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Welcome to music of the first world war Era—Page 5

WWI and the Roots of WWII

Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918 at 11:00 am. The papers were signed in a railroad car on a siding near the French town of Compiègne. Anniversary bells tolled then and for two decades thereafter, commemorating that hour and day. As bells tolled and the sirens wailed, those in the U.S. who remembered the dead and maimed faced the nearest flag and saluted, their hands over their hearts, or looked Eastward toward the old battlefields. Handicapped veterans begged or sold pencils in the streets and paraded annually. The Armistice Day remembrance evolved into today's Veteran's Day holiday, which originated from this moment in 1918.

The war had ended after only a year of American involvement, but its repercussions lasted well into the 20th century and beyond. Not only did the character of life bear the imprint the war in the years immediately following 1918 for the combatants, the war set the stage for the remainder of the 20th century, the rise of the Russian and American superpowers, and the reshaping of the world.

General Erich Von Ludendorff,  high commander of the German army during WWI, pictured with Adolph Hitler in a photo taken between the wars. Both men believed that WWI was lost by the German people, not by the army.

The roots of the Second World War were planted in 1919 when Clemenceau, the French statesman known as "the Tiger," led the fight to impose severe reparations on Germany at the historic Versailles conference and won. The short-sighted Treaty of Versailles added bankruptcy to Germany's other postwar woes: manpower attrition, starvation, and influenza. It produced widespread poverty and economic and social upheaval in Germany, as well as runaway inflation, chaos, breakdown of law and order, and corruption. Thus it indirectly created a climate of resentment, unrest, dissatisfaction, grinding poverty, despair, and a yearning for order that opened the door for Nazi opportunists.

To make matters worse, the elite German army general staff was convinced that it could have won the war, even after the entry of the U.S. in 1918, if only it had been properly supported by German citizens on the home front. For their part, the German public felt that it had been victimized by what it saw as Allied brutality during the war and exploited by an unfair peace-making process afterward. The war had united the Germans as never before and national—cultural and ethnic—pride had been damaged. It was time to overthrow the shackles of a humiliating and debilitating defeat. It was time to turn the tables and exact revenge.

Hitler agreed with the German general staff: if they could have won the war before, why not again? It wasn't long before Germany began quietly preparing for WWII.

 Woodrow Wilson's dream of making the world safe for democracy would soon fail utterly.

Abel Gance and J'Accuse!

During World War I, Abel Gance, the great pioneer French filmmaker, received a commission from the French Army General Staff to make a pro-war propaganda film. Gance hated war and was a stolid anti-war protestor throughout his long life. In a bizarre twist, working under the noses of the French General Staff, he turned the movie financed by them into an anti-war film now known as J'Accuse!

As the story goes, the General Staff gave Gance a goodly number of troops to act out his epic in front of the camera. At one point they sent representatives to view the progress of the filming. Gance arranged his actor-troops on a hillside so that they spelled the letters of the word "peace" and filmed them as the Staff looked on, unaware.

The war ended with the film still unfinished. Gance quickly re-edited the film and released it in 1919 under the title J'Accuse! (I Accuse!). The pro-war propaganda film was now a powerful 14-reel silent-film anti-war polemic paid for by—of all things—the French Army.

In 1937, with another world war looming just ahead, Gance remade and re-released J'Accuse, this time as a sound movie, with new plot elements but incorporating much of the original silent footage.

Oddly, the hero of Gance's 1937 movie insisted that mankind had an obligation to learn a lesson from "the War to end all wars"—namely, to end all wars. In one particularly affecting montage at the movie's end, the distraught hero calls on the ghost-poilus (hairy-ghosts; ghosts of French soldiers) of the battle of Verdun and all the other victims of WWI to arise from their graves and punish the living for their failure to honor their sacrifices by keeping the peace. This they do, to the peril and terror of the living.

  • Explore a cinematic episode which bridges the 20-year gap between WWI and WWII. See Gance's anti-war fantasy-vision—a film clip of WWI French war dead and 12,000,000 of their comrades, thirsting for justice, rising from their graves at Verdun in 1937. (Not recommended for slow speed network connections or weak hearts): click here.

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