“The lamps are going out all across Europe and we will not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
These prescient words were attributed to British statesman Sir Earl Grey 100 years ago. On Aug. 4, 1914, the British government declared war on Germany, who had declared war on Russia and invaded France.
The Great War (now known as World War I) had begun.
The carnage was horrifying; although accurate figures are hard to come by somewhere between 17 million and 22 million soldiers and civilians were killed, wounded or missing in the four-year debacle. One hundred and seventeen thousand American soldiers lost their lives; 10 times as many Russian and German soldiers were killed. A whole generation of young men and women were lost to the world.
This Sunday, British churches will remember their country’s entry into the war and on Monday, Aug. 4, lamps will be extinguished in Westminster Cathedral, marking the 100th anniversary of the war’s outbreak.
Although the United States did not enter the war until 1917, Sunday would be a good day for our churches to remember, too. In anticipation of this event, I just finished “George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I” (2010) by Miranda Carter.
Carter traces the lives and intrigues of the three cousins whose kingdoms were most affected by the war: King George of England, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Tsar Nicholas of Russia. She paints a depressing picture of these grandchildren of Queen Victoria — their tangled family relationships and complex dynamics of privilege and status. These three richest, most powerful rulers in the world were themselves ruled by insecurity, inadequacy, jealousy and isolation from the common people in their kingdoms.
By the time Carter arrives at July 1914, the fateful weeks leading to hostilities, the reader faces the horrifying inevitability of World War I. The governments of France, Britain, Russia and Austria Hungary, the four key players in this tragedy, are equally hypocritical and, at times, clueless. Kaiser Wilhelm pathetically cozies up to whoever influences him at the current moment. Tsar Nicholas is one of the most isolated, ill-suited people ever fated to lead a nation. King George has no taste for governance.
By 1918, Tsar Nicholas and his family have been summarily executed by the Bolsheviks and Kaiser Wilhelm has abdicated his throne in disgrace. The monarchy in England, survives but is never the same. The nations of the world are in shambles. The wildly enthusiastic, patriotic citizenry of each nation in 1914 give ways to bitterness and anger at the war and their leaders by 1918. The flower of youth is decimated, starvation rules, revolution and depression are in full swing, and World War II is at the door. Power, prestige and nationalism produced despair and death.
One suspects that few things have changed. The negotiating table, whether it be in Iran, Ukraine, Israel, North Korea or Afghanistan, is still populated with leaders pontificating nobly while scheming desperately.
The lamps could go out again at any time on so many different fronts. This Sunday — every Sunday — is an appropriate time for the church to fervently pray for the Biblical vision of peace and justice to be realized.
Creede Hinshaw, of Macon, is a retired Methodist minister.