“My travels taught me that there was no area of Europe free from the memories and monument of the First World War.” Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History
I echo Gilbert’s comment. We saw these memorials in our travels, too. You can find small monuments to military leaders and battles in cities and small villages throughout Europe that were ravaged in two wars. An example below is the one hidden in Germany's Black Forest area, a tribute to Erwin Rommel. It's close to his home, and unlike the more formal monument near his grave, this is at the site of his forced suicide by the Nazi regime.
I found Gilbert’s book when doing research for my next novel. He also wrote a book on World War 2, and he has a way of connecting events and individuals that helps us understand how history can take societies in directions both planned and unplanned. Most of the politicians and commanders involved in World War 2 participated in some way in the Great War. That’s why Gilbert’s books are considered good ones to start with if you’re interested in reading or studying either of these wars.
Only an Intermission
The root causes of World War 2 began with the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. The process of developing that document ruined American President Woodrow Wilson, and it changed much of Europe and the Middle East—but particularly Germany. As the world economy worsened after the Great War and reached its nadir in the 1929 depression, Germans became increasingly angry, and it was easy for someone with a promise of national renewal and revenge to develop a following. Scapegoats—such as Jews, Poles, and Socialists—provided common enemies on whom to vent frustration and anger.
Many see World War 2 as caused by one man’s insanity: Adolph Hitler. What we saw at Dachau makes one wonder about man’s inhumanity toward man—and how one person could have such an effect. I haven’t read much about the German psyche during this period, and it’s hard for me to understand. But our tour guides along the way explained much about the French during the occupation and why more didn’t join in the resistance. Some feared for their lives if they didn’t accept Nazi rule. Others felt that the Germans were sure to win the war and wanted to position themselves for that eventuality. Add these perspectives to the Germans’ feelings of being punished into a deep depression after the Great War, and one can see why few of them resisted.
Ironies of War
Gilbert reminds us that more soldiers were killed in the Great War than any other war in history—8.6 million—a fact that many Americans forget given our brief time in that war in comparison to our losses in World War 2. During that war, Americans lost 48,000, not counting the 62,000 who died of influenza.
The American cemeteries in Europe for the two wars are pristine, like the American Cemetery in St. Avold, France, pictured. Ironically, many of the Great War’s cemeteries were being formally dedicated in the summer of 1937 while Hitler was moving into the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. On Easter 1939, survivors of a British Gun Corp met in Albert, a small French town, to dedicate a plaque commemorating their service and lost comrades in the Battle of the Somme, which lasted five months in 1918. Less than six months later, the Germans would come again. This time they would stay for over four years.
I hope you read Martin Gilbert’s works. If you are interested in the Great War, I recommend M. K. Tod’s website, A Writer of History. Her historical novels are well researched, and you can read blogs concerning the wars, some of which involve her family’s letters.
Next time: Nuremberg