In every article I have yet written on the year of 1916, the basest, most brutal aspect of humanity has won out. The Irish poet-rebels were shot en masse by the agents of Anglo-Imperialism, a trumped-up murder charge sufficed to hang and burn an American citizen, and the nagging little finger of socialist humanism failed to give even a slightly human edge to the society it priggishly condemned. This was the 20th century’s best foot forward. I hope we are proud.
“These fought, in any case,
and some believing, pro domo, in any case …
Some quick to arm,
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
learning later …
some in fear, learning love of slaughter;
Died some pro patria, non dulce non et decor…
walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;
usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.” -Ezra Pound, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Part I”