“History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme rather nicely.”
That quip has often been attributed to Mark Twain. I’ve never been able to verify the attribution, but it does sound like him. I’m inclined to pair it with Santayana’s observation: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A gloss on that observation: “Those who know the past are condemned to watch others unwittingly repeat the avoidable errors of the past.”
I think of these things because I recently finished reading a fine and compelling little work, 1917: Red Banners, White Mantle, by Warren H. Carroll, surveying the tumultuous years 1914-1924. Following the headlines this summer, I can’t help but see similarities and differences between the conflicts and persona of a hundred or so years ago and today. Sad to say, almost none of the similarities or differences are in our favor.
In the spring and summer of 1914, the powerful—variously ignorant, arrogant, incompetent, yet uniformly confident—blundered the world into a catastrophic war. The usual assurances were given: “Our boys will be home by Christmas!” It was not to be.
The familiar pattern followed. The poor, the vulnerable, and the innocent suffered. Young men slaughtered each other. Survivors were shattered in body and spirit. And, as usual, a select few got very, very rich.
“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” So said British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, just days before the United Kingdom’s entry into the First World War. I write now because I fear that the lights are about to go out again—across Europe and around the world.
In our time, watching Russian troops march west, the drama seems too familiar. Conflicting reports of victory and defeat, atrocity and heroism—the constant bombast and seduction of propaganda. Public and private deals are made, and mountains of munitions are rushed to the front. All so deadly, all so costly, but all is well, for victory is so very, very close. Haven’t we heard all this before?
Then Nancy Pelosi flies to Taiwan. Depending upon whom you ask, it was the bravest or most foolish act of diplomacy in recent years. However one judges the matter, it certainly seemed to be reminiscent of the saber-rattling between two great powers quite sure that the opponent is in decline. And like the time prior to the world wars, the West may be underestimating the East’s capacity to inflict violence.
It is tempting to refer to villains of the past (e.g., Rasputin) and pair them with contemporary counterparts. Instead, I will refer to a past statesman who has no equal today—Blessed Karl, the last Habsburg emperor of Austria-Hungary. Blessed Karl was a man of honor, courage, integrity, and faith; a man certain that he would answer to God for how he cared for those God entrusted to his care. He suffered for his people, sacrificing his position, his personal fortune, and ultimately his health in the pursuit of a just peace. Where is his like today? I can think of no one.
What of the Church, then and now? In the years leading up to the fateful summer of 1914, the Church was not naïve about the dangers of Marxism and modernism. Moreover, the Church gave clear voice to peace as the tranquility of order (Augustine). The office of the wise man is to promote truth, refute error, and direct all to their proper ends (Aquinas). The holy order (hierarchy) of wisdom is the work of the Logos, who is the Christ of God and the King of all the world. Thus, the Church could promulgate with confidence the Solemnity of Christ the King of the Universe (Pius XI, 1925) because she was already living in (and attempting to live in accord with) the order established and governed by Christ.
And today? Which members of the Body of Christ could take up that refrain?
It seems to me that the similarities between August 1914 and August 2022 are all disturbing: venal and clumsy politicians, states clashing as they rise and fall, an overconfidence in human wisdom and an underestimation of human vulnerability. Likewise, the differences between 1914 and 2022 are not reassuring. There is no contemporary analogue to Blessed Karl. Where can we find in our time those planting seeds harvested from the likes of Leo XIII, Pius X, Pius XI?
Yet we need not resign ourselves to the sounding of the guns of August 2022 as echoes of the guns of August 1914. The means of facing a world in crisis—then and now—can be found in Fatima. The story of Our Lady’s apparitions at Fatima (and the aftermath) is sure to be well known to the readers of this essay, so I will not speak at length of it here.
Instead, I will summarize the import of the apparitions by quoting the words of the fatally ill Fatima visionary Jacinta to fellow visionary Lucia: “Pray for me a lot till I go to Heaven, and afterwards I’ll pray a lot for you…Love Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary a great deal and make many sacrifices for sinners.” Jacinta was not quite ten years old. That wise exhortation, apparently so rarely heeded in the past 105 years, offers us the only way forward as the war against Creator, Christ, and creature continues.
Toward the end of the little work that helped to inspire this essay, Warren H. Carroll writes: “A contest that embraces Heaven, Earth and Hell does not end in the grave. Even the dead fight on. So the cosmic Battle of 1917 continues to echo through time and space, into the realms beyond mortality.”
In our time, Almighty God is giving us an opportunity to see and hear, to pray, to witness, to serve. We already know what global ingratitude and disobedience look like. Will we have the good sense to do something different?
[Photo: Belgian troops defending a Herstal suburb, just north-east of Liège, August 1914]