Kronos Quartet Symposium: Centennial Anniversary of WWI
Cal Performances Kronos Quartet Symposium
on the Centennial Anniversary of World War I
Danner: Thank you. Thank you so much, Matías. It’s customary to say that one is honored to be here, but today those words are true. I can’t think of musicians I admire more than the Kronos Quartet, and to be in any way part of talking about, analyzing, reflecting on, honoring a new piece of theirs is a great thrill for me, and I thank Cal Performances and Matías in particular for being so kind as to ask me.
You know, I was thinking, as Matías was speaking, when did World War I become an important part of my life. And it occurs to me I was probably five or six, which has got to be a little bit unusual. My father was a war buff. He had become a war buff. He was a high school dropout, had been drafted, served on an aircraft carrier during World War II, and at a certain moment that he always described to me, he was, I think, 18 years old, he was commanding a gun crew on the deck off Okinawa and a Japanese Zero came swooping up and smashed—actually, it was a kamikaze—smashed into the ship, and he had this moment of clarity. The clarity was they’re trying to kill me—me.
And it changed his life, this particular moment of clarity, because he became a reader. He realized I have no idea why they’re trying to kill me. I have no idea what this war is about. I have no idea why I’m here. I have no idea where I am. I simply am bewildered, and I almost lost my life, and I still might. So that moment changed his life completely. He became a reader. He went back to the U.S., eventually got into college, became a dentist. That single moment changed him completely, and he never lost this fascination with, first of all, World War II.
But as many of you know, and as I’ll certainly argue here today, World War II cannot be understood without World War I. World War I was the beginning of it all. We’re children of it all. He, when we would drive up to the Adirondacks, where my grandfather, who was a veteran of World War I, had built a little camp on the lake—I was a little boy and got impatient with an hour long drive, and he would tell me stories from war. And one of his great set pieces—well, there were two.
One was personal, where he argued that I would not exist without World War I because Grandpa had sworn never to get married, was drafted at the last moment in 1917, and at the last moment, when he was certain he would not return, because given the death tolls, the astonishing death tolls, if you went, Americans in particular thought if they went away to war they were not going to come back, they were going to die. So at least family legend had it that my grandfather married my grandmother the day before he was leaving, thus to enjoy at least one night of—[laughs]—of bliss before. I have no idea whether this is really true, but anyway, it became true in the way stories like that do. So I am, in a very personal way, a product of the First World War. That was one of his set pieces.
The second was Gavrilo Princip and the beginning of the war. And Gavrilo Princip, of course, was the young nationalist in Sarajevo who was part of a plot with five others who were planning to take the opportunity when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand visited on 28 June, 1914 and was driving through the city, he was one of those who was going to seize the moment to assassinate him. They were being manipulated, not incidentally, by the Serbian secret intelligence forces at the time. Anyway, as it turned out, the Archduke went nowhere near Gavrilo Princip.
He went off, he had a coffee. He mourned the fact that he hadn’t had an opportunity. One of his fellows threw a bomb at the car, injured one person, but not the Archduke or his wife, and the Archduke went off to visit this person, the person who had been injured, in the hospital. As he was coming back he happened to turn down the wrong street—the chauffer happened to turn down the wrong street, realized it, stopped. Just before backing up to go on the right route he happened to be immediately in front of Gavrilo Princip, who pulled his revolver, shot them both.
And out of that moment, that moment of coincidence, ridiculous coincidence, came a war that began all of us, I would argue. I mean, some anniversaries are just pro forma. They’re newspaper things. It’s the 25th anniversary of this, the 50th of that. The hundredth anniversary of World War I is the biggest of big deals, it seems to me, because this is the first of the modern wars, the first of the wars that tell us that we can destroy our world. It introduced us in, I think, a very real way to the idea of human apocalypse, human created apocalypse.
And World War II was born from it, came from it as night follows day. In fact some historians, notably Arno Mayer out of Princeton, who did the great book “Why Did the Heavens Not Darken,” refer to these two wars as the second 30 Years War, after the first 30 Years War of 1618 to 1648. They consider 1914 to 1945 the second 30 Years War. It’s one war with an interregnum of political anguish and hatred in between.
Now, why do I think that World War I essentially started, began our world? I mentioned a moment ago the idea of war as apocalypse. The first thing I think we have to say about the First World War is the level of killing, the level of carnage. Perhaps ten million dead. We’ll never know the true number. It’s probably higher than that.
I know that when you see the beginning of “Beyond Zero”—I started to watch it the other day, this extraordinary piece by the Kronos Quartet, it is almost—in fact I couldn’t watch the whole thing because the footage at the beginning, or near the beginning, is of these troop trains going off with these young men who are waving, all of whom, as the great cliché had it, said that they would be home by Christmas. They would be home by Christmas. It was going to be a short war, and perhaps an intense war, but over very quickly.
