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How World War I Illustrates
the European Mindset

  • When Jurassic Park became a nationwide hit in France in the early 1990s, a (just as) nationwide debate protesting the dominance of Hollywood broke out (coupled with hand-wringing over ILM's new computer-assisted technology), with one weekly TV guide lamenting: "With a hit like that, why can't the Americans be fair and generous, hold their other movies back, and give French films some space?"
  • When a French inventor (he had invented, among other things, a retractable spiral staircase for small two-floor apartments) explained on TV how some of his earlier inventions had been pilfered in America, the program's host asked rhetorically, "les Américains l'ont volé?!"

The only answers to those remarks are as follows:

  • Americans did not make Jurassic Park, nor indeed did Hollywood. One studio, and one director did — a more correct way to explain the "making" process would be to say, "they invested money in a risky venture with no guarantees for recouping their investments" — and the money they made (because they need to make money to survive) did nothing for Disney, Paramount, and 20th Century Fox, or for Steven Spielberg's fellow directors. (Indeed, the world-wide hit may have hurt all the latter, as the blockbuster induced fewer spectators to see the latter's output.)
  • The Americans (i.e., the American people) did not steal the Frenchman's inventions. Insofar as the description of what happened is correct, one American (or a couple of Americans) did, and it is unlikely that whoever he is would not have been just as eager to steal the ideas of his own fellow Americans. (Nor is it particularly plausible to suggest that he would have turned out other than a thief had his ancestor not emigrated to the New World.)

This brings us — believe it or not — to World War I.

Not long ago, I read a comment — one single sentence — that says a world about the Old World mindset.

The comment was about World War I, and it was filled with irony and bitterness. I wish I remember where I read it, but I don't. Here is the sentence:

The Americans didn't enter the war until 1917.

There was much irony and bitterness in the entire piece (here is another and here are a couple about World War II and one about recent American history in general), but there is so much packed into this single sentence alone that one needn't even consider the rest of the piece. Indeed, with this single sentence, one hardly knows where to begin. Let us try anyway to see what it says:

All Americans, as one, made a nationwide decision to enter the war on September 1, 1917. For three years (every day, presumably), they made a collective decision (meaning 1095 consecutive decisions in all) not to enter the war, and then, on that day (or perhaps on the previous one?), all 100 million (the U.S. population in 1915) said (presumably because they knew without a shadow of a doubt that the war was going to end soon), "Let's go".

It's made to sound like there was a barn-raising and those dastardly Yanks didn't arrive until the work was done, or almost done, basically in time for the party... Or it's like that National Lampoon article lampooning etiquette ("the emperor of Germany requests your presence on August 1, 1914, for a war"). Except the Americans never answered, and arrived late, again after most of the unpleasantness was over.

There is no latitude for people (politicians as well as common citizens, Americans as well as nationals already in the war) who were against America entering the war on that date (or on any date); for people who had wanted America to enter the war (months, years) earlier; for people who had listened to (and believed) comments from the earliest days that the war would be over in a matter of months; and for Americans who were horrified by the ensueing bloodbath.

This decision to act in what can only be termed a devious and treacherous way not only reflects on Americans of the time (all of them), it reflects on Americans living today! All Americans living today!

The American people, as a whole, "snuck into" the war when they knew it was coming to an end. In other words, Americans (and supposedly everyone else) in 1917 knew that the Great War would finish in 1918. (Maybe they even knew the exact date — November 11 — supposedly everybody knew even in 1915, in 1914, and why not, months, years, decades (!) before the war, that on September 1, 1914, the nations of the Earth would enter a four-year, four-month, 11-day war of epic proportions, and that anybody who didn't join in within, say, a year (a month? a week?) was a slacker.) Just in case you think that the war was winding up by then, a year before the end of the conflict, and that this was plain to everybody (somewhat like the Civil War or World War II by New Year's Eve, respectively in 1864 and 1944), you should read John Keegan and how he points out that in 1918 — yes, the final year of the warthe Germans were in control of more territory than they had been in any time during the previous four years. (No wonder Hitler could later claim that the ceasefire amounted to treason.)

It should come as no surprise, then, that John Rosenthal points out in turn that

the very expression “the Americans” has long been used in [France] as a metonym to speak, for instance, of the American government or American corporations, thus suggesting, given the normally accusatory context, a sort of collective national guilt.

What, then, is the gist of the comment, "the Americans didn't enter World War I until 1917"? What, indeed, does it tell us about the writer's way of thinking? It shows an attachment to the group, to the collective, to the masses, a mentality which totally ignores the individual.

But individuals is what everybody, first and foremost, happens to be, before they are part of a collective, a people, a race, a class. And comments — and books, and societies, and outlooks — that pretend the opposite ignore the humanity that each of us possesses.

