Wrath And Slaughter

I have for many years held the opinion, shared by many, that Winston Churchill was the greatest prose stylist in the modern history of the English language. That opinion was reinforced the other day when, in search of a historical reference, I took down from my bookshelf The Gathering Storm, the first part of Churchill’s incomparable six-volume History of the Second World War. The book opens with an introductory description, in two magnificent paragraphs, of the aftermath of World War I.

After the end of the World War of 1914 there was a deep conviction and almost universal hope that peace would reign in the world. This heart’s desire of all the peoples could easily have been gained by steadfastness in righteous convictions, and by reasonable common sense and prudence. The phrase “the war to end war” was on every lip, and measures had been taken to turn it into reality. President Wilson, wielding, as was thought, the authority of the United States, had made the conception of a League of Nations dominant in all minds. The British delegation at Versailles moulded and shaped his ideas into an instrument which will for ever constitute a milestone in the hard march of man. The victorious Allies were at that time all-powerful, so far as their outside enemies were concerned. They had to face grave internal difficulties and many riddles to which they did not know the answer, but the Teutonic Powers in the great mass of Central Europe which had made the upheaval were prostrate before them, and Russia, already shattered by the German flail, was convulsed by civil war and falling into the grip of the Bolshevik or Communist Party.

In the summer of 1919, the Allied armies stood along the Rhine, and their bridgeheads bulged deeply into defeated, disarmed, and hungry Germany. The chiefs of the victor Powers debated and disputed the future in Paris. Before them lay the map of Europe to be redrawn almost as they might resolve. After fifty-two months of agony and hazards the Teutonic Coalition lay at their mercy, and not one of its four members could offer the slightest resistance to their will. Germany, the head and forefront of the offence, regarded by all as the prime cause of the catastrophe which had fallen upon the world, was at the mercy or discretion of conquerors, themselves reeling from the torment they had endured. Moreover, this had been a war, not of governments, but of peoples. The whole life-energy of the greatest nations had been poured out in wrath and slaughter. The war leaders assembled in Paris had been borne thither upon the strongest and most furious tides that have ever flowed in human history. Gone were the days of the Treaties of Utrecht and Vienna, when aristocratic statesmen and diplomats, victor and vanquished alike, met in polite and courtly disputation, and, free from the clatter and babel of democracy, could reshape systems upon the fundamentals of which they were all agreed. The peoples, transported by their sufferings and by the mass teachings with which they had been inspired, stood around in scores of millions to demand that retribution should be exacted to the full. Woe betide the leaders now perched on their dizzy pinnacles of triumph if they cast away at the conference table what the soldiers had won on a hundred blood-soaked battlefields.

What a voice! What a man! These six volumes are, I think, unique in all of historical literature.

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