The impending centenary of the outbreak of World War I sends us back to “Twilight of the Kings.” Written by Clifford Raymond of the Chicago Tribune, it was published in the edition of August 2, 1914. There are those who reckon “Twilight” will go down as the greatest editorial of a blood-soaked century — beautifully expressed and powerfully moving, even if, in its predictions, it was wrong. It repays a re-reading on the 100-year mark of the start of the slaughter.
“Before establishing hell on earth the pietistic kings commend their subjects to God,” the Tribune began. “Seek the Lord’s sanction for the devil’s work.” The Tribune was ignited by a report that the Kaiser had stepped out on his balcony and asked his people to pray for Germany’s success. “And now I commend you to God,” he mocked the Kaiser as saying. “Go to church and kneel before God and pray for His help for our gallant army.”
Then the torrent of sarcasm: “Pray that a farmer dragged from a Saxon field shall be speedier with a bayonet thrust than a winemaker taken from his vines in the Aube; that a Berlin lawyer shall be steadier with the rifle than a Moscow merchant; that a machine gun manned by Heidelburg students shall not jam and that one worked by Paris carpenters shall.
“Pray that a Bavarian hop grower, armed in a quarrel in which he has no heat, shall outmarch a wheat grower from Poltava; that Cossacks from the Don shall be lured into barbed wire entanglements and caught by masked guns; that an innkeeper of Salzburg shall blow the head of a baker from the Loire. ‘Go to church and pray for help’ — that the hell shall be hotter in the innocent Ardennes than it is in the equally innocent Hessen; that it shall be hotter in the innocent Kovno than in equally innocent Posen.”
Well, the Tribune was just getting tuned up. It mocked the other monarchs — of Russia and Austria — throwing all their peoples into a vast slaughter of moral equivalents. He wrote of the peasants of Serbia that they were to be “dragged from the wheat field when it was ready for the scythe and given to the scythe themselves.” It reckoned that the world was hearing “the last call of monarchy upon Divinity when Asmodeus walks in armor.”
“The kings worship Baal and call it God,” the Tribune roared. “Out of the sacrifices will come, we think, a resolution firmly taken to have no more wheat growers and growers of corn, makers of wine miners and fishers, artisans and traders, sailors and storekeepers offered up with prayer to the Almighty in a feudal slaughter, armed against each other without hate and without case they know of, or, if they knew, would give a penny which way it was determined.”
Then the famous words: “This is the twilight of the kings. Western Europe of the people may be caught in this debacle, but never again. Eastern Europe of the kings will be remade and the name of God shall not give grace to a hundred square miles of broken bodies. If Divinity enters here it comes with a sword to deliver the people from the sword. It is the Twilight of the kings. The Republic marches east . . .”
We’ve read that editorial dozens of times over the years. We’ve thrilled to its language and cringed at the moral equivalency. That folly was no doubt recognized by the Tribune’s own publisher, Colonel McCormick. He appeared in arms himself at France. It was the proudest deed of his life. He maintained the title of colonel for the rest of his days and named the museum he built to the First United States Infantry Division after the French village where he’d served, Cantigny.
No doubt it was at least in part the confounded cynicism that missed the next monster, which emerged under the banner of socialism — the fascist variety in Germany and the Marxist model in Russia — and gave us but a generation later an even greater slaughter and a more nihilistic form of evil, which is still on the march. For our part we’d like to think it was not the Kaiser but the cause to which God was deaf. For when He wants, He can make even the sun stand still, as He did over Gibeon — twice.