And as it turns out, in France, for example, by Christmas 300,000 young Frenchmen were dead—300,000 from August to Christmas. The numbers, which, I’ve written some of them down, they still shock me, but I’m going to give you at least a few of them. I’ll give you approximates. Well, the highest, the death toll, highest by percentage of any country in World War I, the highest deaths suffered was Serbia, as it happens. Fifteen percent of Serbs died in the First World War. That is, the entire, we’re talking about the entire population of Serbia.
Germany well over two million died. France about two million. Now think about this for a moment. We think of these numbers. In Germany men who were between the ages of 19 and 22 when the war began, 37% of them died. And we’re not talking here about the wounded. Roughly double that number of wounded, probably.
And some of those wounded were what the French called the “grand mutilé,” the terribly, terribly wounded, not only having lost limbs, oftentimes multiple limbs, but facial injuries, injuries that completely destroyed or irrevocably altered their lives. France about two million dead, between 27 and 30% of that same age group that I just named from Germany. Britain about a million dead. Serbia was the highest, as I said, with 15%.
I’m tempted to try to make comparisons here to our own history just for a moment. World War II perhaps 300,000 Americans died. It was our bloodiest war. And arguably the Civil War was if you compare it to population, but in absolute numbers the Second World War was our bloodiest war. The number is about 300,000. So think of those numbers put on populations that were considerably—well, actually, dramatically smaller.
In the years after the war, marriageable age people in France, for example, out of 100 there were 55 women for every 45 men. So you had this not only seven, eight hundred thousand war widows, but you had this enormous problem of actually finding, of women actually finding, and men as well—men had no problem finding wives. Women had great problem finding husbands because of the extreme effect on the population.
All right. That’s, I would say, fact one, the simple level of killing, which was dwarfed by World War II in absolute numbers. But these images we have of corpses being stacked like cordwood, very often they’re in our mind from the footage from Belsen or Auschwitz, those images began in the First World War. I mentioned to Matías the other day that by 1916 all of the countries were digging, before big battles they were digging enormous trenches to accommodate the numbers of dead. The soldiers very often would be marching by these trenches on their way to battle.
So the carnage—well, one other number, if I can give you one other number. The first day of the Battle of the Somme, day one, one day, the British dead, 19,240. One day. Same day British, again, just on the British side, 57,470 casualties, people who were either killed, men who were either killed or wounded badly enough to be taken out of the line.
The campaign itself, the Battle of the Somme, again, when we’re talking about the British, 400,000—420,000 casualties. So if you think about those 19,240 dead, the Iraq War, does anybody know how many Americans died in the Iraq War? About 4,500. A lot. But essentially a quarter of the number who died on the first day of the Somme. Across the decade of the Vietnam War about 58,000 Americans died, so a couple times the number of that first day of the Battle of the Somme.
All right. Point one. The level, the apocalyptic level of violence, partly produced by—and we can talk about this in the questions—but partly, certainly, produced by the fact that tactics had not caught up to technology, that you had modern technology, the most obvious being the machine gun, automatic weapons, barbed wire, very important, gas later in the war, chemical weapons, high magazine rifles, that is rifles with ten shots or more.
All of these things had changed what battle was, but the tactics had not changed. The tactics involved throwing large groups of infantry at fixed positions. I should mention also extraordinary developments in artillery, incredible accuracy, particularly on the German side in artillery. Carnage.
Second point is—and this, I think, is a very modern feeling and it’s impossible to understand the development of the arts in this century, I think, particularly what we know as modernism, without understanding this—the enormous feeling of shame that came out of this war, that when it became apparent that this was not going to be a couple of months and home by Christmas, when it became apparent that tens of thousands were dying in a single day, the shame and disgust that possessed thinking people and the self-examination that followed along the lines of one central question: how did we get here? How did this happen? How did what we thought of as our civilization, that word that now had quotation marks around it, brought us to this point?
And I think critical to understanding that question is realizing that this had been an age of optimism insofar as we can make easy characterizations like that. The philosophy of modernity. Electricity, airplanes, cars, fast rail travel, telegraphy, fast, fast, fast. Clean electricity. This was what the modern world would be like. It would be clean, it would be fast, it would be easy. Technology would save us. Technology would make things that were laborious, and horrible, and dirty, and disease-ridden clean. And we have reached that point with the 20th century. How exciting it is to live in this age, to see the gaslights go away and the cities light up with electricity.
And remember, this is the first major war to have convulsed Europe in a hundred years. I mean, there were wars, of course. The Crimean. One could name many small wars, near wars. But there hadn’t been a Great War, as it first was known, or a World War, as it came to be known, or the First World War, as John Houseman in “Three Days of the Condor” said. “We called it the Great War until we learned how to number them,” he said. So it had been a hundred years, and it was thought that this long peace would go on forever, this kind of war.
And this was a very developed ideology in Europe, that trade, speed of travel, permeability of borders—I mean, you could cross all Europe without a passport. International organizations. All of this made a war of this kind completely impossible, just would not happen again. The consequence was when it happened, when it not only happened but when it seemed to be something different in kind, this level of bloodshed, stagnation and bloodshed at the same time, the shame, the disgust, the guilt, I would argue, were very, very considerable.
