World War I ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, yet an irresistible current of nihilism had been set loose. Fought in the name of democracy, that war was in fact a triumph of militarism and imperialism - on all sides. It led to the punitive imposition of artificial borders in Europe, which were the immediate cause of World War II; in the Middle East, the remote cause of today's most dangerous conflicts; and in Africa, where consequent genocide has found its niche. Perhaps most damaging was the 1914 legitimizing of mass violence, with the trenches anticipating both gas chambers and the unleashed atom. Hitler and Stalin were empowered by the so-called Great War, which is why both World War II and the Cold War should always be considered in its context. To regard all three conflicts as a single War of the 20th Century obliterates any notion that categories of "just war" apply.
What are we to make of these three anniversaries? First, while honoring the memory of veterans tomorrow, we should also acknowledge that the Great War was a mistake. America should never have joined. Second, in properly recalling the demonic Hitler's antisemitism, we can also reckon with the complicity of a larger culture. What crimes make us bystanders today? And third, trumping the horrors of the 20th century, its most important event was the nonviolent resolution of the nuclear-armed Cold War. "Power to the people" proved true, and what they used their power for was peace. Three anniversaries, with emphasis given to hope.