Earned Knowledge, L14,P3

World Wars

We really can’t cover the modern era without mentioning the two World Wars that occurred. As we’ve noted previously, huge wars require huge governments, and they also require compliant subjects. That, unfortunately, was what we saw in the first half of the 20th century, and the combination gave us both World War I and World War II.

World War I began as a moment of mass insanity. A royal heir was shot, a few diplomatic mis-steps occurred, and then millions of people furiously demanded war… vicious, bloody, deadly, torturous war.

This beginning of this war was called The August Madness, which took place in 1914. Huge numbers of Europeans demanded war and counted on a quick, glorious victory. In Germany alone, more than one million war poems were published. Historians are still struggling to understand how the “Great War” (as it was called at the time) actually began. Here are the thoughts of Stephan Zweig, a capable, independent and serious writer who lived through it all:

If today, thinking it over calmly, we wonder why Europe went to war in 1914, there is not one sensible reason to be found, nor even any real occasion for the war. There were no ideas involved, it was not really about drawing minor borderlines; I can explain it only by thinking of that excess of power, and by seeing it as a tragic consequence of the internal dynamism that had built up during those forty years of peace, and now demanded release. Every state suddenly felt that it was strong, and forgot that other states felt exactly the same; all states wanted even more, and wanted some of what the others already had.

Zweig wrote this about the mass euphoria (the “war fever”) at the beginning of the war:

Every single individual felt his personal ego enhanced; he was no longer the isolated individual he had been before, he was a part of whole, one of the people, and his person, formerly ignored, had acquired significance.

As for the war itself, it cannot be described without strong words, like stupidity, mania, brain-lock and torturous, sickening death. Huge numbers of men made suicidal charges, on foot, over muddy fields, directly into machine gun fire. It was insanity.

In just one battle (Verdun), more than 700,000 men were killed or seriously injured, and the battle line (where the opposing armies met) never moved more than a few miles.

At least six million Frenchmen were killed or wounded, out of less than 20 million overall. That means that half or more of all young men between 20 and 30 years old were killed or wounded, many very seriously.

So yes, insanity.

The war ended in 1918, after the United States entered. The American people had been opposed to the war, but they were drawn in by the promise of “making the world safe for democracy.” (Which it most definitely did not.)

World War II was almost a continuation of World War I, and was spawned by the rise of dictators or near-dictators all across the West. Beneath that was the fact that a majority of people were willing to accept a big man running the show and were happy to find meaning under his banner. This was true even in America.

World War II (1938-1945) featured even more mass death and added industrialized exterminations. In the end, two monstrous dictators (Hitler and Mussolini) were removed, while another (Stalin) was preserved, going on to kill more of his own people than either of the defeated dictators, and to imprison nearly all of Eastern Europe. It wasn’t until 1990 or so that Eastern Europe was released from Soviet domination. (The Soviet Union being Stalin’s empire.)

There hasn’t been a world war since 1945 (though there have been very many smaller wars), and hopefully there won’t be. And it should be remembered that war ultimately rests upon the willingness of populations to comply. No warmonger is solely responsible for his slaughters; many other people have to assist him, one way or another.

Daily Life In The Modern Era

It seems unnecessary for us to cover daily life in the modern era, seeing that we are living in it, but it’s worthwhile to look at how daily life evolved through this period.

What we saw from 1815 until now were few serious changes to large areas of life:

    • The clothes people wore remained mostly the same. Fashions changed faster than ever before, but the basic garments changed very little. Zippers replaced buttons, hem lines rose and fell repeatedly, undergarments changed a bit and shoe construction saw a few innovations, but with the exceptions of a few exotic undergarments, a modern man or woman could step back in time and clothe themselves without any assistance.

      Houses aren’t too different, at least in the cities. We’ve added electrical wiring and improved the plumbing, but many houses from 1815 are still in service and doing quite nicely. We build better and more efficiently today, but the basic designs and materials are highly similar.

    • The food we eat is highly similar. We have more variety now – food types from all over the world – but the beef, poultry, pork, fruits and grains are the same. We may have a hundred types of cereals at a local store, but they’re still made from the same corn, wheat, sugar and so on. Microwave ovens have made reheating foods quicker, but most of us could use stoves, pans and utensils from 1815 without too much trouble.

Technologies for communication and transportation, however, have massively changed. We can now communicate with people on almost any part of the planet quickly, easily and at a very minimal cost. And if we want to physically visit, we can fly through the skies at 550 miles per hour, and generally drive on roads at 70 miles per hour.

And as we mentioned earlier in this lesson, daily life has become less demanding. That is, the chores required to sustain a reasonable daily life have required less and less time. We no longer have to put coal or logs in the stove to stay warm, we no longer have to fill the lamps with oil, or get ice for the icebox: new technologies do all those things for us. In short, we’ve gained a tremendous amount of free time.

Few people, however, have used their free time very effectively. Rather, they’ve spent their time… tremendous amounts of time… submerged in entertainments. Humans have always had a weakness for entertainments, of course, but the amount of entertainment people consume in our time is far beyond that of any people in the past. At present, large numbers of people spend most of their waking hours watching television, playing video games and surfing Facebook; doing things that are actually useful involves the minority of their time.

More than likely, this entertainment mania will not last, but that remains to be seen. Since the arrival of movies, radio and television, the consumption of entertainment has skyrocketed and hasn’t yet slowed down. But again, humans tend to go crazy with new things, then, eventually, to return to some sort of a balance. We’ll have to wait to find out when and how such a balance will return.

The one new technology that hasn’t been exploited is space travel. It was developed between the 1930s and 1970s, then left more or less alone. It’s rather odd that putting men on the moon wasn’t followed up with anything equally serious, but it wasn’t; half a century later, no one has come close to repeating the feat.

Space technology (as of 2023) is being pursued by several nations and even private companies… successfully… but these efforts are smaller than before and there was more than a half-century lag between NASA’s first moon landings and the present efforts.


Paul Rosenberg