George Sarant

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Posts Tagged ‘World War I


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The Beatles arrived in the US fifty years ago, as hard as that is to believe for those who were around at the time. The years seem to have flashed by progressively faster, as they inevitably do as we age. Somehow what seems like a long period of time just doesn’t feel like it. Curiously this is not because things have changed so much, but rather because they have changed so little. There is a surprising degree of continuity between now and then. For example, people still listen to the music of the Beatles, whereas in 1964 few people were still listening to the popular music of 1914. Where there is a virtually seamless connection between today and 1964 for most people in the West, the fifty years prior to that time are like a huge chasm of discontinuity. 


Consider the year 1914. Then, for the broad public everything was new, from electricity to movies, automobiles, airplanes, appliances, telephones, recordings, etc. Although most of these things originated in the late 19th century, they did not reach most people until costs tumbled due to mass production early in the 20th century. In contrast, apart from the Internet, medical devices, and electronics generally, there is not much in the way of things with comparable fundamental impact on daily life over the past fifty years. Thus, a person from 1964 could fit in comfortably in 2014  (apart from wondering where all the space travel and robots are), whereas a person from 1914 encountering the world of 1964 would be flabbergasted.  

 In geopolitical terms 1914 was the apex of the civilization of the19th century and the old order of Europe, which disastrously exploded into war in August of that year. Thus began, one hundred years ago, the biggest disaster in modern western history, subsequently referred to as “the Great War,” or World War I as we now call it today. There was worse to come, but most of what followed was a consequence of that war. Had it not happened the map of the world would be very different today, and more dynamic powers would still exist in Europe. Today it is hard to imagine countries sending off millions of their young men to war, largely as cannon fodder, ultimately all for nothing. It is equally hard to imagine European countries gripped by patriotic fervor and clamoring for war as some did at the time. The United States only entered the war three years after it began, so military deaths of 116,516 were far less than the 416,800 in World War II. But for European countries in the west the losses were almost incomprehensible. Thus the Great War still resonates in Britain, which lost 908,371 versus 303,800 in World War II or France, which lost 1,357,800 soldiers in WWI versus 200,000 in World War II. On the other side Germany lost 1,773,700, Austria-Hungary 1,200,00 and all of these are only battlefield death. Total casualties were several times more. In the east Russia lost 1,700,000 before leaving the war after the 1917 revolution.

The German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empire, (which controlled much of the middle east at the time), all collapsed as a result of the war, followed by years of turmoil that led directly to WWII and the further consequences of that war. An imperial civilization vanished, and in some ways Europe has yet to fully recover from what began in August 1914.

Clearly most of the seminal events occurred in the first half of the 20th century. The years between 1914 and 1964 constituted a period of great discontinuity, in contrast to the curious continuity between 1964 and 2014. Although we have been led to believe that we live in a time of rapid change, the truth is things haven’t changed all that much, and that is why the years seem, even more so, to have gone by in a flash. As the saying goes, “the more things change the more they stay the same.”



Written by georgesarant

February 23, 2014 at 7:29 PM


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50 years ago this day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and this fact has been much in the news. I remember the day well, as does everyone who was alive at the time. For those who weren’t, I won’t offer the sort of reminiscences that are ubiquitous at present, but rather explore some aspects of the man and his legacy, as well the experience of those decades. This compels us to consider the phenomenon of fresh memories of an event half a century ago, as well as its continued presence across that span of time. This has happened before, though not frequently. For example, both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were able to recall the American Revolution fifty years later. The Civil War was vividly etched in the national consciousness for the generations who experienced it, so that living veterans were ceremoniously reconciled fifty years later.

We think we live in times of rapid change, but 1963 is still part of the broad national experience, whereas in 1963 the decades back to 1913 were remote, and change was far more pronounced during that period. in other words the world of 1913 is much further away from 1963 than the latter is from 2013. For following 1913 the great shocks of the century manifested themselves. Just a year later the most seminal event in modern history began, namely World War I, or the “Great War,” as it was known before World War II. The latter was but a consequence of the preceding war, if not a continuation of it. In the world of 1913 Europe was at the pinnacle of its power, while America was still a relative backwater, though emerging as a world power. The old European civilization totally collapsed as a consequence of WWI, and its repercussions are still being felt today. Its former glory was gone forever, following an unbelievably costly mass slaughter over four years of pointless war. By the end of World War II the continent was completely exhausted.

John F. Kennedy served gallantly in the second war, and then went on to the political career we are all still familiar with. Kennedy was never a man of the left, despite subsequent claims. He was a political moderate; Hubert Humphrey was the “liberal” candidate in 1960. JFK would have some difficulty fitting in with today’s Democratic party given that, among other things, he did not raise taxes but cut them, and ran to the right of Nixon on defense in the general election. The Kennedy family “liberal” tradition really began with Bobby, when he was radicalized in the late 1960s, and then continued with Teddy. The notion that JFK was some sort of liberal is simply a myth sustained by those who have an interest in maintaining it. Another myth is the notion that somehow “right wing hate” brought about his assassination, when in fact he was killed by a dedicated Communist. Following his death endless speculation began about whether or not Oswald acted alone. The preponderant evidence suggests that he did, notwithstanding various conspiracy theories. and in truth the assassin was an early prototype of the “lone wolf” killer we have become all too familiar with in our own time. Indeed we can see how much more plausible the notion of a lone killer is today than we could back then, when it was too hard to believe that the great could be brought down by an insignificant, (but for the assassination), nonentity.