Henry James…I’m tempted to talk about a few other things. “The Good Soldier.” You see this feeling in a number of works that were written during the war. “The Good Soldier” is one which Ford Madox Ford had wanted to call “The Saddest Story.” His publisher—publisher then, publishers now, they’re all the same—said no-no-no, we’re not going to be able to sell any copies of “The Saddest Story.” Called it “The Good Soldier.”
His good friend Henry James wrote a letter that summer, or early fall, I think it was. I think it was the end of August, 1914. He wrote a letter to a friend, a quotation that has always haunted me. He wrote,
“The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness is a thing that so gives away the whole long age in which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while making for in meaning is too tragic for any words.”
I feel as if that quotation, you know, it’s…in irony he ends it by saying it’s too tragic for any words. But the words that have preceded that conclusion give the lie to that conclusion because he’s expressed it. That not only has this abyss of blood and darkness opened up in the middle of our continent, but it shows that our whole lives were lived on a kind of lie, a lie of modernity, a lie of civilization, a lie of progress. It gave the lie to the notion of progress.
And I would argue that if you look not only at the death that I’ve dwelt on here, but on the consequences of the war, you have to agree with him. Because one of the things the First World War did, it put an end to the constitutional order. I mean, we’re talking here, of course, about many monarchies that are fighting, but we’re also talking about the growth, the increase, the progress of constitutional, legalistic government. And in fact the First World War essentially wiped that out, first in 1917 in Russia, then in Italy, then in Germany, then in Spain. We see this progress across the continent of the end of constitutionalism, and it marches again with horrible finality toward the second abyss of the Second World War.
Okay. I want to say a couple things about the beginning of the war because a third point to make here—and maybe we can bring that map up—a third point to make here is that it became increasingly to be recognized—and this is especially true of artists, I think—to be recognized as a war about nothing, a war that, in a sense, carried itself forward on its own momentum of death and horror and stubbornness.
And this was very much the American attitude. We’re appalled at this. Look at old Europe destroying itself. And one of the reasons why the Americans didn’t get involved until very, very late, until essentially pushed into it. Look at what they’re doing to one another. What exactly is this about?
Now, it’s a very big subject how the war began. And don’t be afraid of that map because I’m not going to give you progresses of battle or anything. But there is a kind of wonderfully insane logic to how the war began. And the insane logic consists in the fact that you had a number of interlocking agreements—I mean, there are really two things. One is interlocking diplomatic agreements between states that in a sense comprised a kind of iron logic of friendship and opposition.
And then you had the famous mobilizations, mobilizations which, once they were underway, were very hard to stop. Mobilization meaning calling up your troops, because all of these were conscript armies, sending them by train to various points of disembarkation, and once they’re there, you’re ready to fight. Very hard to call them back. And very hard when the other side starts to make motions toward mobilization not to do it yourself.
There’s an odd and kind of macabre comparison here to a phrase of our contemporary world which is “use them or lose them” as applied to nuclear weapons. Use them or lose them. That is, when you’re on the so-called ladder of escalation, at a certain point the temptation becomes irresistible to send those missiles off, because if you wait too long they’re going to be destroyed in their silos.
That’s an anachronistic reference, but in fact when we look at what happened during the couple of weeks or really month, the so-called July Crisis of 1914, that’s what happened. You had pressure on all sides, particularly from the military speaking to the diplomats. The diplomats were the only ones in the position to stop things, to stop war. But the militaries were saying we have to mobilize.
I want to read you a quotation from Field Marshal Joffre, the Commander in Chief of the French forces. He handed this letter to the Minister of War on July 30th. Remember that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28th and we had a month crisis. And I’ll say in a minute how this crisis unfolded. But we’ll go to the end for a second. And this is the field marshal who, you know, his government is trying to avert war, but he hands a letter to the Minister of War that says,
“It is absolutely necessary for the government to understand that starting with this evening”—in other words, July 30, 1914—“any delay of 24 hours in calling up our reservists and issuing orders prescribing covering operations”—in other words, mobilizing—“will have, as its result, the withdrawal of our concentration points by from 15 to 25 kilometers for each day of delay.” Okay, so about, what, 20 miles or so, 15 to 20 miles. “In other words, the abandonment of just that much of our territory. The commander in chief”—which his to say himself, Joffre—“must decline to accept this responsibility.”
So in other words you have the commander of the French forces saying to the government fine, do what you want, but remember each day we’re going to have lost 15 to 20 miles of French territory, and it’s not my responsibility. And he doesn’t mean that they’re invading and taking the territory. He means that because of the delay in mobilization that will be the consequence in the early days and weeks of the war. So okay, political leaders, fine, see if you can avert this catastrophe. But remember that you’re losing French territory every day, and I will not be responsible for it. So you had this enormous pressure for mobilization on the political leaders of the government.
