One reason that I find the upcoming anniversary of the outbreak of WWI so pertinent is that many of the anxieties floating around in the culture a hundred years ago have their analogues in our own. To listen to the likes of Nigel Farage, Pope Francis or any number of contemporary public opinionators is akin to tuning into a modern rehash of the litany of existential fears that gripped the West at the beginning of the last century - selfishness, secularism, materialism, homosexuality, aliens in our midst, women on the rise, falling birth rates (though cats and dogs were not specifically blamed to my knowledge), that galling parade of shallow hedonists etc.
Many openly wondered back then if the terrorists were right; we were becoming flaccid and degenerate. General Friedrich von Bernhardi, author of Germany and the Next War (1911) bewailed that "selfishness and intrigue run riot, and luxury obliterates idealism," while Max Nordau's 1892 bestseller Degeneration (Entartung) claimed that western culture was being systematically undermined by greed, materialism and the relentless quest for pleasure.
This will all be familiar to twenty first century readers. What will perhaps not be is the preferred antidote a century ago — war, or at least a conscious recourse to militarism. Many of Europe's leaders then surmised that externalising the struggle would resolve all the contradictions within the nation, cleansing the corruption supposedly chewing away at the fabric of civilisation. (So, in a sense WWI resulted from a displaced attempt to dodge the ideas floating around at the time, whereas WWII could more easily be characterised as a head-on conflict between them.)
The Daily Mash piece on June 6th this year, 70th anniversary of D-Day landings, could not have poked this raw nerve more effectively: "The veterans of D-Day have marked the 70th anniversary by thanking Britain for becoming shallow and worthless. The soldiers who liberated Europe from fascism stressed we had done them proud with our relentless focus on money, celebrity, clothing and football."
Here, albeit in satirical form, is the abiding sense that we are somehow lesser beings than the brave military men who set aside selfish pursuits in order to...er, kill each other. They saved us, goes the refrain; we should be forever grateful. We are not worthy. We are in fact, rather like the men who lived peacefully and pleasurably for decades before the whole apocalypse kicked off in 1914 - 'unmanly'.
Yet while the personal sacrifices of many are to be both honoured and remembered, one should never lose sight of the fact that they belonged to several generations of westerners whose collective response to progress and modernist ideas was an almost neurotic resort to mechanised mass murder on an unprecedented scale.