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On Veterans Day, Remembering the Roots of World War I

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Last year, I happened to be traveling in the United Kingdom with my family on Remembrance Day (November 11). The day marks the anniversary of the armistice that ended the carnage of World War I. In America, we typically call it Veterans Day. Unfortunately, most Americans don’t appear to think very much about the day, except perhaps as a break from school or their job (if they happen to work for the government or a bank).

In England, by contrast, people seem to treat November 11 a lot more seriously. Wherever we went, we saw posters highlighting Remembrance Day observances, and in London we saw a prominent display of hundreds of crosses with red poppies set up to honor the war dead. On the Sunday just prior to November 11, the Anglican church we attended spent much of the worship service commemorating the soldiers who died in the First World War. It felt as if the war had occurred just a few years ago rather than a century ago.

On Remembrance Day itself, we were visiting a magnificent castle in Wales. It turned out that the local county council shoots exploding rockets from one of the castle towers each year on Remembrance Day. The blasts were ear-splitting (my teenage son got up close and personal to the action and was suitably impressed).

I’m not certain why our British cousins approach November 11 with much more gravity and reverence than we do in America. Perhaps it’s because the United Kingdom and its colonies lost many more soldiers than we did: nearly 900,000 compared to just over 116,000 American soldiers.

Whatever the reason for America’s cultural amnesia on November 11, this might be a good year for us to start remembering, since 2014 marks the centennial of the start of the First World War. And while we are remembering the valiant soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the War, it would be wise to remember the roots of the fanatical militarism that helped give rise to the conflict.

If you are interested in exploring the intellectual roots of World War I, you might watch “The Biology of the Second Reich,” a short documentary I helped create earlier this year. The 14-minute video features California State University historian Richard Weikart. My aim in creating the video was not to provide a comprehensive examination of the causes of the war, which were undeniably tangled and complex. Instead, I wanted to explore one of the influences on German militarism that has been largely forgotten by our culture: Social Darwinism.

If you think ideas about biology and human nature are far too abstract to be consequential, I’d invite you to watch this video and share it with your friends, especially the segment about genocide in German South-West Africa. Ideas really do have consequences, and the consequences of bad ideas have a way of repeating themselves unless we take the time to remember what happened in the past and then try to learn from our mistakes.

Indeed, as viewers will find out at the end of the documentary, the Social Darwinism of World War I did not go away. It helped set the stage for another worldwide catastrophe within two decades.

Photo credit: John G. West.