Friday, January 14, 2011

To End All Wars

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918
© 2011 Adam Hochschild
480 pages



Disclaimer:   I read from an advanced review copy of the book, available through NetGalleys. No compensation for a review, good or negative, was offered or requested, aside from my own potential enjoyment of the book.


Though American history books tend to portray the Great War as merely the prologue of World War 2,  its momentous horror and long-reaching effects deserve more recognition. The war shattered the late 19th century's dreams of an optimistic future -- that with reason enthroned and science driving society, humanity would march ever courageously into a progressive future toward paradise.  That great vision vanished when national pride flared and the being known as Modern Man turned into a screaming chimpanzee with a machine-gun, perverting the material and intellectual accomplishments of humanity for the cause of destruction --  hell-bent on the brutal evisceration of its enemies and too drunken with anger, grief, and war-lust to stop the bloodshed.  To End All Wars delivers the full scope of the horror and makes it personal, but offers the reader inspiration and hope in the midst of lunacy by partially focusing on the lives of those who stood against the great madness.

To End all Wars consists of two intertwined narratives: the first is a general history of the great war, which is surprisingly detailed.  In spite of the book's brevity, Hochschild managed to convey not only the essential course of the war (generally focusing on the Western Front), but an astonishing amount of pertinent details and background information -- like the peculiarities and horrors of trench warfare and the requirements of this, the first great industrial conflict that demanded 70% of a nation's active resources to maintain. Hochschild's narrative makes the inhumane conditions , chronic and massive destruction of life, and utter pointlessness more obvious than any other Great War book I've read save soldiers' memoirs.  The effect is all the more poignant to the reader because those who perish are not nameless: they are the loved ones of people we know personally.

The other entwined half of To End All Wars is a personal history of Britain in the last decades of the 19th century and during the Great War. Hochschild introduces a handful of individuals from varied classes and backgrounds who will each play their separate roles in the war to come. Some, like the miner-turned-politician Keir Hardy, will resist the war and be literally heartbroken by its initial popularity. Others, like Sir John French, will devote themselves to the Glory of the Realm and fight on come hell, high water, or Bolshevik revolution.  This portion begins with Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and chronicles the battle for expanded voting rights and social justice. Suffragettes are particularly visible, and the story of their fight astonished and delighted me.  How can a reader resist the charm of women who back furniture trucks into Paraliment's doors and deploy a dozen or so suffragists to storm inside and shout "VOTES FOR WOMEN!", joined by comrades rappelling through the ceiling skylights? This is the kind of lively drama that conventional history texts miss completely.

Among the ranks of these lives -- through whom we witness the expansion of empire and the full horror of war -- are heroes and villains, champions of the human spirit and aristocrats consumed by wealth and vanity. Few of them, however, are predictable. Charlotte Despard, one of the more heroic figures in the text, was as ardent a populist champion as Eugene Debs -- but her brother was Sir John French.  Emmeline Pankhurst starts the book out as a socialist suffragette who attempts to blow up the prime minister's home with him in it -- but once the war starts, she becomes said minister's staunch ally and denounces any and all who question her.  The effects the war had on personal relationships is fascinating:  Emmeline and the minister, once enemies, became allies -- and Emmeline and two of her pacifist daughters, once comrades-in-arms, became strangers to one another. Other notable figures include Bertrand Russell and Rudyard Kipling, two literary-intellectual figures whose stances were in opposition. While Kipling produces poetry, stories, and essays praising war and the Honor of the Nation and denouncing Germans as subhuman, persistent enemies of civilization, Russell stands sadly in the rain and watches his countrymen cheer the deaths of human beings simply because their last names are different.  (He's later thrown into jail for opposing the war.)

To End All Wars is an exceptional read. Its narrative of the war, slightly marred by an American bias toward the Allies, would  function well as a general introduction to the war, but the personal accounts make the book golden. The stories of those  who stand against 'man's blind indifference to his fellow man', who oppose the inhumanity of their government's actions, are inspirational enough, but their treatment at the hands of their fellow citizens serves to remind readers of other, more subtle costs of war -- moral corruption.  Though Woodrow Wilson disingenuously referred to the war as a defense of democracy,  there's little democracy to be seen in the actions of Britain's government. Those who do not enthusiastically support the war and the government are spied on,  denounced, stoned, imprisoned, vilified by the press, and lined up to be shot. Though this is a story of the Great War, the 'war to end all wars',  its most important story is that of the pacifists, the socialists, the principled Christians, and the internationalist intellectuals who saw the war as futile, pointless, and the only true enemy of any nation.  While scenes of the destruction and death were emotionally difficult to read, the lives of those few provided a ray of hope, and their vindication at war's end finishes the book on a somber, somewhat relieved note.

To End All Wars will be available commercially on 3 May 2011, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Related:

  • The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914, Phillip Blom
  • A People's History of the 20th Century, Howard Zinn
  • The Great War in Modern Memory, Paul Fussell
  • All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque


4 comments:

  1. Excellent review. It sounds like a wonderful book--like something bordering on historical fiction combined with a text book. The human element is always the keenest in any story.

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  2. Impressive review and what looks like a 'must read' for me.

    I am presently becoming fascinated with the period between the wars in Europe. This should be good background reading.

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  3. Baley Odd that you should mention that! The author writes in the introduction that at times, the personal narrative might seem more like a novel than a nonfiction book, but "history, when examined closely, always yields up people events, and moral testing grounds more revealing than any but the greatest of novelists could invent."

    Really, in what novel can you find a woman arrested for trying to blow up a prime minister's house, only to later become his personal denoouncer-of-radicals? They appeared side by side in the newspapers!

    Cyberkitten I imagine you'll enjoy it. Related to your most recent read, most of the book's female personalities start out as suffragettes. That section is...well, lively. Hilarious at times, shocking at others.

    I'd like to read more in the interwar period, particularly about Weimar Germany. The twenties and thirties were how I started becoming interested in the Gilded Age -- I just kept digging further into the past to understand that period.

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  4. sc said: The twenties and thirties were how I started becoming interested in the Gilded Age -- I just kept digging further into the past to understand that period.

    The 1920's have always had an appeal - they're so care free and fun. Of course they have a darker side as a reaction to the horrors of WW1.

    I've become more interested in that time due to my growing love of the periods graphic art (as you may have noticed over @ my place). They seem to me, probably due to simple ingorance on my part, to be much more progressive and open minded than I had previously thought - or is that just decadence? [grin]

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