Amid Complaints, a Reason to Give Thanks
“It’s the worst of times.” The words are Charles Dickens’, from the opening paragraph of a novel set in the 1790s, but the sentiment is familiar today. Americans are divided as never before, we are frequently told, angrily at odds with one another, polarized politically, economically, culturally and in our entertainment preferences.
Family elders fret about getting through Thanksgiving and the holidays without violent arguments, and more parents than ever say they’d be upset if their children were to marry across political lines.
But are things really so bad? Last week’s ceremonies commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I — or rather, the armistice that stopped the fighting on the Western Front but not further east — suggest that things could be a lot worse, and have been within the memory of some people only recently departed.
In many ways, today’s troubles look like miniature versions of the woes of the 20th century.
In what was called the Great War, the horrors of trench warfare in Western Europe and rapid reversals in the east left about 16 million people (mostly men) dead. Although the United States entered the war late and suffered only a little more than a year’s combat, some 110,000 Americans died.
That’s more than 10 times the Americans killed in Afghanistan and Iraq over 18 years. Each death is a tragedy. But the 300-plus million Americans of the 2010s suffered far, far fewer such tragedies than the 100-plus million of the 1910s.
And American losses were far smaller than those of other countries: Germany and Russia may have lost 2 million each, France a million and a half, Britain and its dominions a million. The fact that these numbers are only estimates just accentuates the horror.
Combat was not the only cause of death. The Nov. 11 armistice occurred just after the worst weeks of the worldwide influenza epidemic, dubbed the Spanish flu, though it may have first been observed in Kansas. Some 10 to 20 percent of those exposed to the virus died: more than 500,000 in the United States and 50 to 100 million worldwide. People in the prime of life were struck especially hard.
The movement of troops obviously created an environment that helped the flu spread, just as frequent air travel does today. But modern epidemiologists, though not perfect, do a far better job of containing outbreaks of deadly disease.
Politically, we have been pummeled with complaints about the policies of established political and financial leaders — and with complaints about the complaints.
Voters have successfully challenged globalization, submission to international organizations and high rates of immigration. Examples include Britain’s Brexit referendum, major victories for nationalist parties in Poland and Hungary, declining support for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the installation of the odd-duck coalition government of Italy. And, of course, the election of President Donald Trump.
In the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, advocates of freer trade and greater immigration were confident these policies would produce greater and broader prosperity and continue to be widely respected. Now they are angrily playing defense against voters who believe the policies have only benefited the elites and have ripped apart communities.
But the threats to legitimacy of established governance were much greater and more destructive 100 years ago. As strange as it may seem to 21st-century readers, before World War I, European hereditary monarchs who, to varying degrees, made government policy were a widely respected legitimizing force. Allegiance to a ruling family mostly overrode ethnic loyalties.
The Great War put an end to that. The Romanov dynasty in Russia fell before the armistice, replaced after civil warfare by the murderous communist regime for 70 long years. The German kaiser, Queen Victoria’s eldest grandchild, was ousted in November 1918, as was the Habsburg monarch of Austria-Hungary, whose predecessor, Franz Josef, reigned for 68 years.
Dynasties were not replaced by stable democracies. Hitler maneuvered into power in Weimar Germany, and his Nazis took control of the multiple nations carved out of Austria-Hungary from 1938 to 1941. The defeat of Hitler was followed by America’s Cold War with its wartime ally Soviet Union.
These struggles, gigantic in statue and grave with dangers, dwarf the unpleasant but not existential struggles of our own time. As Steven Pinker argues in “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” we live — and mostly thrive — in a far less violent world than our ancestors did 100 years ago. Happy Thanksgiving.
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