One hundred years ago right now, Europe exploded into war. Civilization collapsed into a horrific conflict marred by poison gas, machine guns with names like “the Devil’s paint brush,” and thousands of miles of rotten, rat-infested, death-strewn trenches, where men subsisted below the earth.
It was World War I.
And ever since, professors have struggled to explain to students how the major powers became engulfed by this nightmare.
There was no Pearl Harbor. There were no concentration camps. There was no Hitler, Stalin, or even any brutal dictators.
It was a disastrously wasteful affair that Pope Benedict XV publicly declared an unjust war, a mad form of collective European suicide. The pontiff rightly judged that there were no salient moral issues dividing the combatants. These countries should not have been slaughtering their boys by the millions.
The moral calamity was obvious to all. Quite apart from the bishop of Rome, the acclaimed atheist-leftist intellectual Sidney Hook might have best summed up the catastrophe when he referred to World War I as “the second fall of man.”
And so it was.
Religious metaphor best captures the gravity of this giant fall from grace. Historian Michael Hull evokes the image of “The Christ of the Trenches.” This life-size statue of Jesus Christ hung with arms outstretched on a tall wooden cross was erected on the Western Front. Soiled, bullet-scarred, and, most of all, crucified, it’s an appropriate symbol for those who gave their lives for this colossal sin.
Michael Hull maintains that World War I was arguably more horrible than World War II. How so? Because of the sheer futility of squandered lives.
Moreover, the horror didn’t end. This wretched war enabled Hitler in Germany and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. It helped lead to World War II and the Cold War, which killed yet far more.
That’s quite profound for a war that Americans today know nothing about. Now, at its 100th anniversary, let’s remember its many victims.
For Ave Maria Radio, I’m Paul Kengor. Check out my writings at faithandfreedom.com.