The Long Shadow: David Reynolds on World War I

May 19, 2014

ZACH DORFMAN: I want to begin with a scene you describe in The Long Shadow. It's one that I think captures something essential about the experience of World War I, although—for many reasons—one that is hard to convey. You write of the experience of mutinous French troops in April 1917 under General Robert Nivelle, who, able to gather that the general's order to begin an offensive was tantamount to a death sentence, "went into battle, up the muddy slope in pouring rain, baaing like sheep."

The Great War was an extraordinarily deadly conflict. As you argue, it introduced the modern world to the phenomenon of "mass death." Can you talk about the ramifications of that awareness for the belligerents, during and after the war?

DAVID REYNOLDS: Sixty percent of British soldiers who died in the World War I were killed by artillery fire; for Germans the proportion was even higher. Many men were literally blown to bits by long-range shells launched from afar. The British war correspondent Charles Repington called 1914-18 "the butchery of the unknown by the unseen."

Yet, ironically, at the same time the war saw remarkable progress in the treatment of wounds. In past conflicts the majority of soldier deaths came not from combat itself but from infected wounds, crude amputations or disease in unsanitary camps. During the 20th century, starting with World War I, belligerents got much better at saving the wounded and healing the sick.

The French author Georges Duhamel captured the irony of all this at the end of his prize-winning war memoir Civilization (1918). There he described the work of a mobile ambulance unit—what he called "the last word in science"—which was effectively a "factory" to repair damaged parts of the military machine. All deeply impressive, except that these "parts" were actually human beings now reduced to "broken statues" by those other triumphs of modernity, the creeping barrage and the machine gun. The mobile ambulance, declared Duhamel, was "civilization's reply to itself," the factory of healing trying to outproduce the factory of destruction. Readers were left to ponder what this told us about modern "civilization"—a question that remains pertinent in the 21st century.

ZACH DORFMAN: The Great War was known not only for its overall deadliness, but also the shockingly high casualties garnered by many of the belligerents in a single battle, and indeed, over the course of a single day. As you write, the French lost 27,000 men on one day in August 1914; the death toll at Verdun alone is estimated to be between 400,000 and 600,000. How did the different belligerent countries react to the massive, deadly battles such as Verdun, the Somme, Caporetto, and Gallipoli? How were these battles used to justify continued prosecution of the war, and, in the longer term, incorporated into national myths?

DAVID REYNOLDS: Perhaps the most remarkable point is how long soldiers and armies kept fighting despite the losses and the horrors. The mutiny that followed Nivelle's crazy offensive up the Chemin des Dames ridge in 1917 was a rare exception. Even the German army, despite massive casualties and growing desertions once it took the offensive on the Western Front in 1918, remained a fighting unit until the announcement of Armistice negotiations shocked both soldiers and civilians and sparked revolution within Germany.

Battlefields have indeed served as "sites of memory" and foci of national myth, but in very different ways. Take Tannenberg in East Prussia, where in the summer of 1914 Hindenburg and Ludendorff destroyed two Russian armies and saved Germany from invasion. At a time when the supposedly war-winning attack on France had failed, Tannenberg was played up in Berlin to boost domestic morale. After the 1918 the war memorial there was used by the German right to show that the country had been fighting a defensive war in 1914; Hindenburg himself was buried at its heart. Yet the memorial had to be blown to bits in 1945 to save it from the advancing Red Army and after the war this once sacred place of German memory became part of Poland.

For the French, Verdun in 1916 became a similar site of memory. The war cemetery and grisly ossuary at Douaumont (where the bones collected from the killing fields can still be seen) was regarded as silent witness to the noble sacrifice of several hundred thousand young Frenchmen to save their nation. But a message can change over time. In 1984, President François Mitterrand of France and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany stood bare-headed and hand-in-hand in front of Douaumont for several minutes in pouring rain to signify the new rapprochement between their two countries since 1945 as members of the European Community.

ZACH DORFMAN: You argue, with Hannah Arendt, that the experience of mass death was no longer enough to shock the world after World War II, when concerns shifted to the problem of evil. How and why did the paramount problem of the 20th century go from being the problem of mass death to the problem of evil? And how did this postwar shift in perspective color or reconfigure our interpretation of World War I itself?

DAVID REYNOLDS: The Nazis took mass death onto a new level. Not so much on the battlefield but behind the lines, in the new factories of destruction—the extermination camps. Industrialized killing in cold blood, so far behind the battle lines, raised fundamental questions about human nature: hence Arendt's comment that the real question was not death but evil.

At the same time the Allies, especially Britain and America, also took mass death to a new level through saturation bombing of enemy cities. Their basic justification was that hitting enemy factories would weaken the Nazi battle front and thus shorten the war against an evil enemy. But "precision bombing" proved rhetoric rather than reality: by 1945 in Germany and in Japan Allied bombing made little attempt to differentiate between "military" and "civilian" targets—resulting in the incineration of cities such as Dresden and Tokyo. This process culminated in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The rights and wrongs of Allied bombing and use of nuclear weapons remain matters of intense controversy—as evident in the row over the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian in 1995. But the massive death toll from 1939-45, especially civilians on all sides, served to overshadow 1914-18, in which soldiers had suffered more than civilians. And the fact of two major conflicts in a quarter-century, both of them centered on Germany, suggested that World War I had been an ineffectual first round, which had to be followed by second and more successful round to sort out the "German Question."

