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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

War-weary Europe is putty to Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin heads the Cabinet meeting

Russian President Vladimir Putin heads the Cabinet meeting in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia on Wednesday, July 30, 2014. Photo Credit: AP / Alexei Nikolsky

Netflix is running a very good series called "14 Diaries of the Great War." It's an eight-part docudrama about World War I based on the letters and diaries of 14 people who survived the war. Don't let the word "docudrama" throw you. "14" is superbly done. It intersperses century-old, black-and-white footage from 21 nations with solid present-day acting. The effect is riveting at times.

"14" manages to honor and capture what the so-called Great War meant to everyday people. It's not about guns and battle maps and entangled alliances; it's about how real lives are affected by war. Most of the people featured in "14" are civilians.

I watched "14" in two four-hour sittings running into the wee hours of the morning. It's a common enough way to binge on Netflix series. But unlike other Netflix programming that escapes the mind moments after consumption, "14" lingers. It consumes its viewers rather than the other way around. The characters demand it.

Marina Yurlova became a Cossack soldier in the Russian army at 14 after unsuccessfully searching for her father in the Cossack ranks. I wont forget Marina Yurlova anytime soon. She was twice wounded fighting Turks and Kurds, then imprisoned by the Bolsheviks after the fall of Czar Nicholas II. Yurlova survived the war, after a stint in a Soviet mental asylum, which was more likely a carefully misnamed political prison. In 1919, she moved to the United States, where she lived until her death at 84.

Charles Edward Montague was a London-based journalist, the son of a priest. Although he was a pacifist, Montague tried desperately at 47 to "fight the Bosche" in a combat unit, only to be relegated at his advanced age to the propaganda bureau. There he was charged, lamentably, with spreading lies of imminent victory to war weary civilians. Montague would have preferred to die in a trench rather than encourage other Englishmen to end up in one.

Elfriede Kuhr was a pretty German teenager who ardently supported the cause. (She became a dancer and outspoken pacifist in later life and escaped Germany, along with her Jewish husband, five years before Kristallnacht.) It's Elfriede Kuhr who most drove home the civilian story for me. In one poignant scene, she battles with her mother over precious pots and pans in their home. Elfriede is stripping the house of every metal object to be melted down into war ordnance, on orders of the kaiser. Her mother struggles to hold on to the few things they have left.

That didn't happen only in Germany. Households across the globe during the war were stripped of copper, silver, iron, tin, zinc and other metals to feed war production. Each army needed just a few more artillery pieces, shells, rifles, tanks and gas canisters to break the stalemate and carry the day. They bombed one another's cities into dust with melted family heirlooms, and for what? An estimated 17 million people, 10 million military, 7 million civilian, were annihilated in the "Great War." And then, after 20 years spent rebuilding their towns and shattered lives -- after 20 years crafting new pots, sculptures and candleholders -- the Europeans did it all over again, with more than twice the fatalities the next time.

"14" was made to coincide with last year's 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. But it serves a modern-day purpose as well. The series reminds viewers of just how much Europe and other parts of the world, but especially Europe, suffered between 1917 and 1945. The toll on the collective European psyche must be profound to this day.

I sometimes forget that when reading news reports about Russian President Vladimir Putin exerting his will in Ukraine through threats and surrogate military action. The Europeans look feckless at the negotiating table, as they did this past week at talks in Belarus. Like President Barack Obama, European leaders tend to approach conflict by outlining what they are not willing to do. The spell out from the outset the military lines they are unwilling to cross.

Putin, whose nation knows war as well as any, suffers no such compunction. Indeed, he seems to understand the reticent European psyche better than anyone, and he drives at it like a calculating tiger for every additional inch of ground. Few think the cease-fire agreement hammered out in Belarus will appease Putin for long. It's more likely a resting place from which he can plan his next move.

"14" offers a snapshot into the shredded lives of a handful of Europeans 100 years ago. It also reminds us of the damage that an even smaller handful of characters brought upon the world.

From where do these Vladimir Putins come?

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican political consultant.