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 May 31, 2013
Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

Over the next few years much will be made of the hundred-year anniversary of the breakdown of the European peace into a thirty-one-year civil war that did not fully cease until 1945. In 2012 the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of the fact that there has been no war within its borders for the past sixty years, and today the Union stands as a model for regional peace. But the consequences of the “Great War” and the disastrously unsuccessful “peace” of 1918 are still with us. Like Andrew Carnegie, Alfred Nobel recognized that it is essential that political decision-makers and a wider public act with an awakened sense of the everyday significance of world events.

It was not clear to most observers between 1918 and 1930 that “the war to end all wars”—far from stopping the recourse to arms—presaged many new wars, as well as the terminal weakening of Britain and France, the start of Pax Americana (culminating in 1939–1945), and the beginning of a nuclear-armed cold war (1945–1989). Yet, in another sense, World War I, insofar as it has come to be seen as one archetype of war—an icon of the absurdity of wars of mutual attrition—has had a profound and worldwide cultural impact. The Great War and its imagery imprinted itself on the human imagination. In poetry and prose, photography, art, film, and other modes of expression, its influence on cultural memory and identity, on modern meaning and human sensibility, has been remarkable.

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