First World War finally ends

Advancing Through No Man's Land, 1917.
Collections Canada, Canada and the First World War

If you missed the signing of the Armistice between the Allies and Germany at the conclusion of the First World War, you’re not alone.

Few people alive today can remember that historic occasion on November 11, 1918, which famously ended the fighting on the Western Front.

But maybe we’ll all remember where we were Sunday, October 3, 2010 when the First World War finally, officially ends.

That’s right: 92 years after the Armistice, Germany will pay the last interest accrued on foreign bonds issued to pay off its wartime reparations.

Those were the once-crippling monetary fines the “winners” of the First World War imposed on Germany by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Wartime reparations, strongly urged by Belgium and France, were meant to defray the cost of their defense, punish Germany, and keep the “aggressor” nation in check. Instead, reparations are widely seen as having laid the foundations for the Second World War by making economic recovery impossible for Germany.

Adolph Hitler used the issue of reparations to rally an angry populace to his nationalist cause, and we all know what happened when he assumed control: the Second World War was the inexorable result. With Hitler as Chancellor payments stopped until after Germany’s defeat by the Allies in 1945. By international agreement in 1953, West Germany re-commenced payment on the principal of the foreign bonds; interest was deferred until West and East Germany reunified in 1990. At that point annual payments resumed.

The last of those payments is due October 3, on the 20th anniversary of the reunification of Germany.

This all seems somewhat surreal, especially seen through the lens of the 21st century attention span. The First World War just ending now? But that was generations ago! Before skyscrapers, automobiles, mass media, the agricultural revolution, digital technology, the Space Race…

Yet the last veterans of that war are still hanging on, albeit at very advanced ages. When I was a kid, a few WWI vets still marched in the Remembrance Day parades, alongside the younger men who’d fought in WWII. Their living memories made the conflict real, even at that remove of time and distance.

It’s both fitting and telling that the War to End All Wars – which turned out to be anything but – has in a tangible way continued til the present day.

After all, the First World War was the conflict that dramatically redrew the boundaries of Europe for the 20th century (they’ve continued to be redrawn and erased since then). This was the establishment of war as a global phenomenon, with the involvement of Asia, Australia, Africa, Arabia and the Americas in what had begun as a European regional conflict.

World War I saw the introduction or first widespread use of the tank, the machine gun, barbed wire, howitzers, chemical weapons, warplanes and other tools and methods of modern war. There was starvation, disease and genocide on an unprecedented scale.

There had been nothing like the First World War before. No one could imagine the horror being repeated. It was unthinkable. Yet the horror was repeated on an even greater scale only a generation later, in the Second World War.

And even when that war had ended, with the blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki  thrusting us into the nuclear age, mass armed conflict remained a prime characteristic of the twentieth century.

The short-sighted members of the current generation may think the First World War is long behind us, but history moves slowly.

When that final payment clears the bank October 3, the War to End All Wars will have reached its bureaucratic conclusion.

It remains an open question whether the era of war has ended yet, or ever will.

2 comments on “First World War finally ends

  1. Great, blog. I just finished John Keegan’s book, The First World War – the first chapter is worth the whole book. He surmises that the European powers had planned out invasions of each other down to the last knapsack, bullet and railway terminus. Logistically, the country who declared war first has an enormous strategic advantage and could gain 20 to a hundred miles in territory if they could set their mobilization in motion sooner than the enemy. Thus, once the power keg of the Balkans exploded, each country was desperately edging towards a war because if they delayed, they could lose before the first shot. In this way, it was not in the country’s best interest to slow down and offer diplomatic solutions to the crisis because they couldn’t trust their counterparts would not be secretly preparing for war.

    A real eye-opener – shows how militaristic societies are self-fulfilling prophecies.

  2. Great comment – will have to check out that book. One thing I don’t point out in the article above is that the First World War was as much a result of previous conflicts and divisions of territory as it was the cause of the ones that followed.

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