By Marta Musso
Have you ever wondered what world leaders would write in their Facebook accounts (in the pre-Obama era, of course)? Even though it’s two years old (a bygone era in the age of the internet) this post from CollegeHumor is more actual than ever. “Facebook News Feed History of the World: World War I to World War II” starts with pictures from the Crimean War and goes on to explain the causes and consequences of the two world wars up to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This simplistic but enjoyable account of the last century and a half has the big merit of starting its account of the two world wars with Crimea, the conflict that saw the beginning of photojournalism. For the first time, war and its atrocities were brought to a mass audience in what was perceived as real time; William Russell and Roger Fenton could not tweet from their smartphones, but thanks to a telegraph cable laid underwater from the UK to Crimea, news could reach London in a few hours.
Another big merit of CollegeHumor’s account is that it shows World War I and World War II as the first and second act of one long, unprecedentedly large-scale conflict that marked the debut of mass society on history’s timeline. This is perhaps why Facebook statuses work so well in giving a summary of the events. Luckily, but not inevitably, this period ended with the consolidation of the democratic system and with half a century of peace and prosperity, at least in the Western bloc. In a way, we can say that we became better at mass society; next year we will hopefully celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Pax Europea (with the silent agreement that we will not count the Yugoslavian Wars).
This year, as we watch on 24/7 live news channels the Russian army entering Crimea once again, we celebrate the centenary of World War I; 37 million casualties (10 million soldiers and seven million civilians) and a political and social crisis that dragged to a second act that caused 70 million casualties, two third of which were civilians. It is a great occasion to review some history; but more than the war itself, it’s the interwar period that should be analysed and remembered. The failure of the Society of Nations, the withdrawal of American loans to Germany, the laissez-faire attitude towards unemployment and social crises (today we call it ‘austerity’), the flirting with totalitarian regimes as an anti-communist strategy; sure historians can count on hindsight in their judgment of history, but the 15-year period from the Treaty of Versailles to Hitler’s electoral victory really is a concentrated manual of policies to NOT carry out. Luckily, the leaders who won in 1945 had studied their recent history.
In the timeline of history though, 60 years are nothing (the actual record of peace in Europe was during the Pax Romana, 206 years); furthermore, in a democracy it is not sufficient that the people in power are aware of history; anyone taking part in what we call mass society should study it.
(You can see a collection of the photograph made by Fenton in Crimea here)