Joseph Stalin is often associated with the idea that “A single death is a tragedy while a million deaths is a statistic.” Whether he said it or not, the sentiment certainly captures Uncle Joe’s brutal take on humanity. The larger question for us is whether he was right.
From 1914 to 1945, the entire planet convulsed in a massive bloodletting of Biblical proportions; although “Biblical” may not properly account for the extent of that carnage where something like 100,000,000 died. That’s one hundred million, or ten thousand TIMES ten thousand, numbers that boggle the mind and certainly give credence to Stalin’s morbid point. Yes, 100,000,000 is a statistic. However, with nothing concrete to assist us in understanding the immensity of all those zeroes, we are left only with the notion that to be human is to carry with us the great capacity to do harm to others. This is, admittedly, callous commentary on the human condition. I must offer, though, that the evidence of the entirety of human history supports the contention. To paraphrase Stalin, each one of us may care about our fellow man but, as a whole, we seem to be extremely fond of slaughtering one another.
I offer this now because the origins of the bloodshed of the twentieth century have faded in our collective memory to the point where similar events today might go unnoticed. It is a trope of studying history that we learn about mistakes in order not to repeat them. The reality, though, is that human history is marked largely by a series of repeated mistakes.
Unfortunately, when writing about the mistakes of the world wars, we are increasingly relying upon second-hand information. An eighteen year-old who served in 1945, the final year of WWII, would be ninety-three today. Those now in their eighties experienced that war only as children. As far as The Great War of 1914-1918, no veterans remain and any who were young children at the time would be well into their 100s today. In short, the world wars have moved into that collection of events whose reality is defined more by the pages of a book and the selective angles of cameras than of memories recalled around the dinner table.
In order to help eighth graders understand “the war to end all wars” aka “The Great War” or World War I, I introduced them to the “three isms.” Imperialism created tensions among European nations as they competed for colonial possessions in Africa and Asia. In turn, the resources of these colonies were used to manufacture newly developed armaments with which to train and equip vast armies, i.e., militarism. Having a really big army while living next door to other countries with really big armies contributed to a rising tide of nationalism, e.g., “My army is bigger than your army” sort of thing.
Fully aware that a war was likely, if only as an opportunity to experiment with all the new “toys,” the nations of Europe formed a dizzying array of alliances that turned the continent into a powder keg. The spark soon followed. On June 28, 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated by a Serbian group known as The Black Hand. Since Austrians and Serbians had been at odds with one another and had also made a number of security agreements with other nations, within a month, virtually all of Europe was at war.
If I sound a little glib, you should know that I do this intentionally. To summarize the causes of that war into the “three isms” is to admit the absence of an actual cause beyond the fact that these countries prepared for war; and therefore were compelled to fight it. Two decades later, WWII arose in the wake of the failed peace of WWI and had a few “isms” of its own
World War II has been cast as the necessary sacrifice to fend off the very real threat of a world dominated by fascism. True enough, but it might be wise to familiarize ourselves with the early trajectory of that threat, how the very idea took hold among enough people to rattle the entire planet.
This was the question on the mind of Milton Mayer, an American Jew of the 1950s, trying to figure out how a country like Germany could engage in such atrocities.
In They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-1945, Mayer argues that, of seventy million Germans in the 1930s, it was less than two percent who propelled the machinery of Nazism. The crimes of all the rest amounted to nothing more than looking the other way even as they became increasingly troubled by the things they witnessed. This, I believe, is the primary lesson of this sordid era. Whether we have learned it or not is yet to be seen.
The bright side of all this dark thinking, despite the many wars that have popped up over the past nine decades, is that, since 1945, we have not come remotely close to doing to ourselves what we did in the first half of the twentieth century. Indeed, if we look at the casualties of war since 1945 on a per capita basis, one could argue that we have been living in one of the most peaceful eras in human history. (https://www.vox.com/2015/6/23/8832311/war-casualties-600-years)
Some have argued that this “Long Peace” is attributable to the rise of democracy, the broad emergence of pathways to a middle-class life, and the influence of international institutions that have collectively tempered the inclinations toward war. If this is so, we should be paying great attention to anything that threatens these foundations.
Considering the current crisis, as we find ourselves attending only to our own wounds and not very well at that, the rest of the world may find itself without the tempering influence of an America that, at one time, was able to exert its will to maintain the world order, which leads, perhaps, to Lesson Number Two: If we don’t, someone else, with their own ideas about how to organize things, surely will.