You may remember that last week was Remembrance Day, when we remembered the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the end of the war to end all wars. Until recently, I never really got the importance of the two sides choosing that particular time to end hostilities. It just seemed like the kind of cute date symmetry your Mum’s friend shares on Facebook, no more meaningful than “today is the 20th of the 12th 2012, which won’t happen again for another 101 years! Share if you hate Ebola.”
But WWI was an era when leaders still made grand poetic gestures, before they realised that the horror they just unleashed had murdered earnestness forever. The armistice agreement was deliberately signed at the eleventh hour. To the largely bible-literate population of Europe at the time, this would have had heavier connotations than it does today – the phrase comes from a parable in the Gospel of Matthew and refers to the very last moment when salvation is possible, just before it’s too late. This is what those bloodsoaked bureaucrats wanted us to remember: that once upon a time humanity was on the brink of destroying itself, and we shouldn’t let that happen again.
But twenty years later the sequel came out, and it had a bigger budget, a scarier villain and more explosives. It rolled into the Cold War, which drooped into the War on Terror and today ordinary slaughter goes on in Iraq, Ukraine, Syria and Sudan with all the brutality and tedium of a protracted game of Risk. Now that we’ve got the bomb and the doomsday clock twitches within minutes of midnight, the idea of having a whole eleventh hour to kill and be killed in seems luxurious. Remembrance Day no longer commemorates the end of a war, but the birth of the modern, mechanised production-line of death.
We also see WWI as pivotal because we think of it as the first instance of systematic human slaughter on a mass scale – and that’s interesting, because it’s not entirely true. What WWI really marks is the first instance, in the modern era, of the mass, systematic slaughter of white people.
A warning for this post – it contains discussion of extreme violence and some very amateur history.
Let’s rewind to the end of the beginning, one hundred years from June. Franz Ferdinand gets shot, presumably because Take Me Out was so overplayed that me even mentioning it means its now stuck in your head, and the teetering geopolitical balance of Europe comes down with a cry of “JENGA!” The German army marches through Belgium to get to France, and terrorises civilians while it stops for waffles. This invasion is the trigger (or arguably, excuse) for Mother England and her Oedipal brood of glorified outposts (e.g. Australia) to jump into the bloody fray.
The German invasion of Belgium undoubtedly involved war crimes, and many still refer to it as “The Rape of Belgium” a century later. Around six thousand civilians were murdered – that’s twice as many as the September 11 attacks. But although these atrocities were already horrific in reality, the British government and press portrayed them in a lurid and exaggerated way. This was arguably the first instance of modern atrocity propaganda, a spectacle designed for political rather than journalistic ends. The “Huns” were depicted as demonic baby-eaters without a shred of humanity. There were even widely reported claims that the Germans were mutilating children by chopping off their hands and feet – and in Belgium of all places, a small, neutral country whose quaint monarchical government had never hurt anyone except dogs who’d gotten into the chocolate.
There is no evidence that punitive child amputation took place during the 1914 occupation of Belgium. There is, however, ample evidence that it occurred throughout another atrocity that ended less than a decade before. That evidence takes the form of a generation with over three million people who were missing hands and feet. That little-known atrocity, which is far less well documented that the infamous Rape of Belgium, was the Congo Free State.
In 1875, King Leopold II of Beligum, with the express consent of the other European powers, bought his troops into the Congo under the pretext of “civilising” central Africa. The territory soon became his private property, a corporate state solely designed for the production of rubber. Leopold and his crew were great businessmen, and the measures they introduced were extremely effective in maximising profit. To reduce wastage on wages, entire tribes were forcibly enslaved. Workers who failed to meet their KPIs were shot dead, or their children were mutilated as an incentive. Between 1875 and 1908 the white forces were responsible for between 5 milllion and 22 million deaths, with most modern historians saying that at least 10 million are confirmed.
This was one of the most horrific mass atrocities in history, incomparable to anything until Hitler, Stalin and Mao wrought their horror a generation later. Though one of the first modern humanitarian campaign did their best to oppose the slaughter, (led by public figures like Mark Twain and Arthur Connan-Doyle) Britain and the United States took no serious action against Leopold whatsoever.
What all this demonstrates is something just as horrifically true now a it was a hundred ago. For the power structures that run this world, the value of human lives are not equal. Their worth varies, even in order of magnitude, based primarily on the colour of a person’s skin.
Today the Democratc Republic of Congo is one of the most war-torn nations in the world, where a rape occurs almost every minute. You probably have a little piece of the Congo in your pocket. The metal tantalum is a vital component of mobile phones, and a significant percentage of it is sourced from the DRC. The mining of tantalum is orchestrated by foreign multinationals who minimise costs by supporting guerrilla warlords and child labor. I’d say it’s the rubber of the 21st century if there weren’t so many other contenders, from poppies through to chocolate.
n 1908 the Belgian parliament finally forced the geriatric Leopold to relinquish his hold on the Congo. He was punished for his genocide with a lavish retirement and statues of him stand in Belgium today. Apparently he was quite supportive of public architecture, so it all balances out really. When Leopold realised the game was up, he had the administrative records of the Congo Free State burned, a strategy he learnt from the British (by the way, I strongly recommend you check out the article in that link.)
The Eleventh of November wasn’t just the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice. It was also the 145th anniversary of the introduction of the Aboriginal Protection act, the legislative foundation of the stolen generation. In Grade Two, my teacher told us that Australia was the “lucky country” because there’d never been a war on a soil. She was forgetting about the Frontier Wars, when the first nations were subjected to indescribable horror. That’s how empire survives. It rips its evil from the pages of the history books.
It’s important to remember the veterans and victims of war not just for a minute at the eleventh hour, but all the year round. But let’s also remember what we normally forget. The Haitian revolution, which two-hundred-and-two years ago from yesterday became the only successful nationwide slave revolt in history, a disobedience for which we’re still economically punishing their descendents. The two-hundred million people killed by the transatlantic slave trade. The countless humans who die from preventable causes every year and are completely ignored unless their plight, be it war or pestilence, poses the remotest threat to us.