Today is Armistice Day, the day we celebrate the end of World War 1. Which set me thinking…
I was born in 1964, fifty years after the outbreak of World War 1; or as it was then known, The Great War. Later it would become The War to End All Wars until it was discovered that it hadn’t been. Only after the Second World War was the first to be known as the First World War.
To me and my generation, World War 1 was ancient history. We learned about World War 2 in school, and it was understood that Nazism could only happen in a country where people were inherently authoritarian minded and didn’t question the authorities (as in, Germany; as NOT in, Denmark. We liked hearing that). After all, World War 2 was still reasonably fresh in people’s minds, Denmark had been involved (and occupied), and many of us had parents or grandparents who remembered the five evil years. Those who remembered World War 1 were already a dying race. Well, maybe we can’t complain if young people today think World War 2 is ancient history…
We didn’t learn much about World War 1. About the cause, we learned that it had started because Archduke Ferdinand had been murdered in Sarajevo. Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia for this reason only, Germany had joined them because they were allied with Austria-Hungary, and Russia, France, and England had declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary because they were allied with Serbia. We learned little of what lead up to this catastrophe that lasted four years, devastated Europe, cost at least ten million people their lives, and eventually led to the creation of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
A pity, because there are plenty of lessons to be learned from both world wars, if we wish to learn them.
The killing of a single Archduke, even if his wife is killed along with him, doesn’t start a major international crises, such as a world war. Europe in 1914 was a powder keg waiting to explode, and the political leaders of all countries were playing with matches all around it. A small spark was all it took, and the killing of Ferdinand and Sophie proved the perfect excuse to jump at each other’s throats.
The ensuing slaughter would have taught a saner continent than Europe that when industrialized nations go to war, the result is a disaster. Four years later, Austria-Hungary was in shatters, Russia was in the power of the Bolsheviks, and Germany was forced to surrender on humiliating terms. The war had spread to Africa and Asia and soldiers from North America and Oceania had died in the trenches of Belgium and France. The map of Europe had been redrawn; Finland and Poland gained their independence while a number of nations who traditionally hate each other’s guts were “united” into Yugoslavia. As an aside, Denmark, which had remained neutral, regained a part of the land we had lost to Prussia after the war of 1864.
The scene had been set for the next disaster!
The soldiers who lie buried here, at Assistens Churchyard in Copenhagen, didn’t die in the war. This site is reserved for French and Belgium soldiers who were captured and taken to PoW camps in Germany. After the war, they came to Denmark to be fattened and treated before returning to their own countries. In a cruel twist of fate, they – who had survived the hell of the trenches and the prisoner camps – died of the Spanish Flu while waiting to be sent back home.