A Catholic chaplain wrote from the front in 1915, in the face of bloodletting on an almost unimaginable scale, words that have lost none of their accuracy and power across the generations: “War, war, sickening war. My God how long, how long.... Who can resist a cry of passionate resentment against those in high places who could find no better way of settling the differences of nations than the letting loose of terrific forces for the slaughter and maiming of millions?” It was not just the millions who perished who were affected, however, but millions more across the century.
In the modern era one might point to epoch-making conflicts like the American Civil War, or Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 campaign in Russia, which had profound significance in particular geographical regions. Undoubtedly, however, the First World War, which began one century ago, has cast a long shadow on global affairs and has conditioned comprehensive international relations even to the present. This is not simply because it led to the collapse of the monarchy in places like Germany, Austria-Hungry and Russia, but because it also coincided with the beginnings of the dismantling of the British Empire and the waning of Britain’s impact on world affairs. The Ottoman Empire also disintegrated as a result of the “war to end all wars,” with consequences that in many ways now dominate the affairs of the Middle East and have given rise to problems of modern terrorism, which is now a major preoccupation world-wide.
Europe was exhausted by a conflict that had cost 37 million casualties, both dead and wounded, and that witnessed war on an industrial scale. The war also made use of new technology like the airplane and chemical weapons, which established a pattern for subsequent wars. It also accelerated certain social developments for which seeds had been sown throughout the 19th century. This was especially true in connection with the role of women in society. With so many men called to the front, women had to fill roles previously performed by men. Women also emerged as a force in politics, with governments around the world no longer able to resist the demand for women’s suffrage. Although this had already been granted in places like New Zealand (1893), South Australia (1894) and Russia (1917), it happened in Britain only in 1918, and in the United States in 1920. In 1918 Countess Constance Markievicz became the first woman ever to be elected to the British parliament. The countess was, however, elected for the Irish revolutionary Sinn Féin party, which swept the board in Ireland on a platform of refusal to sit in the British House of Commons, thus paving the way for partial independence in Ireland in 1921. It is an irony that Margaret Thatcher, thus far the only woman prime minister of the United Kingdom, would emerge as a right-wing ideologue from a process set in motion by an Irish woman revolutionary.
The Church and the War
Three weeks after the beginning of the war, Pope Pius X died on Aug. 20, 1914, bringing to an end the sad chapter in Catholic history known as the Modernist Crisis, but the effects of that crisis were to condition the attitudes of Catholics toward modern culture. Although Pius X had refused to bless Austrian arms and the position of the Holy See was one of “absolute impartiality,” the pontificate of Pius X brought the Holy See’s reputation to a particularly low ebb in international affairs and reduced its capacity to play a role as mediator in the war. The church’s reputation in France, which officially had repudiated Catholicism as the state religion in 1905, was partially restored by the spectacle of priests fighting in the trenches alongside laypeople.
Despite the Vatican’s official position, it is clear that many curial cardinals hoped for a victory for the Central Powers, since with the defeat of the Allies, Italy, which had aligned itself with them in April 1915, would collapse and the Papal States would, it was believed, be restored in some form. The Vatican’s humanitarian efforts under Benedict XV left it almost bankrupt; and it was the near collapse in March 1923 of the Banco di Roma, in which the Holy See had a controlling interest, that led to a rapprochement between the Vatican, under Pius XI, and Italian fascism. Prime Minister Benito Mussolini simply bailed out the bank. This understanding between church and state in Italy was to prove mutually beneficial. But the rise of fascism in the two decades after the war was a Europe-wide phenomenon. Portugal and Spain were to have long-lasting fascist regimes. Even Ireland had a strong fascist movement in the shape of the Blue Shirts, which was supported by the Nobel laureate W. B. Yeats, among others. This was in a context where many believed that democracy was at an end and the only alternatives, in the face of catastrophic global depression, were either communism or fascism.
Germany, notoriously, gave birth to Nazism. But some of Adolf Hitler’s initial appeal was predicated on a sense of overwhelming German capitulation to what was perceived as the unjust terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. This was linked in Hitler’s mind with the activities of the November Traitors, who had signed the Armistice of 1918, and which brought, for those who thought in those terms, nothing but infamy on Germany. The Nazis also exploited a sense of shame among some Germans, coupled with a visceral hatred for Jews, that gave rise to one of the most brutal political systems the world has ever known. Among the most important initial diplomatic triumphs for the Nazi regime was the concordat with the Holy See signed in July 1933. The fact that the Catholic Church had officially entered into a formal agreement with Hitler’s Germany gave his government some slight international respectability. But more important, it reassured Catholics in Germany that it was indeed possible to be both a Catholic and a Nazi. By contrast, similar tendencies had been cut short in France by Pope Pius XI’s condemnation of Action Française in 1926. When Cardinal Louis Billot, S.J., appeared publicly to dissent from the pope’s judgment, Pius insisted that he resign from the College of Cardinals. Such robust action in Germany and Italy might have gone some way toward blunting the edge of the emerging administrations in those countries.
