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A Century After WWI’s End, Adam Hochschild Cautions: “Think Long and Hard Before Starting a New War”

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Between 1914 and 1918, about 10 million civilians perished in World War I, and almost 10 million soldiers were killed. Another 21 million were wounded. This week marks the 100th anniversary of the celebrated armistice credited with ending the war. But the agreement, which signified German surrender, was a shock to the people of Germany, says journalist and author Adam Hochschild—and it guaranteed the continuation of a brutal wartime naval blockade that saw over 400,000 Germans die of malnutrition. A right-wing backlash in Germany followed after the armistice, leading into World War II and the Holocaust. Hochschild says WWI, like the Iraq War, holds important lessons for today’s leaders to avert another war. “Wars almost always cause more problems than they solve,” he says. “Anybody at any time should take that lesson from this first of the terrible wars of the 20th century.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron stirred controversy when he suggested that he would honor Marshal Philippe Pétain, along with seven other marshals, as part of Armistice Day commemorations this weekend. During the Second World War, Pétain collaborated with the Nazis in the deportation of Jews from France. After the Second World War came to an end, he was convicted and jailed for treason. Macron clarified his remarks Thursday.

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: [translated] I’m looking at history as it is. And as I’ve said yesterday, there is one Marshal Pétain who was one of the figures and one of the great soldiers of World War I. No one can erase that. So now I simply said you can’t erase history. We are not the judges of history. But there was never any question of him receiving an individual commemoration. And so, what I’ve always said and wanted to do and to be done is for the army marshals to be remembered and for there to be no individual commemoration for Pétain, as has been the case since former President Jacques Chirac’s time.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Hochschild, if you could talk about Pétain and the role he played, from World War I to World War II, and how you believe World War I, the way it ended, led to World War II?

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Right. Well, Pétain was sort of an odd case, because he was a great military hero in World War I, and then, in World War II, he of course became the leader of the French regime that collaborated with the German occupiers, most notoriously in assisting them in rounding up the Jews of France and Jews from other countries who had tried to take refuge in France, and shipping them off to the death camps. So, a very controversial figure and a strange person to pick to honor.

In the First World War, one reason that Pétain was a military hero was that he suppressed, successfully, a widespread mutiny in the French Army. In 1917, tens of thousands of French soldiers refused orders to take part in new attacks. They had just been through a fruitless offensive where some 30,000 French soldiers were killed, one of these typical World War I attacks where soldiers were ordered to climb out of their trenches and advance into machine-gun fire and just get mowed down by the thousands. Mutiny spread through the French Army. Soldiers refused to attack. One group of soldiers hijacked a train and tried to drive it back to Paris. Other soldiers said, “We’re not going to leave our trenches, but we will be here to defend France, but we’re not going to take part in any attacks.”

This was the greatest such catastrophe to hit the Allied armies in the West, and Pétain was brought in and, with a mixture of carrot and stick, managed to suppress the mutinies. He had some mutineers shot. Many others were sentenced to death. And then he reprieved their sentences, so they felt grateful to him to be able to be allowed to live. He improved the food sent to the Army. He granted people leave on a more regular basis. And basically, things got calmed down, although the French Army did make no more of those absolutely suicidal attacks. So, that was really his role.

Your other question, Amy, was about how the First World War led to the second, right?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Yeah. You know, there were a couple of peculiar things about the way the First World War ended. I think there’s no way it could have ended well, when you had so many people killed. You know, Germany lost 1.8 million soldiers killed; France, 1.4 million; Britain, three-quarters of a million; you know, close to 2 million in Russia. Every nation felt deeply bloodied and deeply wounded, hurt, losing all these sons, husbands, brothers. And there were many civilian casualties, as well.

But one peculiar thing about how the war ended was that because of the tightly controlled propaganda apparatus, especially on the German side, the German people, in the last months of the war, really had no idea that their army was losing. It was easy not to realize that, because the fighting was still taking place almost entirely outside of Germany. The German Army, even though it had retreated a couple hundred miles, it was still in France and Belgium by November of 1918. On the Eastern Front, in Russia, Germany and Russia had made a peace deal, and Germany now occupied a huge swath of what was then the Russian Empire, is today Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states. So Germans felt, you know, “There’s no fighting on our home territory. We haven’t been told anything about defeats or anything. Why is there suddenly an armistice?” And then the terms of the armistice became clear immediately that Germany had to retreat from all this land it occupied, and furthermore, there were going to be reparations, and Allied troops were going to be occupying part of Germany, the Rhineland, the area of Germany on either side, particularly on the western side, of the Rhine River.