Now we look back and we want to say, with this kind of historical anachronism that we’re habitually prey to, well, they were fools, you know, how did they let this happen. You have this Serbian kid in Sarajevo…let’s see, down…where is Sarajevo, where I spent a lot of time? Right here, I believe, maybe a little farther up. Right here. Who takes a potshot, kills the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which, at the end of the day, you know, it’s not as if the entire continent went into mourning. It was terrible, but are you really going to fight a world war over this?
Then you had Austria, who was worried about its own nationalities problem, that is, it was worried that it would lose Bosnia, among other things, that it would have rebellions, blaming Serbia, there, blaming them for provoking this, which apparently they did, and challenging them to bring the killers to justice, to do various things that they kind of refused to do. Now, the Austrians, as it happened, were tied very tightly to the Germans. They immediately said in the case of war will you back us up? The Germans said yes.
The Serbs were allied very closely to the Russians, as they were during the Balkan Wars, as you’ll remember, in the 1990s, as they still were. So they said to the Russians, will you back us up, will you mobilize? The Russians essentially said sure. The Russians were tied very directly to the French. The French were tied directly to the British. The British were guaranteeing the neutrality, according to a treaty in 1839, all of these things are various—those historians in the room are probably pulling their hair now because I’m making this very simple. But the British were tied to the Belgians, to Belgian neutrality through a treaty that dated back to 1839.
I’ll give you the briefest summary here, which I tried to write down. France to go to war on Russia’s side and vice versa if either were attacked by Germany. Britain to lend assistance to France if the vital interests of both were judged threatened. Germany, Austria, Hungary and Italy to go to war together if any were attacked by two other states. Now this is kind of the underlying. It’s more complicated. The different treaty obligations were somewhat more subtle than that. But in essence this is the kind of machine that had been constructed.
And it meant if the Austrians, for example, had just maybe invaded Serbia briefly to punish them and hadn’t gone running to the Germans, possibly this would have been a small altercation that up the street they’d be having seminars about now like they were the Morocco crisis, for example. But that isn’t what happened. The Austrians went running to the Germans, and said will you back me up if I do this? The Serbs went running to the Russians. The Russians talked to the French. The French talked to the English. And you had this enormous machine that started to get underway, all of which was intensified dramatically by the machine of mobilization.
That is, think of them all like us with missiles. And you know what? Things are getting tense, tense, tense. My god, if they launch their missiles before we do, we’re going to be in trouble. So the officers in particular are saying we have to launch our missiles, we have to mobilize. And you had diplomats all over the continent trying to stop it, trying to stop, as Sir Edward Grey says, the lamps going out all over Europe, because it was not unknown that this could be a very horrible war. Not everybody thought that this would be home by Christmas. But they were not able. They were not able to stop, in a sense, the inertial force of the machine that they had built, and things rolled forward. Okay. I don’t know how we’re doing on time, but I think I’ll say a few more things, perhaps, about—sorry?
Tarnopolsky: We have 20 minutes until we stop.
Danner: Okay. Well, I mentioned earlier that modernism, as we know it, if you go to Berkeley now or wherever and take the modernist class you’re going to read “The Wasteland.” You’ll probably read “The Sun Also Rises.” You’ll read this generation of fiction from the ’20s and poetry from the ‘20s which, it seems to me, is completely inconceivable without the First World War. It was a product of the First World War, the so-called Lost Generation, a phrase coined by Gertrude Stein and which Ernest Hemingway put at the beginning of, as his epigraph, at the beginning of “The Sun Also Rises.”
I want to read a little bit, just a few lines here, and ask you to think about the death tolls, from “The Wasteland.” We’re talking about 1921, right, in the immediate aftermath of the war, in which he essentially takes the beginning from Chaucer, “April is the cruelest month,” and makes it into a symbol of death, destruction, sterility, sterility. The fisher king, the sterile fisher king. Sterility is at the heart of “The Sun Also Rises” as well, with the impotent Jake Barnes.
“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.”
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.”
It is impossible to imagine that anyone reading this in 1921 would not have known what these images were about. They were about the war, and they were about the fall of civilization, and they were about the sterile world that seemed to have been produced. There were intimations, of course—I talked to David Harrington the other day on the telephone about this—of the war to come in the years before the war. He mentioned Mahler, Schoenberg.
But you also had the kind of exaltation with modernity that I described earlier. The most obvious example of this is the Italian futurists. But there are many others. Speed, glamour, the glamour of rapid movement, of new materials, of metal, of electricity, all of it, which crumbled, this fascination, during the war, this idea that this would bring us a kind of utopia. That curdled and died at Verdun, and the Somme, and the other great battles of the war.
I think perhaps I’ve made the points I’d like to make, and perhaps let’s sit down and talk a little bit more about this, if that’s all right with all of you. And I won’t be doing—I was going to do some pointing here, but I feel like I should. The one other thing I wanted to mention before I sit down and give up my pointer was the Germans had this amazing plan, the Schlieffen Plan.
