Forty Years On

Courtesy Reuters

For those who were close to international events in the nineteen twenties and took a part in the errors and shortcomings of the next decade, there is a fascination in contrasting the two world wars with the experience of the present time. If we can learn from a generation ago and apply the lessons of that period to our present problems, we might render a useful service, for even then all was not folly.

The casualty lists of the First World War were cruel and horrifying. They were also much heavier in proportion for France and for the British Commonwealth than those of the longer Second World War. The few survivors of my own age soon grew used to hearing themselves referred to as the missing generation. The tag was true, and the extent of the holocaust created an intense determination to prevent its return. The claim that we were fighting "the war to end war" was sincerely accepted, to an extent which it may be difficult for a more sophisticated modern public to believe. The will to make a repetition of these experiences unrealizable, to create and impose a rule of law to halt or fend them off, was widely and even passionately shared. In my library I have a beautifully produced French annual review entitled L' Armoire de Citronnier. This little book was devoted to literature and the arts and had no direct concern with politics; yet, at the end, when I looked for the date, I found it expressed in these words: "In the year one of the League of Nations." In that sense we were all revolutionaries, intent on our new era.

The young League of Nations had need of all this faith and fervor to set against its besetting weakness, the lack of universality. In its beginnings a League of allied and associated powers, eight years had to pass after the armistice before Germany could be admitted to membership, as a sequel to the Locarno Treaties.

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