What We've Learned — And What We Haven't — In The 100 Years Since WWI Ended

Nov 12, 2018
Originally published on November 12, 2018 7:23 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month 100 years ago marked the end of World War One.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA MARSEILLAISE")

FRENCH ARMY CHOIR: (Singing in French).

CHANG: Yesterday in Paris, an army choir sang the French national anthem in the rain at a ceremony to commemorate that anniversary.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA MARSEILLAISE")

FRENCH ARMY CHOIR: (Singing in French).

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Leaders from all over the world were at the Arc de Triomphe as French president Emmanuel Macron spoke about the millions of soldiers who died in the Great War to defend a vision of France as a generous nation, as the bearer of universal values.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

SHAPIRO: "Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism," Macron said. "And nationalism betrays patriotism."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MACRON: (Speaking French).

CHANG: "By saying that we put ourselves first and others don't matter," Macron continued, "we erase that which makes a nation great - its moral values." Sitting in the audience was President Trump, who has embraced an America-first policy during his almost two years in office.

SHAPIRO: That ceremony marking the end of hostilities in World War One was broadcast around the world. Yale historian Timothy Snyder says there should be more to this centennial than just ceremony.

TIMOTHY SNYDER: What we're doing is we're substituting, you know, a day of memory every hundred years or so for actually learning the history of the past. Once you let history go, it's very hard to draw serious lessons from it.

SHAPIRO: Snyder says the lessons that can be drawn from World War One and its aftermath lie in the international institutions and agreements that were created after both world wars had ended.

SNYDER: The failure after the First World War was to set up a system in which states could feel that they were equals and in which they were gaining security and prosperity in an obvious way. The success after the Second World War was indeed to set up a process of European integration and transatlantic cooperation where it was pretty transparently clear to most people concerned that they were gaining prosperity and that they were gaining security.

So the fundamental idea is that you can be a state, you can be as secure as a state, but you can be in a legal relationship, a political relationship, economic relationship with your neighbors which makes war not just less likely, that makes it seem like a foolish thing to do.

SHAPIRO: Today we have leaders, including President Trump, who say, why is our country making sacrifices for some international association that doesn't do our country any obvious good? How would the Western powers of post-World War have answered that question? Why should we be part of an alliance like this?

SNYDER: Well, one of the basic lessons of the First World War is that if you decide that you need to be the first person to leave the system, that means you're going to be the first person to bring about a catastrophe. A system of rules or cooperation or law can only work if the players, especially the big players, like Germany back then or like the United States now, accept at least their share of responsibility.

If a big power like the U.S. says we don't need rules - we come first - then it's setting the precedent for everyone else. It's easy to say what do these institutions do for us when they're working. Once you destroy them, it's going to become pretty clear what they were doing for you.

SHAPIRO: Are you saying that there are only two options here? One is international alliances, and the other is global war?

SNYDER: I think it's pretty clear to anyone who's sober that globalization, the challenges of globalization, are there whether we like them or not. We can decide to face the challenges by saying, hey, we have a lot of common interests with a number of other countries or institutions, and we're going to form institutions which help us to address those challenges.

Or we can dodge the challenge. We can be cowardly. We can say us first, and we can fall down the rabbit hole of just thinking about ourselves. That's not necessarily going to lead to a global war. But it makes conflict much more likely, sure.

SHAPIRO: You talk about America first, but we're also seeing the U.K. leave the European Union. We're seeing nationalist leaders in Hungary and other Eastern European countries. It seems like something that goes far beyond the United States.

SNYDER: Indeed. I mean, I think we're looking at a process where actually the most important player, sadly, is not the United States. The most important player, in the Western world, anyway, is Russia, which is the one country in the entire system which has an interest in the system falling apart. It's stranger when countries inside the European Union or inside the transatlantic world follow Russia's lead. But that's what some of us are doing.

SHAPIRO: Ok. So I can imagine somebody getting home from work tonight and saying to their spouse, hey, on NPR, I heard a historian say we're headed to World War Three. Is that what you're saying?

SNYDER: I'm not saying that history will repeat itself. I'm saying that the good guys also have to learn from history and that one of the things that the good guys can learn from history is that we need institutions and laws that make conflicts less likely. Another thing we can learn, by the way, is that technology can run ahead of us. The First World War was so deadly because people didn't recognize what technology could do.

At that time, the technology was the machine gun. Now the technology is the Internet. We're not really sure how far a cyberwar can go. Did the Russians really think that they were going to win in 2016 and get Donald Trump elected? I kind of doubt it.

And that's another reason to remember the lessons of the Great War - that once you give up on institutions and laws, once you just allow yourself to tumble forward by way of your own rhetoric, by way of your own impatience, things can get out of control pretty fast, especially if you're in a technological environment that you're not really sure of. And we are right now.

SHAPIRO: Are there any advantages, any safety measures you see in the world today that didn't exist 100 years ago?

SNYDER: Oh, absolutely. I mean, for one thing, it's a much bigger, complicated world. So a few great powers can't decide that there's going to be a world war. Another thing which is certainly different is, at least in the West, we have a more aged population. That means it's less likely that we're going to fight a war. People care less about territory than they used to, which makes border conflicts less likely. And border conflicts, as we saw in the First World War, can precipitate a larger conflict.

And - but most importantly, even if we don't appreciate - or even if our don't - our leaders don't appreciate the importance of the European Union, it's still with us. Even if our leaders don't appreciate the importance of NATO, it's still with us. Even if our leaders don't appreciate the importance of international law, it still acts in all kinds of ways that make it harder for a conflict to start immediately. So our institutions at the moment are better than our leaders. Our leaders are trying to bring them down, but the institutions are still there. And that's - that is actually very important.

SHAPIRO: Do you see one great bulwark, whether that's a person, an institution, something that you think is the best hope for leading the West towards a more collaborative and less combative model?

SNYDER: Well, we saw it on display in the commemoration of Armistice Day in France. And the French and German leaders set an example of how you can commemorate a war by commemorating the peace that was made long after and by celebrating the institutions that make that peace possible. Even though it has terrible public relations and is very bad at talking about itself, there is an example in the world of a place where world wars were fought which then becomes a place where you have tremendous economic growth over a very long period of time involving hundreds of millions of people.

And that's the European Union. It's under assault from people who think that the world would be better served by nation states and empires. But whatever those leaders might think, be they in Moscow or be they in Washington, the European Union is still with us. And it is a pretty good example of how things can look.

SHAPIRO: Timothy Snyder, thanks so much for joining us today.

SNYDER: It's been my great pleasure. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: He's a professor of history at Yale University and author of "On Tyranny."

(SOUNDBITE OF SEBASTIEN TELLIER'S "LA RITOURNELLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.