Nothing Funny About It
By Patrick F. Cannon
Regular readers of this space, and some friends and family, know that I have been publishing chapters of a (comic, I hope) history of the world. Nine chapters have appeared here, the last being a survey of our great scientific achievements. Chapter 10, when I get around to finishing it, will be The Age of Revolution. Following that will be something on the Industrial Revolution.
And that might be the end. When I look at the 20th Century, I struggle to find anything funny. Last week, I mentioned rereading Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. The book ends with the Battle of the Marne in September 1914; after that, opposing trenches were dug from the Swiss border to the English Channel, and barely moved until the Spring of 1918, when something approaching mobile warfare returned, ending in the November 11 armistice. During those four years, approximately 40 million people died, including six million civilians. Here are the number of soldiers (rounded off) who died in action among the main combatants, with the approximate total population of the country in parentheses:
Germany 1,773,000 (68 million)
France 1,358,000 (39.6 million)
Great Britain 908,000 (43 million)
Russia 1,700,000 (166 million)
Austria-Hungary 1,200,000 (52.8 million)
Italy 650,000 (44.4 million)
United States 116,000 (100 million)
Wounded would have been between three and four times those numbers. Appalling numbers to be sure, but let’s look at the same countries (minus no longer existing Austria-Hungary) for World War II, when at least 90 million died, including 45 million civilians:
Germany 5,500,000 (78 million)
France 218,000 (41 million)
Great Britain 383,000 (43 million)
Russia 9,000,000 (175 million)
Italy 301,000 (45 million)
United States 417,000 (132 million)
Comparisons of the two are instructive. For example, the far lower number of deaths for France and Great Britain in World War II can be largely explained by the fact that they were defeated by Germany in 1940 in a mere six weeks. In 1914, the French had gone to war with enthusiasm; in 1940, with deep pessimism. While some French units fought well, most didn’t and they dragged Great Britain down with them (thus Dunkirk).
The much higher casualties for Germany and Russia reflect the bitterness of that struggle. German dead on the Russian front were probably 70 percent of their total for all theatres. Many experts feel that the 9 million for Russia may well be conservative, with the true number closer to 12 million.
While the numbers for Germany, France and Italy are for Europe only, the others are for all theatres of operation. In Asia, Japan had 2.2 million dead; China 2-3 million. Adding everything up comes to about 130 million total deaths, military and civilian for both World Wars. To this we can add the “ethnic cleansings” in the Balkans, Africa, and Turkey; the Russo-Japanese War; the several Arab-Israeli conflicts; the Iran-Iraq war; numerous civil wars like Spain, China and the ongoing one in Syria; and of course our own wars in Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan (and let’s not forget Panama and Grenada!).
Civilian deaths too were much higher in World War II. Not only were six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, but aerial bombing and outright murder killed many more – the Japanese, for example, were thought to have killed tens of millions of Chinese civilians; and the Germans ruthlessly murdered Poles and Russians. And let’s not forget that Stalin caused the death of perhaps 10 million of his own countrymen in the 1930s; and Mao the same in China the 1960s.
In sheer numbers of deaths caused by conflict and official murder, the 20th Century is the undisputed champ. But as a percentage of population, it pales in comparison to the religious wars in Europe in the 15th and 16th Centuries; and the Bubonic Plague of the 14th, which experts now believe may have killed 60 percent of Europe’s population.
So, you can see why I might struggle to find many laughs in 20th Century history. On the other hand, it gave us Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Ring Lardner, James Thurber, Ogden Nash, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Garrison Keillor, Lenny Bruce, Johnny Carson, Jack Lemmon, Myron Cohen – well, you can add your own favorites. They all found something to laugh about. Who knows, maybe I will too.
Copyright 2019, Patrick F. Cannon