“For Americans who do not compare their big, homegrown war enough with those on other continents, this can be instructive. After showing Ken Burns’ film series on the Civil War to a class of German undergraduates, I was once confronted by a student who wanted to know “why are there so many moon rises and sun sets in this film, and why do you Americans always think that everything that happens to you is the biggest thing in history? Do Americans understand the scale of bloodshed and social destruction of the Thirty Years’ War?” To which I could only reply, “No, most have never heard of it.”
David Blight, “America’s Armageddon Revisited” Slate (2009)
You have to feel for the German kid. I’ve been reading a great deal of pre-Great War European history lately (indeed, just finished the Vertigo Years last nite) and I must say that in those precious times between the French Revolution and 1914 Europeans too knew that everything that had ever happened to them was the greatest thing in history. It was certainly up there. It was Europe’s time, and when it’s your time in world history then everything you do is the greatest thing ever. But to paraphrase Gibbon, they done fucked up. And then everything falls into perspective from the ruins of empire. You look around the colossal ruins, see what you had, what you could have had, wipe away a tear and sigh. It all falls into place. Hell, the Thirty Years War wasn’t even a “good war”. It was just a huge awful endless slaughtering destructive mess for no good reason whatsoever. It ruined Germany, gutted it, stripped it bare. And for what? But then the Germans haven’t had a lot of good wars since they stopped the Turks. Wars had a bad tendency to work themselves across central Europe laying waste the land. And the Germans sure splattered a lot of Europe in bad wars. Three generations of European kids since then have to deal with that. And that their own grandfathers, great grandfathers back through their great great great great great grandfathers from one end of Europe to the other had taken the civilization of the Renaissance and Enlightenment and fought war after ghastly war, slaughtering and butchering and torturing and destroying. Spaniards and Russians, Swedes and Italians, and almost everyone between, they all pitched in at one time or another. The Germans, in the middle, took it for centuries. Then in 1914 they decided it was their turn. Three decades later it was all over but the cleaning up. Muscovy ruled one half, the Americans propped up the other. Empires frittered away to scattered islands. To think that fifty years earlier Europe ruled the world.
And then you go and show their progeny Ken Burn’s Civil War. They sigh. You Americans are so dumb. Can’t you see we did all that before, over and over. Can’t you see we failed? Had to fail? Can’t you starry eyed, moonstruck, smiling with the dawn Yanks get it through your head that you are as doomed as we were?
Well, no we can’t. Hell, even I can only accept that notion as an abstraction. When I watch The Civil War I too see the moonlit battlefields, the dawns of Juneteenth mornings, Abe Lincoln as a homespun Marcus Aurelius. It’s just innate. We can’t help ourselves. But we all know, us bookish types, that those world weary European kids are right, and we’ll be there someday sooner or later, looking at the world over the sad remains of American civilization. Some Chinese professor will be showing the 18 part epic poem of the Taiping Rebellion to a college class in far away Michigan and an outraged kid will splutter that you Chinese always think everything that happens to you is the most important thing ever. He’d say more, too, but his Mandarin fails him.