When we talk about the kind of mechanics of the war, the one thing you can’t leave out is these enormous war plans that had been built on all sides. And the Schlieffen Plan had been perfected for years. Schlieffen, by then, was dead, but it was still and always will be the Schlieffen Plan. And they invaded, as it happened, through Belgium, the Germans, and the Schlieffen Plan embodied a large wheeling motion, a huge invasion through here, through Belgium and Luxembourg, through here, and then this wheeling motion around that would envelop Paris.
And all of this was, I mean, to actually look at this thing is remarkable. Again, we’re talking about modernity and scientific, you know, this is a product of scientific military college, which, the Germans developed the staff system. They had been enormously successful in 1870 against the French. In any case, they put together this plan and a couple of things happened.
One is that the Belgians, who they expected would let them go through with impunity, fought. They decided they didn’t want German armies on their neutral territory and they actually fought. And that’s what gave us the rape of Belgium, which was an enormous propaganda coup for the West. It blackened the name of Germany throughout the war. And it happens to have been true as well. Incredible massacres and mutilations and awful things that the Germans…there was no particular reason for it, but they did it, and they killed an awful lot of people.
But the most important thing about this is that they were delayed. And the Schlieffen Plan depended very much on speed and keeping to a timetable. The second thing that happened was the Schlieffen Plan was all about the Germans winning a quick war against France so they could then turn and fight the Russians, right? It’s always the problem with Germany, how do you do both, right? It came up again 25 years later. How do you do both? So you beat France very quickly and then you turn to the Russians. And the great thing about the Russians is they take a long time to mobilize. Big country, right?
So you, foom, grab Paris, settle things there, and then fight this way. And that’s, of course, kind of how things went in the Second World War, although they had larger problems with the Russians than they expected. But as it turned out, the Russians mobilized much more quickly and drew German forces this way, and again undermined the forces for the Schlieffen Plan.
So you ended up with—and I talked about those numbers of dead. After the first Battle of the Marne in which the Germans were stopped, you essentially had three years of relative stagnation in which you had these massive battles, massive death tolls, but very little movement.
I should mention elsewhere, Gallipoli, various other places, because we should mention also that this was a world war in part because these were empires fighting one another. You had a great many Indian troops, for example, and New Zealanders, and Australians fighting for the British. And similarly you had other forces from France’s overseas possessions and Germany as well fighting in this war, which is one of the reasons why, indeed, it was a world war.
Significant, of course, when we look at our present history, if you want to go for direct reflections, one is the Balkans and what’s happened over the last 20 years, which I covered as a reporter. But a second place to look is the Middle East, where the First World War produced a dispensation—well, it produced, first of all, a promise that self-rule, that these countries were going to rule themselves after the war, a promise that was very quickly broken in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret agreement that essentially divvied up the Middle East between the French and the British.
And we are still living with the consequences of that, not least borders that were completely unreasonable and that are now being disputed in Iraq, Syria, Libya. We all still indeed are living in this world, I would say. Anyway, why don’t we talk a little bit between ourselves. Thank you. [Applause.]
Tarnopolsky: Mark, thank you ever so much. This was a fascinating not only introduction, but true exploration. I’m going to ask my last question first because I don’t want to run out of time for this one. It’s a rather obvious one. As you observe it, what lessons are we not learning today, or what lessons have we learned today?
Danner: Oh, my. You know, Aleksandra Vrebalov, the composer, has said that the world has changed so much, in so many different ways, but in the way of war it hasn’t necessarily changed. And I take that to mean that we still get into them without remembering that it is much easier to get into a war than it is to get out of one.
George Kennan, the great theorist of containment, said that before the Iraq war began. I did an essay on it called “The War of the Imagination” about Iraq. And he’s, I think, completely right, that we mistake power to destroy things for power to create a new order, power to create a new world, power to do all of the things that we tell ourselves we want to do when we begin a war.
And in fact one of the things the U.S. does very, very well is destroy things. We have a military that, I’m not sure what the numbers are now, but our military budget is at least greater than the next ten countries combined. I think it’s more than that now. So we have an enormous technologically advanced, far beyond anyone else, military, and it allows us to destroy things with extraordinary efficiency.
The Iraq War is where I naturally go when you ask that question. And I think we should remember, first of all, the enthusiasm among many people, not least of them many of my liberal friends, for that war when it began, the notion that it would be quick and effective, the cheers—remember “mission accomplished”—about six weeks into it when Baghdad had been taken, and the war had been won, American forces have prevailed, I think would be a quote from a recent, but now forgotten President. And in fact that was—the war hadn’t ended. You get into something and it’s much, much more difficult to end it and to get out on anywhere near positive terms than you thought.
And the other thing I’d say is—this may not be directly relevant to World War I when it comes to the United States, although I kind of think it is—amnesia. I’m talking about Americans now, American amnesia. We have an enormous power of forgetting. Enormous power. The Europeans would say after World War I we came over in numbers large enough to turn the tide for the Allies. We then left the continent, withdrew American forces from the continent, and the Second World War followed.