So, that set things up for the legend of the stab in the back, the belief that the right wing in Germany encouraged very strongly, that their army had been poised for victory in this great and terrible war, and then it was stabbed in the back by Jews, socialists, communists, pacifists. And even before Hitler began talking this way, there were right-wingers in Germany who were already muttering along these lines in the last months of the war, because they knew that their military was losing, which the general public did not know. They needed to have somebody to blame, and the German high command helped ensure that it would be a Socialist government in the last days that would have to take the blame for signing the peace agreement, the armistice. The armistice was really a German surrender, and whatever government signed that was going to be blamed for losing the war. The high command didn’t even send particularly senior military representatives to the signing ceremony, because they didn’t want any photographs of the key generals there. They sent a naval captain and a major general, which is rather low-ranking. And it was a civilian Cabinet minister who led the delegation that signed that peace agreement. So, that kind of set things up for a German public that was astonished to find out that they had lost the war, was ready to be told that somebody was to blame for this. And this really paved the way for Hitler.

There was another part of that armistice agreement also that created an enormous amount of ill will, which was this. Throughout the war, Germany had been under a tight naval blockade. The British Navy controlled the seas, and their ships surrounded Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary, so that no foreign ships could get through. This created a great deal of hunger, because Germany, on the eve of the war, had imported a quarter of its food, and then, once the fighting started, its production of food, its homegrown food, greatly diminished because the young men who would normally be tilling the fields and herding the cattle and so forth were all off at the front being killed. So, Germany quickly ran short of food. The population was on the edge of famine for much of the war. It’s estimated by scholars that more than 400,000 Germans died of malnutrition. The average German lost 10 to 20 percent of their body weight during the war. There are statistics on children’s growth during that period that shows the average German child of any given age in 1918 was an inch shorter than the average German child of any given age in 1914. So, Germans suffered terribly from this food blockade and then were horrified to find that when the armistice was signed, it provided that the blockade would continue until Germany signed a final peace treaty. And everybody knew that was months off. And indeed, it didn’t happen until nearly eight months later, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed. So Germany had to continue to endure this wartime starvation for months after the armistice.

And in that article I wrote, I quote the American journalist Oswald Garrison Villard writing from Germany four months after the armistice and talking about how little food people have to eat. He visits one hospital where all they have to give their patients of any sort is just carrot soup, nothing else. And he talks about how “Now I’m hearing a kind of bitterness in the air that I didn’t hear a couple months ago, when I first got here.”

AMY GOODMAN: Adam, we only have a minute to go, but what lessons can we learn today from World War I?

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: A couple, I think, Amy. One is that wars almost always cause more problems than they solve. Everybody thinks that starting a war is going to solve a particular problem. We’re going to get some tyrant out of power. We’re going to punish a country for doing this or that. And then, you know, 10, 15, 20 years later, you find yourself dealing with consequences that you never anticipated.

And I think that was the case with World War I, where it led to a second, even more destructive war and the Holocaust, as well. That’s the lesson of the U.S. war in Iraq, for example, where we know today that ISIS began to form in the prison camps of that war, when Islamic militants came together with veterans of Saddam Hussein’s army. So, I think, think long and hard before starting a new war. Anybody at any time should take that lesson from this first of the terrible wars of the 20th century.

AMY GOODMAN: And particularly what President Trump should learn?

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: In particular, I think he should learn that any wars he might contemplate—and it’s a little hard to figure out what they might be, but he’s made all sorts of threatening noises against the Chinese, against the Iranians, previously against the North Koreans, and possibly again against the North Koreans, because he and Kim seem to be falling out of love at this point—that, you know, to carry any of those threats farther into war is almost certain to be a disaster. It’s hard to imagine any military conflict with any of those countries ending up well and not causing more problems than it solves.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Hochschild, I want to thank you for being with us, author of To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, now lecturer at Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley, where he’s speaking to us from today.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, it’s Veterans Day. We’ll speak with Suzanne Gordon, Wounds of War: How the VA Delivers Health, Healing, and Hope to the Nation’s Veterans. And we’ll also talk about the Marine Corps vet who gunned down 12 people at a country music bar in Thousand Oaks last week. Stay with us.

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AMY GOODMAN: Angélique Kidjo, performing Sunday at the Paris ceremony marking the armistice that ended World War I. The song was written by Bella Bellow of Togo, a former French colony. It honors the memory of African soldiers who died in the war over a century ago.

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