In many ways World War II was as a direct result of the Great War, although without fascism it might never have occurred. Now humanity entered into a new phase of its violent capabilities in what would ultimately become a policy of “mutually assured destruction” under the threat of the atomic bomb. Before this the odd alliance between the Soviet Union and the Western democratic powers, although it brought about the defeat of Germany and Japan, left the Soviet Union in a position to impose a repressive totalitarianism on the peoples of Eastern Europe in the postwar world. The ruthless enforcement of Communism had the effect of quelling ethnic conflict in areas like the Balkans and Ukraine, conflicts that re-emerged with Communism’s collapse. The exponential growth of Communist ideology to include China was a major legacy of World War II, and as the Korean and Vietnam struggles demonstrated, the simple resort to arms was not enough to defeat it. Fear of Communism convulsed American society in the 1950s and anti-Communism remained the basis of U.S. foreign policy through the end of the Reagan era.
A Global Struggle
Although the founding of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights represent high water marks in 20th-century history, the ability of the United Nations to help establish peace is as limited as that of its post-World War I predecessor, the League of Nations. Of greater significance was a movement in Europe in the 1950s associated with individuals like Konrad Adenauer, the German chancellor from 1949 to 1963; Robert Schuman, the Luxembourg-born French foreign minister from 1948 to 1952; and Jean Monnet, the French political adviser and president of the European Coal and Steel Community from 1952 to 1955. The movement eventually evolved into the European Union. At the heart of that union is the relationship between France and Germany; and given the hatred that existed between these two countries and the conflicts it spawned, the European Union truly is a model in conflict resolution.
The overall weakening of Europe economically and politically in the first half of the 20th century led to the emergence of the United States as the new, great “empire” on the world stage. It was, after all, American economic muscle in the shape of the Marshall Plan that rescued Europe from economic collapse at the end of World War II. Despite strong isolationist tendencies, which run deep in the American psyche, the United States continues to dominate economically and politically in a world where it has few rivals.
Out of the Ashes
It is sometimes said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but this did not entirely represent the experience of those who participated in the First or Second World War. Although Catholic priests contributed enormously to the spiritual assistance of combatants—the United States alone commissioned 18,000 priests as chaplains in World War II—the First World War consolidated a trend, at least in Europe, of growing disengagement of religion from public life. In a time of war, the church also accommodated itself to the circumstances of conflict. For troops at the front, certain relaxations of Catholic practice were permitted: general absolution was allowed; rules on fasting and abstinence were suspended; Mass was permitted in the most informal of circumstances; and priests and laypeople were thrown together in a social combination that would have been unthinkable in any another situation.
Although these things would be reversed with peace, nevertheless certain tendencies were manifest that would culminate in changes to Catholic mores brought about by Pope Pius XII. These included such things as reform of the liturgy (for example, the Easter Triduum), the dialogue Mass and “evening Mass for workers” and reduction in the eucharistic fast, which were all instituted in the 1940s and 1950s. There also was talk of a possible ecumenical council. At one level this would have made perfect sense as a means of renovating Catholicism in the years following World War II. But the exercise of papal infallibility in 1950 with the declaration of the Assumption of Our Lady demonstrated that there was no need for church councils to declare the Catholic faith or regulate church discipline.
It would be stretching intellectual rigor to suggest that the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was somehow a result of the Great War. But it was a result of an imperative that the church on the eve of that war refused to countenance: a renewal of Catholicism that tried to take modernity into account. It might also be going too far to agree with the observation of Gen. Charles de Gaulle that Vatican II was the greatest event in the history of the 20th century. It did, however, coincide with, and was to some extent overtaken by a cultural revolution that for its rapidity and extent has few precedents in recorded history. Contemporary culture wars on issues of same-sex marriage, abortion, freely available divorce and the management of biological reproduction in its various forms—all have their origins in the “swinging sixties.” The religious certainties that were a bedrock of culture in the West gave way to a kind of anomie, the implications of which are still being worked out even today. Juxtaposed with the collapse of a traditional Judeo-Christian outlook in most Western societies has been the rise of Islam as a political-cultural force, which Western governments have tried both to manipulate, as in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and then to contain.
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The First World War and its aftermath leave some lasting and pessimistic, impressions about human conduct. As Vergetius (late fourth century A.D.) observed, in words echoed by Erasmus about 1,000 years later: Dulce bellum inexpertis (“War is sweet to the inexperienced”). One is also left with the impression that as human beings we have the capacity to deceive ourselves on a grand scale. It was, for example, confidently predicted in August 1914 that the war would be over by Christmas. That we can enter war on the basis that we know our cause is right and good, and in defiance of the clear teaching of Christ to turn the other check and to do good to those who hate us shows our capacity, even as Christians, to turn a blind eye to things in our faith that we find inconvenient and discommodious or that run contrary to a more primeval instinct.
Read excerpts from America's coverage of World War I.
This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections:
Correction: July 14, 2014
An earlier version of this article misidentified the year of the first women's votes in Russia. It is 1917, not 1918. It also incorrectly stated that Countess Constance Markievicz was re-elected to the British parliament in 1918. She was first elected in that year.