Opinion | The War That Never Ended

On Nov. 11, 1918, a delegation of German representatives, not entirely sure that they represented their crumbling government, made their way through the forest of Compiègne toward a group of Allied officers. There, inside railroad car 2419D, they signed the armistice that brought World War I to a close.

It was the moment the entire world had longed for ever since lurching into war four years earlier. Both sides promised a quick victory before settling into a ghastly stalemate. Political leaders gave grandiloquent speeches about the purpose of the war. The young men in the trenches grew numb to their bombast. “We only know war lasts,” concluded Wilfred Owen, the young English soldier-poet. The War to End All Wars could not even end itself.

But in the fall of 1918, Germany began to collapse. Suddenly, ancient dynasties teetered on their thrones: The kaiser prepared to abdicate, the Ottomans folded, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire flaked apart like a Viennese pastry.

In the first week of November, the end felt very near. But on Nov. 5, a midterm election humiliated President Woodrow Wilson. After the votes were counted, Republicans had control of the House and the Senate, with long-term implications for Wilson’s postwar vision for a “League of Nations.” For years, he had dangled democracy as the cure for the world’s ailments. But the bitterness of the election raised serious questions about democracy’s efficacy. Could a nation as divided as this inspire the world?

Former President Theodore Roosevelt, growing demagogic, attacked Democrats as “internationalists” and sputtered with rage against Wilson’s idealistic plan for a peace that would allow “everyone to float to heaven on a sloppy sea of universal mush.” Others felt similarly. After Wilson unveiled his Fourteen Points, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France asked sardonically: “Fourteen? The good Lord has only 10.”

But two days later, the winds of history seemed to lift Wilson again. On Nov. 7, a report of the armistice was sent to the New York office of the United Press wire service. Within minutes, people were in the streets. The New York Times called it “a delirious carnival of joy which was beyond comparison with anything ever seen in the history of New York.”

Unfortunately, the report was premature. A few hours later, the State Department issued a correction. The crowds went home, crestfallen.

Four days later, the real news arrived. Once again, people rejoiced — this time, around the world. With no reason to show restraint, politicians drifted back toward the platitudes that came naturally. “Democracy” was the word of the hour — even King George V used it, in a note to Wilson, praising the noble cause. In Washington, Wilson announced plans for “the establishment of just democracy throughout the world.” To a rapt Congress, he outlined the details of the armistice, and announced, at long last, “The war thus comes to an end."

But had it?

Already, countervailing gusts were blowing across Europe’s shattered realms. The New Republic wrote, “Democracy is infectious,” but it paled in comparison with the Spanish flu epidemic, which killed tens of millions in 1918 and 1919. Food shortages had brought populations close to chaos, especially in the final weeks, and Communism was spreading rapidly in Germany, Hungary and Poland.

Democracy was also challenged by the deep hatreds stirred up by four years of total war. Many Germans were not ready to absorb the news of armistice, after years of propaganda about inevitable victory. One soldier’s reaction was visceral: In a hospital in Pomerania, Adolf Hitler wept when he heard about “the monstrous event” and became so distraught that he temporarily lost his eyesight (“everything went black before my eyes,” he wrote). Ominously, he resolved to “go into politics.” It would be a politics of blame, castigating Jews and leftists for the defeat. In 1940, he forced the French to surrender in the same railroad car.

In America, too, democracy was a challenging word to live up to. All Americans had contributed to victory, including African-American soldiers, women working on the home front and recent immigrants who volunteered for service in every way they could. They were in no mood to accept second-class citizenship. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote: “Make way for democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America.” That was not exactly what Wilson had in mind. Around the same day as the armistice, a young African-American named William Bird was lynched in Sheffield, Ala.

In other ways we live with the failures as well as the successes of 1918. Earlier that fall, Wilson wrote to an Arizona senator, Henry Ashurst, that he was working with the future in mind: “I am now playing for 100 years hence.” He would be dismayed at all the ways in which our world resembles his.

In some ways, it is worse. A recent Pew Poll showed a rapid decline in admiration for the United States. For 12 years in a row, according to Freedom House, democracy has been on the wane. In the Middle East, Ottoman memories are back, feeding the sultanic ambitions of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In Russia, Vladimir Putin revisits the past in his own curious way, merging Soviet nostalgia with the czar’s role as the defender of the Russian Orthodox Church. It will be surreal to see him among world leaders in Paris this weekend. Few have done less than Mr. Putin to make the world safe for democracy.

“We only know war lasts.”

Of course we should honor the sacrifice of a generation who did all they were asked, and then some, to build a better world. That honor will be solemnly bestowed in Paris on the centenary of the armistice.

As French jets streak over a military parade, perhaps the quiet voice of Wilfred Owen will be heard. He was killed in the final week of the war — his parents received the news as the church bells were ringing, in celebration of armistice. Owen’s precision with words suggests his revulsion at the undisciplined ways leaders spoke, then as now, dividing people. A century later, it is unlikely that we can escape the theater of grandiosity, with leaders crowding the stage for their photo op. But as the world prepares for Armistice Day, a sense of self-restraint would be the most fitting way to remember the tragedy that ended in 1918.

Ted Widmer is a distinguished lecturer at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York and a fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

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