What did we learn from W.W.1 100 years on?


When Europe spiralled into war in 1914, there was an almost euphoric, gleeful, delightful jolly mood throughout Europe. What a jolly thing they all said. It will be all over Christmas and we’ll be having pudding on the table, with presents under the tree and a roast for dinner.

So off they all rushed to war, this jolly good European jaunt. The Commonwealth nations excited to be supporting Mother Britain all began to mobilize. The Canadians, the Australians, the New Zealanders, Indians and South Africans all put out calls for troops.

Within weeks the first casualty counts were coming in. The Germans had somehow stalled on the banks of the Marne River. No worries everyone thought. Things will get going again soon. The days turned into weeks. The weeks into months. The nights began to become longer and the days colder. The trenches that were supposed to be temporary were starting to take on a degree of permanence.

No peace would descend on Earth in 1914. Instead the first of many bloody battles up and down the Western Front over which a few square miles of land would be fought with fanatical savagery had begun. Battles costing thousands of lives a piece had happened at St. Quentin, the Marne, Albert, Yser, Ypres (No. 1 of 5) and a host of other places. The ground that would become a muddy hellhole over the next four years was starting to be ground up.

The mincing machines of the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele were still over a year away. But as the mass of pill boxes, bunkers, tunnels and barbed wire accrued on both sides of no mans land the men who sat in water logged dug outs eating, washing, and otherwise trying to live in close quarters to many other men, the task of finding ways to break the stalemate and win the war became a priority.

The plane as a weapon of war was still in its infancy. The tank was still years away. But other sinister developments were taking shape. Desperate to gain the military initiative, the Germans, French and British had begun experimenting with chemicals as weapons. The initial attempts were unsuccessful, but in 1915 the Germans introduced chlorine.

Tactics were changing too. The creeping barrage that moved in front of advancing soldiers had been introduced. A moving wall of exploding shells would proceed the soldiers across no mans land, chewing up and spitting out already mangled land and bodies. Another one, the bite and hold strategy of biting a small chunk out of the enemy lines, consolidating and moving on was another.

By the time the Somme and Verdun, two blood baths with a combined total of nearly 2 million Allied and German dead between them, were over, the French were ready to mutiny. The Russians, sick to death of their wealth hoarding Tsar and no longer able to stomach any further fighting against the Germans were ready to revolt. Food shortages in Germany and Britain were dire and no one knew how or when this giant mangling machine would end.

Conditions were no better in the Commonwealth countries. New Zealand and Australia were permanently scarred by their experiences in Gallipoli in Turkey where they had been trying to take the Dardenelles and secure a supply line to Russia. Canada, South Africa and India were also bleeding steadily. All had further bloody confrontations awaiting them at Passchendaele (Ypres III), and elsewhere.

And so, Passchendaele got underway with the misgivings of just about everyone involved. Only the Generals seemed to be keen for it to happen. The 100 days of mud and blood that followed earnt it a special place in the collection of hell’s that World War 1 was.

Whilst that was happening the Russians had the second of two revolts that toppled the Tsar. Communism became a new term in the language of politics and within months, Russia and the Germans had cut a deal that enabled the Germans to flood the western front with fresh forces.

The German offensive of 1918 temporarily terrified the Allies, moved rapidly west for a month and then, unable to sustain their supply lines, failed. Another 688,000 Germans and 863,000 British, Commonwealth, French and American lives later and it was over for Germany. Before they could recover, the Allies 100 days offensive that would end with the Kaiser abdicating and Germany calling for an armistice began. It took back everything the Germans had taken and was closing on the German border when the Kaiser abdicated.

So what did we learn from World War 1? Apparently not a lot, other than that type of war is criminal. Suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was apparently cowardice, for which one could be shot. Soldiers went home and suffered permanent mental break downs as a result of what they had seen and done with no redress of any sort. And in that 4 1/4 years, enough progress was made on the technological front to unleash horrors unheard of in 1913. Historians to this day argue over the true meaning of the battles that took place, though all are in agreement that it was a truly appalling time in human history.

It was meant to be the war that ended all wars. The Germans would be vanquished, and unable to conduct offensive wars ever again. It would be punished and made to pay huge reparations. Yet on 01 September 1939 World War 2: The Really Really Dreadful Sequel started.

The pill boxes and the grave yards that litter fields in Belgium and France are silent testament to four years of abject madness where political pride and military prestige were more important than the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians. If nothing else, on this 100th Armistice Day Anniversary, we would do really well to remember that. They did not die for nothing.

Learning the lessons of Kristallnacht: 80 years on


80 years ago today one the most appalling pre-war acts of the Nazi German regime occurred. Kristallnacht which is Crystal Night or Night of the Broken Glass is an incident in that period when the full force of the German state and its supporters was unleashed against Germany’s Jewish population. Thousands of businesses, synagogues, homes, memorials, graveyards and sites of cultural importance to the Jewish population were trashed; 30,000 or more healthy Jewish males were rounded up to be sent to labour camps. Thousands more were injured.

Kristallnacht revolted the world. Jewish emigration to Israel and Palestine as well as other nations sky rocketed. But as bad as it certainly was, it was just a prelude to much worse. 80 years later, with far right politicians on the rise, the world showing significant indifference to humanitarian crises in the Middle East, Myanmar, and an increasingly toxic political debate with ethnic overtones surfacing, have we really learnt the lessons of this act of barbarism?

I do not believe New Zealand is at risk of such a horrendous act as Governments and the authorities have gone to lengths to ensure that all ethnic groups can feel safe in this country. The Police encourage people who have been subject to racist abuse to contact them. New Zealand communities would at all levels frown upon on such conduct. That was not the case in Germany in 1933 in that that Kristallnacht was stoked by Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels, and that the violence and vandalism was carried out by members of the S.S. and S.A. It was enabled by the Enabling Laws and was part of a much more systemic campaign to rid Germany of its Jewish population.

New Zealand however is not free of racial and other types of intolerance. On social media, in pubs and elsewhere casual racism can be seen on a daily basis. It might be subtle or not so subtle, but it is nonetheless the first step on the way to stoking worse offence. The causes are largely what they have been in the past – deliberate stoking of injustices, perceived or otherwise, the use of history against particular groups.

In the case of Jews, the idea that they somehow control the banking system, that physical characteristics about them such as “crooked noses” all contribute to the problem. So do the deliberate misuse of images such as photos of the gas chambers, the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at Auschwitz. But who will police this?

We however owe it to the generation that fought in World War 2 and saw the hell of the death camps and the concentration camps. We owe it the survivors of those camps to ensure that there is no chance of such wanton destruction being repeated.

If one wants to see where such a systemic campaign of abuse can lead, they need look no further than the persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. The Government there headed by Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has used the military to empty communities and create a physical and social environment that is inhospitable to Rohingya. Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk and have been displace in Myanmar and Bangladesh. They live in refugee camps with minimal food, no water, bedding or shelter, with the United Nations grossly under equipped to handle such huge numbers.

The political climate in some countries is leaning towards open hostility towards minority groups. In the United States, Brazil and other countries heads of government and heads of state a developing sense of fear and division that leads to violence and eventually all out conflict is at grave risk of taking hold. Once the public are mobilized against such groups, a mob mentality can potentially exist in which instead of asking questions, everyone turns on an unfortunate group or individual. And just as Germany did in the 1930’s the power of the state can be mobilized.

What happens after that is a very slippery, very dangerous slope with dreadful consequences if one loses their footing.