And those who had fought in the First World War, Harry Truman is one who was a soldier in the First World War, determined after the Second that the U.S. needed to take a permanent worldwide role. And that’s where we still are now. But amnesia. Who remembers Iraq? The Iraq War continues, but who thinks about it? It’s going on as we speak. But it’s over because Americans have left. Anyway, that’s a rather far-flung answer to a simple question.
Tarnopolsky: America had a peculiar involvement in World War I, first idealistically staying out, then idealistically—
Danner: Getting in.
Tarnopolsky: Getting in. You’ve said that had they got involved a year and a half earlier maybe World War II wouldn’t have happened. This idea of World War I as the defining moment of our 20th century history, could that have all been different had America more forcefully entered and sooner?
Danner: I think that’s a wonderful, provocative question. There are many historians who love counterfactuals. Actually, we all love counterfactuals. What would have happened if this happed? How would things have been different? And I think that’s a particularly fascinating one.
George Kennan, who I quoted a second ago, has a wonderful little book, tiny little book, called “American Diplomacy” which came from a series of lectures he gave at the University of Chicago. And he makes exactly the argument you’re asking about, which is he argues that if the United States had gotten involved a year earlier or a year and a half earlier, first of all, the war would have ended much sooner, which meant that fashioning a peace would have been a peace of equals, if we put it that way, would have been much easier, for two reasons.
One, because the war would have ended earlier, the losses would not have been so great and the imperative to win territory and to make a punitive peace, which of course was what Versailles and the Treaty of Paris were, they were punitive peaces, they punished Germany, the pressure to do that would have been much less. And second, the second reason, the United States would have had great influence in coming to a peace agreement, as it didn’t, really.
Wilson was a very popular figure in Europe when he came to Paris, but he was not taken seriously, really, as a diplomat, and it was thought and understood, and this was correct, that American forces were going to be leaving, and were already leaving, so the United States played a much smaller, a diplomatic role that was much smaller than its military role had been.
So I think one can—this is a complicated question, of course—but I think it’s quite possible that if the U.S. had been involved earlier the war certainly would have been shorter, but that the peace would not have been the predictably lethal peace that it became. I mean, John Maynard Keynes, of course, wrote a famous essay called “The Consequences of the Peace.” I think it was 1919 or 1920. It was very early. In which he was essentially prophetic about what would happen to Germany and the awful politics that would be produced in Germany, and where this would lead. So people were not confused about this.
I want to mention also—you and I talked about this on the phone, Matías—that another thing that we should mention when it comes to World War I is the League of Nations. And this was Wilson’s baby, of course. Wilsonian idealism, we still use that. Bush was often talked about as a Wilsonian idealist. He wanted to rid the world of evil, as he said in his second inaugural. Or I think he said tyranny in the second inaugural. Right after 9/11 he said rid the world of evil.
Wilson believed that multilateral organizations, that the use of the boycott and many other things would allow nations to band together and in a sense impose a legalistic system between states. And he envisioned something like the League of Nations in which this would be accomplished. As all of you know, I’m sure, there was an enormous fight within the U.S. about the League of Nations that essentially killed Wilson. He had a heart attack when he was in Pueblo, Colorado out stomping the nation speaking in favor of the League of Nations, if you can imagine such a thing. But he had a heart attack and it really killed him.
But he lost this battle. The United States did not join the League. And partly this was because Wilson wouldn’t compromise on serious matters. But the serious matter which we should mention, I think, was that the Senate, in the person of Henry Cabot Lodge and others, believed strongly that American forces could not be committed to wars without the approval of the Congress of the United States, that no agreement could be passed by the Senate that would do that. And so the League foundered, and the League was relatively useless and didn’t do, obviously, what Wilson had expected.
And we, again, these are consequences we live with because the United Nations, the stepchild of the League, why does it have a Security Council, a permanent five that can veto anything? Why is nothing happening with Ukraine out of the United Nations? I’ll tell you why. Because Russia’s on the Security Council and it can veto anything.
And why can permanent five members veto anything? Because of Woodrow Wilson and the fact that the League failed. The only way to get the U.S. involved was by having a veto, an American veto, which gave everybody else a veto. So if you find yourself ranting about the U.N. and why it doesn’t do anything about Ukraine, blame Woodrow Wilson and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.
Tarnopolsky: You were in Bosnia in 1994 standing at the spot where Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Ferdinand, and you told me that the footprints that had been memorialized in cement had been stolen. And it was a powerful moment for you.
Danner: Yes. I actually, unlike a lot of the reporters who were there covering the Balkan Wars, I’d actually visited Sarajevo before the war, had gone there on vacation in the ‘80s, and there had been, near this little bridge where these shots were fired, there were these footprints in the sidewalk, and you could stand in those footprints, which is where Gavrilo Princip stood and started the century, started our century.
