Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Great War in History

One hundred years ago today, in Sarajevo, a Serbian nationalist fired two pistol shots at Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Sophie. 

The bullets, shot at close range, killed both targets.  

The incident set off flurries of belligerent national posturings and ineffective negotiations across Europe.  

Five weeks later, on August 1, the Great War began.  It ultimately grew to engulf Europe, as well as much of Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

Four years later, the war ended.  At least sixteen million people had died in battle, in genocidal slaughter, of disease and as collateral victims.  Whole countries were ravaged. Maps of Eastern Europe and Middle East were redrawn. 

The Great War was not like the American Civil War and World War II, the great bloodbaths that bracketed it.  In those two wars, the issues -- slavery, Nazism, Japanese aggression in Asia -- were clear.  The high cost was lamented deeply but understood.

The Great War was different.  As they battled in trench warfare and with machine guns and nerve gas, soldiers on both sides questioned why they were fighting.  Even today, we cannot describe its central issue.  At the time, it was called "the war to end all wars," but it did not settle anything.  Just over 20 years later, the Second World War began.

The scars remain.  You cannot drive through many small towns in France or the British Isles without encountering monuments listing the names of local sons killed.  

Starting today, Europe will begin four years of commemorations and remembrances of the First World War.  

I plan to spend some time over the same period rereading old books, and some new ones, about the Great War.  Below are some volumes of history on my list.  (I welcome other suggestions.)

The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman's 1960 history of the war.  Tuchman was a fine historian and a great writer.  This is well worth a second read.

The Proud Tower, also by Barbara Tuchman, a 1966 collection of essays describing Europe between 1890 and 1914 and setting the scene for the national clashes that led the war to occur.

1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War, last year's well-received book by Charles Emmerson that concerns itself not with the origins of war but with situation of the broader world in 1913.  An interesting book with a new focus; possibly longer than it needed to be.

The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell, a1975 cultural history that documented how the war influenced the generation of British writers who had fought in it.  Very influential, still somewhat controversial.

Later:  World War I in Literature and Poetry

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