Monday, July 30, 2007

The Great War

I have been fascinated by the First World War forever, especially the Western Front. I have read Remarque, Juenger, Barbusse and the English war poets (see also blog about Sassoon) and I have never stopped wondering: why could the trench war go on for such a long time. it was clear to anybody with half a mind the war could not be won. No cost-benefit analysis could lead to the battles of the Somme or Verdun, yet, the epitaph of rationality in history - Western Europe - got itself entrenched in an entirely irrational affair. And it paid the cost with deficit, devastation and enormous loss of life along with the ensuing social tragedy. Not to mention the fact that almost all historians agree upon: the Great War led to the second world war and to the cold war.

The war is now some 90 years past and one would being to assume it to be no longer recent history. Nevertheless the BBC reports a veteran visiting the trenches as if we are still at arm's length.

History 5, my adored podcast, pays its tributes also. The 2007 series of Margaret Anderson stops at the War in lecture 22. No news for me, great lecture, but this is on my old stomping ground. Anderson explains why the war goes on, in spite of rationality, in spite of cost-benefit analysis. The spirit of nationalism had run the immaterial investment into the war so high, it had redefined the war into something so big, it had to be something to die for. It had taken on such great meaning, it couldn't be just settled, it had to be won. The nations got carried away by a totally romantic notion of their identities and their stand for.

Romanticism is a legacy from the 19th century. It was subject to a most revealing lecture in the history 5 series as well. Lecture 16. Also Lecture 19 on the irrationality and its power in modern European thinking sheds some light. I find that our capability to idealize holds then both a strength, the highest aspirations and a terrible weakness: to mislead us into folly, at the same time.
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