And it’s true, as Matías says, that I had covered—there was something called the Market Massacre, this bombing of a marketplace, mortar shell of a marketplace which killed about 68 people, a horrible scene of carnage on an unseasonably warm February day. And I had been interviewing people in this marketplace, and then right after I left I saw a car coming out with blood on its…a bloody handprint on there. I went back in and this had just happened.
And I had, the next day, gone back. For some reason I was compelled. I mean, I thought this would be a turning point in the war, this level of killing, and it was, to some extent. It got the U.S. more involved, the U.N. more involved. But I went back to these footprints. I don’t know why. I felt compelled somehow to touch the history of it because at that moment, even as the marketplace was struck, you had NATO planes flying overhead in patrols, American planes, who were doing nothing to stop the carnage on the ground. And I felt the need to touch history in some way. I mean, it seemed a very historic moment.
And Matías is right. I went to this spot, which was a rather vulnerable spot to Serb snipers, and it wasn’t the best place to go. And in fact someone had taken a jackhammer—I don’t know if it was a jackhammer or chisel and hammer, who knows—but they had taken the sidewalk. The sidewalk was gone. And I thought who could have done this? Is it Serb nationalists? Is it Bosnians? And I remember thinking I want to write about this, but then thinking I have no idea what forces in this messed up stew of a land in this war might have taken these footprints. And I haven’t found—if anyone knows, please tell me, because I never did find the answer to that.
Tarnopolsky: So we sort of went into this from the perspective of art and artists. Actually, before I ask my question, if anyone does have any questions, please hand the cards to one of the ushers and we’ll ask it now. We went into this from the perspective of art and artists. You mentioned your conversation with David Harrington about how the language of Bruckner, Mahler and Brahms was radically altered in the aftermath of World War I, there was really a new, some would say austere, some would say more emotionally direct musical language.
We have the comparison in the English language of the war poets that I talked about before, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, compared to the excerpt from “The Wasteland,” a very, you know, whereas Sassoon and Owen are direct, painful and poignant, Eliot gets so austere, at one removed almost as a defense.
Danner: Elusive as well.
Tarnopolsky: Elusive. It’s a very good way of describing. So we’re looking at these artists a century later. And I wonder what’s your view on what artists sort of can do, but today? And I don’t mean as activists, but through their art. I mean, what are the war poets of today to do? How can composers like Aleksandra Vrebalov make us think differently about our world? Because this is what those devastating poems really tell us almost more powerfully than the pictures you describe about what was happening then, and I hope send a lesson to history a century later.
Danner: Boy, I think that’s an enormous question, and a difficult one. In a sense Aleksandra would be the one to answer that, and David Harrington and his colleagues. As I was talking I thought, you know, I’m standing up there, I’m saying all these words—as you were asking this question I was thinking I’m saying all these words, and many of the points that I tried to make, not the least of them that we are, in a sense, all the children of the First World War, that it is, you know, that this anniversary and that event began our era, it seems to me, began what, as Isaiah Berlin called it, the most terrible century in history, that this was the beginning of it.
And many of the ideas, the images, certainly, that haunt us, some of which we attribute to World War II, very much had their birth in the First World War. And I said that, you know, I came out and tried to say this and articulate it, but there’s a sense, when you see this piece, this piece “Beyond Zero: 1914 to 2014”—and I hope people here will go and see it and tell people they know to go see it—Aleksandra as composer and the wonderful musicians of Kronos are able to get that point across in a much more direct way.
You have artifacts embedded in that work from the sirens of the Second World War and the recording of orders issued in Bosnia or in the Balkan Wars that, along with film—I mentioned these scenes of the troops leaving, famous scenes, painful scenes—that are embedded in this work and have a kind of power and resonance that is just many, many more times what you can achieve by just standing here and saying it.
And this is one of the mysteries of perception, of art. You don’t look at a piece like that and say, well, what’s the interpretation, what does it mean. It’s not some sort of complicated message that we need to decode. Even though, of course, a lot of scholars spend their time doing that. But in fact it speaks to us much more directly, much more directly and much more powerfully. And it makes me enormously jealous, as well as grateful, because many of the points that I’ve tried, in whatever small way, to get across to you, are embedded in that piece—the universality of the war, the dominance of war as it’s been in our century, the lack of, you know, the reinterpretation of and understanding of what civilization is, the giving the lie to the notion that civilization will somehow see an end to war.
I think I spoke to Aleksandra about this. This was struck home to me so vividly in the Balkans. You’re covering a war in 1994, 1995 in which genocide is going on. Never again, right? Never again. Never going to happen again. And the genocide in the Balkans was covered on television. I mean, television cameras went into Omarska camp and showed it. And if you ever ask what would have happened if we had TV at Auschwitz, the assumption being it would never have happened, uh-uh, wrong. We watched that footage from Omarska. We watched it.
