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The Great War
Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Timeline Maps & Battles The Shaping of the 21st Century Historians
Historians OverviewJay Winter

The Great War Today
Jay Winter
"I think that there are so many ways that the First World War is still around, that it's become part of the landscape.

"One of the worst, though, is a very difficult subject: it's the sense of whether it is natural for people to die, one at a time, or in large numbers. We're so filled with images of warfare around the world – disasters that number fifty dead in Yugoslavia, a hundred dead in another conflict – become just a matter of fact.

"The concept of armed conflict, as a normal fact of life, which takes the lives of combatants and non-combatants, is the product of the First World War. It wasn't that it didn't happen before, it is that it's become routine. It is, if you will, banal.

"The banalization of violence, that's with us; and, I think it can be traced to the First World War.

"Second thing that's with us, is the suspicion of the motives of people who go to war. It may be that they have good motives, but there is a suspicion about the big words: 'the war to end all wars,' 'the war to make this world safe for democracy.' It is that space between high-mindedness and hypocrisy that I think we can understand how the First World War is with us still. That space is where we live.

"In addition, there is an overwhelming difficulty about trying to establish what is the purpose of commemoration. In 1918, Armistice Day produced a moment which has been remembered in every major combatant ever since. In America, it's Veterans Day. Armistice Day turned into Remembered Sunday in England, and on the 11th of November, in France.

"But what does it mean? It's still there. It has uncertain meaning. It's a problem. It's a question.

"1918 is a long way from now, but it's still a puzzle. What was it for? Why? Why all this bloodshed? Why the carnage? The question seems to me to be the iconic characteristic of what the 20th Century is all about. Why the violence? Why the bloodshed? Why the cruelty?

"The 11th of November, Armistice Day, the end of the war symbolizes the fact that it didn't end. We have to go back every 11th of November and tell the story. But what story is it? Is it the story of idealism betrayed? (The viewpoint that I think I share.) The vast gap between the generosity of spirit of the millions who fought, the meanness of spirit of the few who led them. Is that what it's about? I can't pretend to have an answer, but I know it's a question of the 20th Century. It's a question that we still have to resolve."

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