21st Century Verdun: Is Ukraine Consuming the Final Youth Cohort of Central Europe?

The First World War began when the powerful autocrat of a central European state was killed by a youthful rebel, and then all the powers of Europe chose sides and went at it. It was not inevitable that the war would begin that way, or start at all, but the men were called up and armed, the war went on for four terrible years and consumed a portion of the male youth of Europe. So many men were killed that the demographic loss was permanent. The primary European export, people with ideas, ended and the European age of exploration and dominance was over.

Western Europe would be hard pressed to field any armies half as large as those that fought on the battlefields of northern France over 100 years ago. After World War 2, the defense of Western Europe from the mostly Russian Soviets was transferred to the still youthful United States. The remnant population of Western Europe could focus on rebuilding their economies, but they labored on without the demographic contribution of those killed in the wars. That loss was permanent.

What the Germans didn’t lose in the First World War, they sacrificed in the Second, and much of that in the Soviet state of Ukraine, where there is fighting again. Where Russian tanks roll today, German tanks rolled yesterday, and the death the Russians and Ukrainians visit upon each other today will have the same effect military death had on the European cohorts of the past. The war in Ukraine is consuming the last remnant of youthful manhood in Russia and Ukraine. The result will be a stunted future for both nations, regardless of the outcome of the fighting.

All wars now occur in the shadow of the demographic changes. Around much of the world, where there was once large families, there are quiet villages that are empty or will be soon. The raucous Italian Catholic family sitting at the dinner table, typified in many American movies, is no more. The bleak but youthful landscapes of Charles Dickins are a thing of the past in every part of the UK. There are no growing European populations, from the Shetland Islands to the Aegean Sea.  

Central Europe is depopulating. The last thing they need was a war that consumes more of their limited youth but they are going at it anyway. After a year of fighting, the battlefield casualties on the Ukrainian side are estimated to be 13,000, but possibly much higher. On the Russian side, things are exponentially worse and as of March 2023, the Russian battlefield deaths are estimated to be 200,000. The Russians are mobilizing men in prisons and drafting men from the areas seized a decade earlier. There isn’t sufficient reserves of men like there was in the World War 2 army of Stalin. Young men must be found wherever they are, and they are being thrown into the battle wildly unprepared.

The logic of this madness is not difficult to understand if seen through the lens of a national vision. The great empires of Central Europe have long since faded, and the decline began in World War 1. The hearty Mittel Europe that stopped the northwest spread of Islam has long since been played out spiritually and then economically. The Russian Empire, the one birthed on the fertile steppes of Central Asia, was always a difficult place, and after two generations of Soviet rule and one of the successor oligarchies, they are exhausted as well. There is some sort of cultural rage that drives formerly populous and successful peoples to throw their youth at a lost cause and commit national suicide in the name of retaining or restoring a sometimes-fictional national greatness.

The American government has been supportive of the Ukrainian side, which is portrayed as an underdog population fighting invasion by a big bully. Perhaps this is partly true. But, Ukraine was in the news quite a bit before the invasion began, mostly as a place of intrigue. It was not a place of happy, peaceful, prosperous and innovative people before the Russians invaded. And now, as a place of warfare it appears to be a very good cause for the Americans to push since it serves a larger American interest to keep warfare far away and pit the locals against each other. The Americans didn’t make the Russian invade Ukraine, but now that their there, it’s an excellent theater to let the Russians complete their suicide and test new battlefield technologies. Best case scenario; the Chinese start sending their declining base of youth to the bloody fields of Ukraine, and the area will again be like it was when the Nazis and Soviets murdered each other with abandon; all the bad guys get together for a massive killing, the innocent youth, be damned.

World War 1 had many destructive battles, and the Battle of Verdun is as good as any to demonstrate the scale of the losses. For almost the entire year of 1916, the German and French armies fought against each other over control of a small town and limited geography. The French and German populations are as closely linked as the Russian and Ukrainian ethnicity, but that didn’t keep them from shooting and shelling each other without mercy. By the end of the year, the casualties had to be counted in the hundreds of thousands. There is still not perfect total of the dead, but 305,000 killed is a good estimate. In a year of fighting in Ukraine, a similar total is approaching. The long-term consequence will be permanent depopulation of middle and eastern Europe, and a decline of the Russian people in a way thus far unseen. The flower of Ukrainian youth will be displaced or killed, and the seeds of the Russian future will be bled dry on the long flat plains of the Ukrainian heartland.

What comes next? It’s hard to say. The land that had to be abandoned around Chernobyl is in Ukraine, and it’s recovering nicely. Nature will reclaim every part of the earth abandoned by people. Many seem to underestimate just how quickly signs of human habitation can be reduced and nearly destroyed. There will be a Ukrainian culture, and a place on the map called Ukraine for some time, but it will never be the same, and neither will Russia. Their time has passed, and their future is dwindling with each day the war drags on.

Russian population decline before the war
Ukraine decline before the war
At Verdun