One hundred years ago this summer, sparked by the June 28 assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Europe plunged blindly into a global war that would leave nearly 10 million soldiers dead, twice that number wounded, countless civilians slaughtered or ruined, economies wrecked, empires toppled and the disastrous seeds of communism and fascism sown in ground, fertilized by blood and anguish. “All gods dead,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it in the war’s wake, “all faiths in man shaken.”
The manmade disaster that was first called the Great War wrenched Europe out of the past and thrust it into a dystopian future. This is when the genocides began, and bombs first fell from the skies, when old orders discredited themselves with nothing better to take their places. The good were left exhausted by the carnage—which gave evil a head start in the next round of that eternal competition.
Despite the scale of the conflict’s death toll and its historical weight, World War I occupies a surprisingly small space in the Western memory, perhaps because it had no silver lining—no slaves were freed, no death camps liberated by brave American GIs. The story is told (when it’s told at all) through herky-jerky black-and-white movies of men in silly helmets moving like Claymation dolls, and goggled pilots in flimsy biplanes, and soldiers wearing gas masks like snouts.
These experimental color photographs, on the other hand, narrow the distance between us and that wasteland. They reach across the century to remind us that those millions dead were once as real and warm as we. Theirs was not an alien, colorless landscape. It was our world—and could be again, should we forget the lessons of World War I.
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