November 11 is Veterans Day.
It’s also called Armistice Day, Poppy Day and Remembrance Day.
The Armistice Day moniker made sense in 1919, a year after Ferdinand Foch signed the Armistice of Compiègne. A year without appalling body counts was reason to celebrate.
So was the Treaty of Versailles, at least for folks who blamed Germany for the war.1
I’ll be talking about that, among other things.
- It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time
- Events and Principles
A little over a century back now, Europe’s leaders crafted an intricate web of interlocking treaties. It was a foolproof plan for peace. On paper. Then someone killed an archduke. (January 6, 2019)
The winning side decided that the war had been Germany’s fault.
Their Treaty of Versailles included massive reparation payments.
Post-war peace, prosperity and progress gave Western Civilization flappers, Art Deco, talkies and nude tabletop dancing. Some countries even let women vote.
But the early 1920s weren’t good years in Germany. In 1923, the country’s government decided to help industries destroyed in the war instead of paying off their Versailles debt.
That’s the year when one gold German Mark was worth a trillion paper Marks. One trillion. A one with twelve zeroes after it: 1,000,000,000,000.
Then France and Belgium marched troops into German’s industrialized Ruhr valley. Maybe their leaders thought hampering German rebuilding efforts would expedite Versailles payments.
American banker Charles G. Dawes had an alternative. The Dawes Plan was ready in 1924. It encouraged American speculators to invest in German enterprises.
That helped German employers make their payroll and pay taxes, which went partly to pay off the Versailles debt.
Reparations from Germany gave other European governments money they could use to return what they’d borrowed from my country’s government.
Germany’s government overhauled their monetary system. Obsolete German Marks became collector’s items, and pleasure palaces like the Haus Vaterland flourished.
No wonder some Germans called 1924-1929 the Goldene Zwanziger Jahre or Glückliche Zwanziger Jahre: Golden Twenties or Happy Twenties.
At the time, seeing the 1914-1919 conflict as “The War That Will End War” made sense.2 Almost.
Prohibition led to speakeasies, not revival meetings. Dance clubs flourished.
Flapper fashions threatened the very fabric of society. And, perhaps, offended those who wouldn’t look good in them.
Some earnest American Christians sought to stem the tide of modernism, science and similar sinful snares.
I don’t doubt their sincerity.3 But I think they unintentionally promoted the notion that a person could either be well-informed and reasonable: or a Christian.
He got caught in September. The London Exchange suspended all shares of the Hatry group: worth around £24 million.
What happened next wasn’t all Hatry’s fault. Investors and speculators had gotten accustomed to optimism and good times. A little too accustomed, in some cases.
Suspending £24 million may not have caused the 1929 London Stock Exchange embarrassment. But it sure didn’t help.
The London Exchange trouble arguably triggered Wall Street’s Black Monday and Tuesday, October 28 and 29, 1929.
I’ve read that the stock market crashes caused the Great Depression. Or maybe the global depression really started earlier and caused the crashes. Maybe something else caused the 1929 bubble-and-burst thing. There’s still lively debate on the topic.
The Dust Bowl, a severe drought in south-central North America, didn’t help. At all.
Meanwhile, Germany’s government was still trying to pay off Versailles reparations. Passing costs along to German taxpayers, who had their own problems.
Assorted political parties in the Reichstag, Germany’s analog to America’s Congress, did their best to keep rival parties from looking good. A financial expert tried to make Germany’s government work.
An American, Owen Young, had an improved version of the Dawes Plan ready. It might have helped Germans, Americans and pretty much everyone else. But after the Wall Street crash, the money wasn’t there and international trade dropped. A lot.
Then someone set fire to the Reichstag building.
After which German politicos passed a law that let them stay in office while letting someone else make potentially-unpopular decisions.4
I figure it seemed like a good idea at the time.
The German and Soviet governments signed a non-aggression pact on August 23, 1939: divvying up Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. I’ve yet to see the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact called a triumph of diplomacy over violence.
Maybe because German troops invaded Poland a week later, on September 1, 1939.
The official German explanation was that they were responding to unprovoked attacks on a radio station, the Hochlinden customs house, a railway pass and other German targets.
Soviet troops marched into Poland on September 17, and “The War That Will End War” went from a slow simmer to full boil.
Time magazine had suggested that we call it “World War II” in the June 12, 1939, issue. The term apparently caught on.
Time called the current conflicts “World War II” in its September 11, 1939, edition.
Interesting coincidence, that.
Stuff happened on other September 11ths, too:5
- 1786: Annapolis Convention opens
- 1792: Hope Diamond disappears
- 1939: Time magazine coins “World War II” (again)
- 2001: September 11 attacks
Maybe there’s a conspiracy theory lurking in those events. Or maybe that’s too weird even for a dedicated conspiracy theorist.
By September, 1945, the war was over. A remarkable number of us hadn’t been killed.
Even more remarkable, quite a few of the surviving national leaders decided that maybe whipping up support for the next round of slaughter wasn’t a good idea.
World War II officially ended on September 2, 1945.
America’s Armistice Day became Veterans Day in 1947. Unofficially.
Congress made it official in 1954.
There’s been at least one war somewhere pretty much constantly since then. Sometimes American troops have been involved.
I’d prefer living in a world where everyone thought discussing problems and solving them was a good idea.
Or at least that we could deal with violently anti-social folks without killing them, along with those who listened to them. Or who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
On the other hand, I’d make a terrible pacifist.
That’s one reason I think nude tabletop dancing isn’t a good idea. Even if the customers enjoy getting clobbered by champagne bottles. And that’s another topic.
Maybe seeing human life as precious and being a non-pacifist seems inconsistent. It’s not.
It is, however, a tad complicated.
As a Catholic, I’m obliged to value my own life. And a hypothetical attacker’s.
Both our lives are precious. But defending myself is okay. Even if that results in my hypothetical attacker’s death. Provided that my intent was defending myself, not killing my attacker. (Catechism, 2258, 2263–2269; “Summa Theologica,” Thomas Aquinas, II-II,64,7)
The same principle applies to groups of people.
So I figure that observing Veterans Day makes sense. Folks who served their, and my, country deserve recognition.
I’ve talked about this sort of thing before, too:
- “Memorial Day Weekend 2020”
(May 23, 2020)
- “Patriot Dreams”
(July 4, 2019)
- “Jolo: Bombs at the Cathedral”
(January 29, 2019)
- “Veterans Day 2017”
(November 10, 2017)
- “Remembering Armistice Day”
(November 11, 2016)
- “The causes of the 1929 stock market crash: a speculative orgy or a new era?,” p.19
Harold Bierman (1998) via the Internet Archives