Full Program Description
The hope for a new world order
Original broadcast: Monday, June 8 at 9pm
(check local listings for re-broadcast dates)
The First World War had bathed the new century in blood. Endless fields of gravemarkers quilted the landscape of Europe. Nine million lost their lives in a horrible war of attrition. A whole generation was traumatized by the horror of the trenches -- and swore that this would surely be the war to end all wars.
Lost Peace revisits the popular hopes and experience in the years following World War I -- and the looming threat of new mass conflicts.
At the Versailles Peace Conference of 1919, American President Woodrow Wilson held out a promise to the "silent masses of mankind," of a "people's peace" -- a peace made secure by the new League of Nations and the achievement of universal disarmament. Yet only two decades later, the children of those who suffered the Great War were preparing for another global conflict that would see even more bloodshed than the first.
Lost Peace opens with the last moments of the First World War. Macinlay Wooden was an American serving on the western front: "The morning of November 11th, 1918, Harry met me about a hundred yards from the battery position. He says, 'Look here, Macinlay.' He had a piece of white paper, just about as big as your hand. It says, 'Cease firing on all fronts -- 11.11.18. General John Pershing.' I thought that was the prettiest piece of paper I ever saw. Words can't describe the feelings that came over the men."
British infantryman Walter Hare, who survived the Battle of the Somme, had a more bittersweet reaction to the news: "What I thought about most were the pals that I'd left behind. They gave their lives, and they didn't know what they were giving them for."
Lost Peace tracks these as well as French and German survivors of World War I through the optimism and disillusionment that followed as the post-war settlement broke down.
After Versailles, millions hoped that a new world order would follow, made possible by the new League of Nations. Where there were flashpoints, the League was empowered to resolve them through negotiation and public pressure -- to work toward the peaceful resolution of all future and potential international conflicts.
As a further precaution, the Treaty of Versailles also imposed on Germany the burden of reparations, and introduced the Wilsonian ideal of "self-determination," a principle applied in the building of new frontiers: New nations such as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Poland rose from the ashes of old empires.
For the people of the newly created or expanded nations, the years immediately following the war were a springtime of hope. In Prague, Anna Masaryk greeted her grandfather, Thomas, as he returned from exile to lead the new Republic of Czechoslovakia. She remembers: "There were many people, all screaming, cheerful, embracing each other and my mother was weeping, and of course I asked 'Why are you weeping? Everybody is so happy!' And she said, 'We have freedom!'"
Germany, meanwhile, had seen its territory reduced -- a source of increasing bitterness. Her economy was burdened by reparations to be payed in installments that could last upwards of seventy years -- and was soon crippled by hyper-inflation. Millions of Germans lost everything.
Karl Nagerl, a Munich schoolboy in 1923, recalls: "Prices rose daily. Not by a few marks, but by hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands. We were playing football and one of my friends said, 'I'm going to the shops to buy a couple of rolls.' He had a 500,000 mark note on him. But he only came back with one because a [single] roll now cost 400,000 marks."
In Britain, Walter Hare says he felt the Germans deserved what they got: "I'm afraid I didn't feel any pity for them, because it was the people in Germany -- the German people that started the war -- so they deserved to suffer. . . . [My] concern was to get back to normal life again, and forget Germany." Marcel Batreau, a French survivor of First World War, felt similarly: "They'd been so unpleasant that we didn't have much pity for them. We were sorry for them, but we said tough, they've got what they deserve. They were hard on the countries they'd occupied. They did things that were too horrible."
Despite Wilson's key role in establishing the League of Nations, the United States didn't join. Congress refused to ratify it -- and the country retreated instead into isolationism. Macinlay Wooden left the army and returned to his farm in Kansas: "We wasn't interested in any foreign countries at that time, mister. We was interested in our own selves and home."
Throughout Lost Peace, the narrative of the League's failure and the rise of European dictators is interwoven with the memories of what the program's eyewitnesses felt at the time. The young Karl Nagerl was impressed by Hitler and joined first the German police and later the new army. He found himself on the Austrian border when Hitler defied the League of Nations and annexed Austria in 1938. He remembers: "I sat on my horse just short of the border. At eight-o'clock the barrier went up. Our army marched in with fife and drum. The Austrians, in crowds beyond the border, met us loudly chanting: 'One people, one empire, one Führer.' It was an uplifting feeling. Brother nation was finally reunited with brother nation."
Next, Germany turned its attention to the still young democracy of Czechoslovakia, demanding the largely German-speaking Sudetenland. All attempts at diplomacy failed. The international community took no action -- and appeasement would become the League's modus operandi. The Germans annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia in early 1939 and the twenty-year-old nation vanished. Jiri Strusa, a student at the time, remembers: "My uncle came to us that morning and said, 'Those bastards marched into Prague. Prague is occupied by the German Army.' What could we do? Nothing. We couldn't fight them with our bare hands."
Fascism and militarism were on the rise. The League stood by as Benito Mussolini and his Italian forces invaded Ethiopia in 1935. In Spain, fascist insurgents led by General Franco and backed by Hitler and Mussolini, staged a ruthless assault against Spain's democratically-elected government. And, half-a-world away, Japan conquered Manchuria. By the autumn of 1939, the world was once again at war. Walter Hare, who had fought so valiantly on the Somme twenty years earlier, again wondered what cause his pals had died for then -- and what his son, called to duty for the Second World War, would be fighting for now.
And veteran Marcel Batreau, who told of the horrors of the Battle of Verdun in Killing Fields, was at forty-four, called up a second time to fight for France. He remembers in Lost Peace: "I would never have thought that we would be stupid enough to go to war again.... I never thought I would be called again twenty years later. I just didn't think of that."
Fifty-five million lives were about to be lost in a Second World War.
Lost Peace is produced and directed by Daniel Brittain-Catlin; the narrator is John Forsythe. People's Century is a co-production of WGBH and the BBC -- filmed around the world and shaped in Boston and London. Executive producer for WGBH is Zvi Dor-Ner; senior producer is David Espar. Peter Pagnamenta is executive producer for the BBC. National corporate sponsorship for the series is provided by Conseco, Inc. Major funding is provided by public television viewers and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding is provided by the Richard Saltonstall Charitable Foundation and The Lowell Institute.
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