Written by: Han Slater
To determine the future has always been a heroic, almost glorified mission placed upon future generations. Learning from past mistakes to create a healthier future has been the ideology placed upon future generations, as it applies to personal lives and society as a collective. However, time proves to be the number one adversary when learning from the past. The gap grows bigger between now and WWI and WWII. Learning and reading about historical events is essential to understanding the sacrifices made for a better future, but emotional comprehension becomes stagnant to almost non-existent. Logically, society understands that the world wars are significant and need to be remembered, but time allows this emotional distancing, so it has less of an impact on our psyche. How does one re-engage with the emotional toll the World Wars had on a global level? Interviews with veterans that remain with us—telling and listening to the stories of those who did not make it back—visiting historical sites to feel the emotional weight of the wars and how they shaped the land. Consider with compassion the wars people experience today across borders. With that in mind, a disclaimer of potentially distressing topics will be discussed in this article, such as war, prejudice, racism, rape, colonization, bio-chemical warfare, and genocide.
WW I (1914- 1918)
Tackling a prominent topic in history, like the World Wars, can be daunting, depending on where one starts. So, beginning at the start of World War I, or The Great War, is where we shall initiate the discussion of remembering. WW I is why Remembrance Day, commonly known as Armistice Day globally, is celebrated on the 11th of November because of the Armistice agreement signed in 1918. The nations of Europe were at war soon after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. More than 650,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders served in this war (Canada, V.A., 2022). More than 66,000 of our service members died, and more than 172,000 were wounded (Canada, V.A., 2022). There were prior tensions in Europe that led to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Bosnian-Serbian radical nationalists associated with a secret organization known as “The Black Hand” resented the idea of being annexed by Austria-Hungary. The National WWI Museum and Memorial explains how the Archduke announced his visit to Sarajevo, and The Black Hand saw their opening to launch an attack to make their anger known. An earlier assassination attempt had been made on the archduke, around 10:15 a.m., when another suspect, a Bosnian-Serb named Nedeljko Cabrinovic, hurled a bomb at the imperial motorcade as it was headed to a reception at Sarajevo City Hall. Gavrilo Princip shot and fatally wounded Archduke Ferdinand and then shot and murdered his wife after a short struggle between him and the authorities. Scholars speculated that the assassination was an excuse to call for war, but regardless of the speculations, the Great War followed on July 28th, 1914.
The Armenian Genocide (1915-1923)
Knowing how the war began is vital to remembering history. Still, it leaves little to no emotional impact on us when all the facts are displayed so matter-of-factly. Often what is forgotten about WWI is the Armenian Genocide.
In April of 1915, the Ottoman government conspired under the radar of WWI to create a new Pan-Turanian empire (Adalian, R. P). Through the spring and summer, tens of thousands of Armenians were driven from their homes and into the Syrian desert; the deportation order was masked as a resettlement program, and in actuality, the deportation orders were intended to act like death marches (Adalian, R. P). Senseless killing would take place along the deportation routes. Survivors were forced to assimilate and forbidden to grieve for friends and family lost (Adalian, R. P). It is estimated that over a million Armenians were brutally murdered, starved, and dehydrated (Adalian, R. P). After the Ottoman Empire fell in 1923, the Republic of Turkey was created. Any semblance of the Armenian genocide was swept under the rug. Those responsible failed to see punishment (Adalian, R. P).
War is a despicable thing to befall humanity. Still, it is something that humans fail to avoid and understand how devastating it is. There are moments when it is unbelievable, unthinkable that humans could be so capable of something so heinous. Of course, reader, this is my inner feelings towards war, and I mourn for those brutalized people and the loss of life.
WWII (1939- 1945)
The “Roaring Twenties,” as some refer to the period, saw economic instability and political insecurity. According to the Imperial War Museums, the U.S failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles twice after World War I, countries were in financial debt because of the massive costs, and insecurity in the public masses gave rise to dependency on authoritarian leaders. The fascist leader Benito Mussolini came into power in 1922 in Italy, and Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Both authoritarian leaders violently suppressed political opposition and fear. Hitler fueled the widespread belief that Germany had been deeply humiliated after WWI and promised redemption. In moments of weakness and desperation, people will choose a way out of despair’s dark hole. This sentiment does not excuse Hitler’s actions as a totalitarian. Still, it is meant to invite compassion and empathy to those who want something better when faced with poverty and death.
Hitler’s military conquest of Europe began after he came into power, with the annexation of Austria and reclamation of Sudetenland, Britain, and France knew that Hitler’s lust for expansion would not rest. The Imperial War Museums state that Britain reluctantly declared war on Germany in 1939, and it is curious to note the reluctant nature of declaring war. It is carefully chosen words that dictate history, and “reluctant” is a specific word choice that the Imperial War Museums picked. Though, it is fair to say that one would be reluctant to declare war on a country, let alone want to enter another war in a period of massive economic and political instability across Europe.
Nanjing Massacre (1937-1938)
According to statistics on the National WWII Museum website, it is speculated that 40 million to 85 million people died in WWII. These stats include military combatants and civilian casualties. Most of these casualties come from the Nanjing Massacre and the Holocaust. The Nanjing Massacre is a pivotal historical moment that is not discussed enough and is often not associated with WWII. According to The History Place, from December 1937 into February 1938, “the incredible carnage – citywide burnings, stabbings, drownings, strangulations, rapes, thefts, and massive property destruction. Young or old, male or female, anyone could be shot on a whim by any Japanese soldier for any reason. Corpses could be seen everywhere throughout the city. Nanking’s streets were said to have run red with blood.” In addition, the notorious Comfort Women system was introduced, which forced young Chinese women to become slave prostitutes, existing solely for the sexual pleasure of Japanese soldiers. An estimated 300,000 people were brutally murdered within these six weeks. The atrocities of war are disgusting and horrible, but they are necessary to look to because we are doomed to repeat the past if we do not remember what happened.
This remembrance day, remember what has happened and invite compassion and empathy into conversations. Let us remember but let us learn and do better from past mistakes. With the current political climate across the sea, hold onto what you have learned here in this article; there may be emotional distance because it is not us who is affected directly. However, we lose our humanity, compassion, empathy, and courage to do and be better to each other. It is critical we take into account the state of the world because it affects us all now and in the future. We must learn from the past to create a healthy future. Reflect on the sacrifices that have been made and the bravery of others that continues on today.
Adalian, R. P. (n.d.). Armenian Genocide (1915-1923). Armenian genocide (1915-1923). https://www.armenian-genocide.org/genocide.html
Canada, V. A. (2022). First World War (1914 – 1918) – veterans affairs Canada. (1914 – 1918) – Veterans Affairs Canada. https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/wars-and-conflicts/first-world-war.
How Europe went to war in 1939. Imperial War Museums. (n.d.). https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/how-europe-went-to-war-in-1939
June 28, 1914. National WWI Museum and Memorial. (n.d.). https://www.theworldwar.org/learn/about-wwi/june-28-1914.
The Rape of Nanking 1937-1938 300,000 Deaths. The history place – genocide in the 20th century: Rape of Nanking 1937-38. (n.d.). https://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/genocide/nanking.htm
Research starters: Worldwide deaths in World War II: The National WWII Museum: New Orleans. The National WWII Museum | New Orleans. (n.d.). https://www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/research-starters-worldwide-deaths-world-war