"Come on in. I'll treat you right. I used to know your daddy"
purrs a sexily-clad "war" Madame to "any European youth" in Clarence D Batchelor's Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoon on the "Follies of 1936 (starring Hitler-Mussolini-Stalin)".

In the bitter comment about World War I, it blithely ignores the sentiments of all the individuals that put on a uniform and left their jobs, homes, and loved ones to go to war (and not only of Americans, of course, but of other nationalities as well), a war whose length noone could know, whose causes many had reason to doubt (as would their sons with World War II — see a 1936 cartoon on the left), and whose fate therein, no matter how long or short, no matter how bloody or not, they had no way of knowing either (if only a handful of fatalities were to be counted in a given war, who could tell whether they would not end up among those statistics?). It ignores the feelings of the above-mentioned persons' loved ones, whether they be their sweethearts, their offspring, their parents, or their friends.

Next time you wonder why the Old World stagnates, and America succeeds, it is because the mindset that makes rules and laws, the mindset that makes diplomacy and alliances, the mindset that makes social policy and other domestic decisions, that mindset is, as a general rule, based on collective views of humanity, and ignores the individual.

The most absurd thing about this mentality regarding World War I is that, in other circumstances, the same people who complain about America's late entry into the war — the very same people! — go on to deplore blood-letting and violence and to say that the war was useless, a waste, the product of the greed, the insensitivity, and the lack of humanity of the ruling classes.

This is the mentality that has led to films such as Un long dimanche de fiançailles, Joyeux Noël, etc, and that suggests that soldiers who revolted against their officers — who went as far as to shoot them and whose widows hunt down the officers to murder them viciously — should be fêted as heroes (lucid heroes, of course). Aren't these views contradictory?

Recently, a number of French people (the people who snicker against going to war and dying for one's country) have been suggesting that France's sacrifice in World War II was greater than America's — because allegedly, more Frenchmen died in the 1940s than Americans did. This may be true if you count those who were deported to the Nazi concentration camps, but should choice be ignored in such judgments? Should the rounding-up and subsequent murder of hundreds of thousands with no say in the matter (and nobody suggests that the events were not tragic or that the victims did not meet their end with courage) be equalled to the (to a nation's, to a government's, to an individual's) pondered decision to put one's life at risk in order to cross oceans and take up arms (a decision to help bring about a world where those mass murderers are no longer in power)?

Notice how all of France is depicted heroically, simply by fact of metonymically associating the nation with those who died (rather than with those who, say, collaborated). France used to be depicted heroically because of the resistants, but since the number thereof who lost their lives is lower than American casualties, in order for France to trump the Americans, they must turn to those who died in the camps (in addition to berating America as a whole for every perceived mistake).

Then there are the comments that to blast France's attitude towards the Iraq war (the oil-for-food scandal, etc) is nothing less than scandalous, because of France's sacrifices in World War I (and/or in World War II), or because of a single French fatality in Afghanistan, or because America has less history, or because Poles are not grateful enough to the EU, or…

The beauty (sic) of collectivism is that it allows to prove anything, meaning that the message given will always turn out, consicously or unconsciously, to be self-serving — you yourself will invariably be the beneficiary of a positive spin and your bogeyman (whoever that may be, Uncle Sam, the Jews, the Bosnians, the Tutsis, whoever) will invariably be painted in a cynical way, putting all their speeches and deeds, however positive and honest, into doubt…

So, in answer to the question above, the opposing views are not contradictory.

Because it doesn't matter what the circumstances are — the same message comes back again and again and again and again: We are wise, lucid, clear-headed, generous, humble, solidaristic, tolerant, respectful, avant-garde, and visionary saints. And you are clueless, myopic, greedy, arrogant, treacherous, war-mongering morons, wholly without a single ounce of love for your fellow man. And any fact, historical event, and subject of discussion is adapted to that self-serving point of view.

Let us give the final word to Michael S Berliner:

Underlying the political collectivism of the [collectivist] crowd is a racist view of human nature. They claim that one's identity is primarily ethnic: if one thinks his ancestors were good, he will supposedly feel good about himself; if he thinks his ancestors were bad, he will supposedly feel self-loathing. But it doesn't work; the achievements or failures of one's ancestors are monumentally irrelevant to one's actual worth as a person. Only the lack of a sense of self leads one to look to others to provide what passes for a sense of identity. Neither the deeds nor misdeeds of others are his own; he can take neither credit nor blame for what someone else chose to do. There are no racial achievements or racial failures, only individual achievements and individual failures. One cannot inherit moral worth or moral vice. "Self-esteem through others" is a self-contradiction.

…Individualism is the only alternative to the racism of political correctness. We must recognize that everyone is a sovereign entity, with the power of choice and independent judgment. …

Comments can be left here

November 11, 2005

© Erik Svane