And I remember thinking, you know, I said that quote from Henry James haunted me, and it haunted me when I was in Bosnia and the Balkans during those years, this notion that okay, the Cold War is over, we’re now in the post Cold War world, right? Remember the phrase “the end of history?” That was very current in those days, the end of history. The two great powers who faced one another armed with nuclear weapons, this was over now and history could go back to a normal state.
And what happened very quickly in the ‘90s was a series of genocides, one in the Balkans, one in Rwanda. So this idea that, as James had said, this idea that this is what the treacherous years were all the while making for in meaning is too tragic for any words, I remember feeling that at the time, thinking in Sarajevo, seeing these people killed, that gosh, this is the post Cold War world, this is the end of the Cold War. It’s not the end of history, it’s the return to history.
Anyway, you asked about art, and I guess I was trying to make a more general point, which is that artists, good artists, are able to communicate the complexity of perceptions like that in a much more direct and a much more powerful way, I think. And I think this piece, “Beyond Zero,” is just one example of that, but it’s a marvelous one, a painful one.
Tarnopolsky: Thank you. I’m going to ask two of the questions from the floor, two shorter ones. The first one was as a comparison, do you know how many people died on D Day?
Danner: Oh, goodness. You know, I don’t offhand. I should. It was in the thousands, of course, but I’m not sure. I don’t think it was anything like the number of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Does anyone know? I should know it. The first day of D Day. That wasn’t a rhetorical question?
Tarnopolsky: Then the second question was touched upon in our previous symposium, but it’s worth reflecting, and it was touched upon by Adam Hochschild, who talked a lot about memorialization in Europe, and also touches upon this subject of consciousness of World War I in modern day America.
So the question is this. Is the amnesia—in inverted commas—amnesia of the U.S. contrasted by memorialization in Europe? If so, is physical distance after fighting wars overseas one of the reasons for the amnesia or is this inherently—again inverted commas—American somehow?
Danner: Oh, boy. I mean, it is a fact that if you grow up in Europe you’re surrounded by battlefields, and many of those battlefields have been made into graveyards, so you live with the power, the physical evidence of the conflict, of those two world wars in a very much closer way than Americans do. I think that’s simply a fact.
This book, I think one of the best short histories of the First World War, which I’d recommend, John Keegan’s, begins with a chapter about memorialization, and where the battlefields actually were, and the fact that, for example, most of the German dead were outside the boundaries of Germany, and the effect that’s had on the particular memorials they’ve raised.
But I think certainly that has an effect, that it was, as the phrase was, “over there.” And the American, particularly conservative distrust of Europe, and the entanglements of permanent alliances in Europe. I mean, this goes back a long way in our diplomatic history and our thinking about foreign affairs, that Europe’s a mess. That kind of politics, you get mixed up in those, and who knows what will happen. And look how they’re destroying one another.
This goes back to Washington. It goes back to Jefferson, both of whom in their farewell addresses said this explicitly. It goes back to John Quincy Adams, go not abroad seeking monsters to destroy. This is a long, a permanent theme in American history.
But I think American amnesia, to go back to the question, is something special. And possibly this is a product of being isolated behind two great oceans, etc. But if you’re European, you’re much more integrated in a multinational world than Americans habitually are, particularly Americans of the heartland.
But I think also there’s a blitheness in the U.S., contemporary America, about power that is peculiarly—if it’s not peculiarly American, it’s peculiarly imperial, I’ll put it that way, that it really is possible to fight this war in Iraq that people argued about, and 4,500 Americans died, and probably 100,000 or more Iraqis, and are still dying, and to utterly forget it, you know, just the spotlight. I always think of this image as the spotlight is focusing on a certain place. The elite of the country learns all about whether it’s Iraq, or Vietnam, or Kuwait, you name it. The war happens, ruins are created, and the spotlight moves on and the ruins are left in darkness.
And this is very dramatic when it comes to Iraq, and I think it probably will be when it comes to Afghanistan. And I think this is perhaps not peculiarly American. Perhaps it’s peculiarly imperial, you know, the imperial gaze, which is, you know, you can say, perhaps define that by saying they have to care about us and know about us much more than we have to know about them. And if you go to Nicaragua, or you go to Iraq, or you go to various places you will know this feeling very strongly. We don’t know about them, they know about us, they have to.
Tarnopolsky: We’re going to draw it to a close there.
Danner: It’s not a very positive sentiment, I don’t think.
Tarnopolsky: It’s hard to find many positive sentiments—
Danner: This is true.
Tarnopolsky: —in what we’ve been talking about. And I really hope that we have—
Danner: Well, great art is a positive sentiment.
Tarnopolsky: Exactly. I really hope that we have learned some lessons. And it’s very powerful to hear somebody as articulate and eloquent and brilliant as you are in terms of an understanding of history and making it relevant to our world today. To say that you are jealous of artists and creative writers because they can give voice to things that even the greatest of historians and writers cannot give, Mark, for that contribution alone, and for everything else you’ve said and continue to say, really, thank you very much indeed. This was a fascinating session. Thank you. [Applause.]