 JFK came into office after an extremely close (and possibly fraudulent) election victory, but so charmed the nation that he was very popular across the board at the time of his death. He was a very appealing man, but one wonders how he would have fared in today’s media world. Would his reckless behavior and chronic infidelity have remained secret? Or his compromised physical condition? Would his human frailty have been apparent?  In those days the press was far more deferential and protective of the presidency, in a way that is unimaginable today. It is also rare that you see anyone with his aristocratic bearing today. For he was a man of his times, a product of the years he lived, as well as his father’s ambition. He is not a transcendent figure, in the sense of being outside of time, but rather a man who was in his prime half a century ago. Some of his characteristics would not translate well today, and whether that says something good or bad about our own time, is up to the reader.


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Returning home to New York’s JFK airport from abroad continues to be a major embarrassment, after leaving a shiny modern airport in Europe. You exit through a dingy corridor to customs, immigration, and baggage retrieval, to find transportation. You have to haul your baggage across a busy thoroughfare to reach the cabstand. Then you’re treated to a bumpy ride into the city over bad roads through dismal surroundings. Welcome to America 2013. There is no possible excuse for the way our infrastructure has deteriorated. It is nice to hear the administration talk about improving this but you have to wonder where all those billions of stimulus funds went, when there’s not a single project of any note being undertaken anywhere. 

Another embarrassment is Times Square, especially insofar as it is largely populated by tourists, wandering about what is a joke of a pedestrian mall. Having just left countries with beautiful piazzas with fountains, etc. the plaza created on Broadway is laughably bad in comparison, consisting of junk outdoor patio furniture and baffled visitors milling around. It desperately needs some creative architecture. Perhaps Bloomberg will donate a fountain, but then again he would probably want to plaster his name all over it.

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Everywhere you go in Europe now there are huge crowds of tourists at the most visited sites. If you want to see anything important you really have to arrange it in advance these days by booking a time slot via the Internet, as far ahead as possible. That’s the only way to avoid long lines when you get there. Much of the continent has become a museum. What is really striking is how anywhere you go there is a church or cathedral that is the major feature of the city or town. But almost all the visitors are tourists in the overwhelmingly secular Europe of today and few of the locals go to church. 

This loss of faith has profound consequences, and I say this as an agnostic, but one who is sympathetic to religion. First there is nothing to replace it, resulting in a kind of nihilistic fatalism. Second, there is no faith in the future, only living in the present, and as a result the population is not growing and there are not enough people to pay for all the benefits they have promised themselves. Third, without Christianity, which is a crucial part of their cultural DNA, they are disconnected from a rich heritage. This is symptomatic of a long decline that began with the monstrous disaster of World War I, which I believe to be the seminal event of modern history, considering the impact and all the consequences that flowed from it. 

A century ago, just prior to the war, Europe was on top of the world and the epicenter of western world. The war destroyed too much of that civilization, and this was compounded by the second world war, which was a direct consequence of the first. The continent has yet to recover its cultural vibrancy, if it ever will, as it is now under American influence more than ever. 

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Two decades ago in any European city you could pick out the American tourists due to their casual, if not sloppy dress. Nowadays that is impossible as everyone looks the same, no matter what their origin. I’ve written on this in more detail here.  We are more alike than ever, especially the young, who everywhere use the same Iphones and Ipads, due to the now ubiquitous Internet. But some things are not the same. Today the single greatest difference between Europeans and Americans is space. In America we have a lot of it, even in less affluent homes. In Europe space is at a premium and private spaces tend to be much smaller. Anything from a hotel room to a car is smaller, due having a larger population in a smaller territory.

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Much of the traveling on this trip was done on a cruise ship. Apart from people from all over the U.S., there were many others on the ship, notably Australians, French Canadians, and people from the Netherlands, where the ship is registered. It is a hell of a trip from Australia to Europe, but a lot of them do it. The French Canadians are a lot more jolly than the people in France, and actually speak better French. 


That was a fairly diverse population, but it wouldn’t be for a left-winger. I picture one defining this as a boatload of predominantly older white people served by a third world population, (never mind that they are genuinely happy in their work). Since the left sees any grouping that happens to be overwhelmingly white as illegitimate, I get the impression they don’t cruise much, otherwise they would have shitted it up the way they have ruined everything else by politicizing anything they come into contact with.

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As I prepared for this trip it occurred to me how much we depend on things going right in our lives every day,  i.e.  that the plane will land safely, on time, and that we will get our luggage,  that no one will break into our homes while we are away, etc. (Although they could have been enticed, thanks to the Post Office, which again bungled a hold-mail request while we were away and allowed it to pile up). Fortunately most of the time, we go through life expecting that other people will do the right thing, and get angry when they don’t, i.e. in traffic. Whatever problems there are here, there is still a high level of interpersonal trust, which is one of the best features of this society. Nevertheless, things do happen, and it is wise to always expect the unexpected in life. 


Written by georgesarant

May 22, 2013 at 4:41 PM