A War to Make You Hate All Wars

Chistopher Hitchens reviews Adam Hocschild’s new account of WWI, “To End All Wars.”:

Without President Wilson’s intervention, the incensed and traumatized French would never have been able to impose terms of humiliation on Germany; the very terms that Hitler was to reverse, by such relentless means, a matter of two decades later. In this light, the great American socialist Eugene V. Debs, who publicly opposed the war and was kept in prison by a vindictive Wilson until long after its ending, looks like a prescient hero. Indeed, so do many of the antiwar militants to whose often-buried record Hochschild has done honor.

The history of World War I should be much better known in America. President Wilson, who had run on keeping America out of Europe’s conflagration, sold the war to Americans in the highest of high ideals. There would be peace without victory, victory without spoils, and freedom would once again reign. The Germany people were not to blame, only their government. And besides, the Allies were about to win anyway, he thought. America would only have to send over some ships, drop some depth charges on U-Boats, and then Wilson would help to shape the peace. Little did he know that once he committed the Republic to war, Britain and France would inform him that they were about broke and that without some kind of help soon, the Germans would be occupying Paris. Oh and by the way, we have all sorts of secret agreements dividing up German land and colonies among the victors. Send the Sammies over soon!

In America, dissidents were jailed under new sedition acts, and the war fever got so hot that President Wilson had to publicly disapprove of the lynching of German-Americans. Robert Prager, a German-born bakery worker in Illinois had even tried to enlist in the U.S. Army. After his unsuccessful bid to join a local union, he was stripped by a mob and wrapped in the American flag and beaten. The police put him in jail partly for his protection, but they yielded to the mob who dragged him out into the countryside, allowed him to write a farewell letter to his German parents and then lynched him. The New York Times condemned the act. But the Washington post remarked that it was a “healthful and wholesome awakening” to the evils of German-sown dissent in the heartland.

Wellington House propaganda had convinced Americans that German soldiers were spearing Belgium’s babies and cutting off the hands of those poor defenseless democrats. No journalist actually discovered a Belgian whose arm had been sawn-off by a Hun, but it hardly mattered. American’s fell in love for “poor, democratic Belgium,” even if the Belgians themselves actually were sawing off arms in the Congo.

Wilson’s high idealism constantly ran against the desire to revenge Germany. Even as Herbert Hoover was reporting from Germany after the armistice that the Germans were starving to death because of the British blockade, Winston Churchill was coldly suggesting that there were 20 million too many Germans after all. Certain economic-minded members of Britain’s delegation to Versailles suggested calculating the number of calories a German needed to survive and measuring them against Germany’s ability to pay reparations. The New York Times’ editorialized during the  peace talks  that “The punishment Germany must endure for centuries will be one of the greatest deterrents to the war spirit.”

I know these are all random observations about WWI, but they are all a way of saying that I’m glad Hitchens could find at least one war to oppose.


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