ZACH DORFMAN: It seems impossible for us to understand World War I without seeing it through the lens of World War II, at least unconsciously. But, of course, this was not the way the war was seen by its contemporaries—the end of the Great War was referred to as the "postwar era"; the war was fought "to end all wars" (to use the parlance of the day); it was a war to save "civilization" itself. How was the war understood in the immediate postwar period by its belligerents? Did the victors, especially the French and the British, feel particularly victorious?

DAVID REYNOLDS: The French had driven the Germans from their homeland (much of northeastern France had been occupied and many inhabitants used as forced labor). They had also regained Alsace and Lorraine, which had been lost in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. So the French had some reason to see the Treaty of Versailles as a victory. But this had been bought at huge cost, some 1.3 million dead and millions more crippled in body or mind for decades after. I can still vividly remember my shock, when visiting Paris for the first time in the 1970s, to see signs in Métro carriages indicating that certain seats were reserved "Pour Les Mutilés."

By contrast most Germans did not accept the verdict of the Treaty of Versailles, under which the country lost much of its former Prussian heartland and was emasculated as a military power. But in the 1920s many people, especially in the political center and on the left, believed that any change should come through negotiation, not conflict, and the slogan 'Never Again War' was widely heard. Not until Hitler gained power in 1933 did the determination to fight for German "rights" become national policy.

ZACH DORFMAN: In The Long Shadow, you argue that the British experience of the Great War was highly divergent from the rest of the belligerents. This insight seems to apply to many different areas of analysis. Social or political revolution—very much a live concern in Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, and even to a lesser extent France, never appeared plausible before or after the war in Britain. In contrast to the other belligerents, Britain fought a "democratic war," at least for the first year and half of conflict, resisting a compulsory draft until it was militarily necessary. Britain even had a distinct artistic reaction to the war, quite different from trends on the Continent. Visual arts remained largely representational; poetry remained influenced by the Romantic and pastoral English traditions. Can you tell us why, in all of these diverse areas, the British experience was so exceptional?

DAVID REYNOLDS: For Britain the death toll was not so high as for France (720,000) but this was by far the most devastating foreign war in British history, and the comfort of feeling one had saved the homeland—central to French memory—was lacking. By the 1930s, as new war clouds gathered, the underlying British justification for the War was the Peace. In other words, that 1914-18 had been "the War to end war." In an increasingly desperate attempt to ensure this, Britain generated the biggest peace movement in the world in the 1930s: the so-called Peace Ballot of 1935 (actually a manifesto of support for the League of Nations) was signed by over one-third of the population.

Behind this basic narrative is an underlying geo-cultural reality: most British people then, and even today, do not feel "European." The "English Channel" has long been seen as providing an essential distance from the rest of Europe. Conscription made sense for continental countries where war was the norm; in Britain the Channel served in Shakespeare's words as a "moat defensive," permitting freedoms that would be deemed a dangerous luxury elsewhere. Similarly, in matters cultural, especially before the days of television and then the Internet, continental ideas in art and literature were often slow to cross the Channel. English poetry before 1914 was little touched by modernism; the now celebrated war poets, such as Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas, essentially inverted the English pastoral tradition, celebrating landscape and rural life to evoke the unnatural ravaging of nature in continental war.

ZACH DORFMAN: Before the war, both Wales and Scotland were to varying degrees toying with greater autonomy, if not outright independence. What about the war caused this to change? And when did this postwar consensus start to fall apart? In September 2014, Scotland is holding a referendum for independence—almost exactly 100 years from the start of the Great War. Why now, and not, say, in 1964?

DAVID REYNOLDS: In 1913 a Home Rule bill for Scotland (offering greater self-government) was going through the House of Commons. This failed because of the war. Anti-English feeling in Wales was less politicized but legislation to "disestablish" the Anglican Church in Wales (a bulwark of the power of English landlords) did get through Parliament. One should not exaggerate the potential of nationalist feeling pre-1914 but there is no doubt that the war did have a powerful effect in pulling the "United Kingdom" together. The losses of Scottish and Welsh regiments on the Western Front were commemorated with sadness but also with pride as part of the "British" war effort. The war kindled a renewed sense of Britishness that was renewed in 1939-45.

There are many reasons for the resurgence of national feeling in Wales and especially Scotland since the 1990snot least the impact of "Thatcherism" in dismantling public services and government employment on which many people in these two countries had depended. But the waning of the "feel British" effect from two world wars is, in my opinion, an important and often neglected factor.

ZACH DORFMAN: The great outlier in the British Isles, as you mention, is the case of Ireland, which you claim had an experience of the war much closer to that of a Central or Eastern European country than that of a Western European one. Can you tell us why this was so? How did the War affect—or even catalyze—the Easter Rising of 1916, the War of Independence (1918-1919), and the Civil War (1922-1923)? And how did the conflicting Republican and Unionist interpretations of the war on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966 help contribute to the outbreak of "the Troubles"?

DAVID REYNOLDS: In September 1914 Britain's Liberal government pushed legislation for Irish Home Rule through Parliament, the culmination of more than three decades of political argument. But Home Rule was put on ice for the duration of the war. The leader of moderate Irish nationalists, John Redmond, called on Catholic and Nationalist Irishmen to join the British army, arguing that Britain was now fighting for the rights of small nations and the sooner that victory were won, the sooner Irish Home Rule would become a reality.

But the war dragged on and in April 1916 a minority of militant nationalists made their own bid for independence. The abortive Easter Rising in Dublin might have become a sad footnote in history but for the heavy-handed brutality of British army reprisals, which turned a bunch of romantic hotheads into national martyrs. A few months later, on 1 July 1916, the 36th (Ulster) Divisionmostly Belfast Protestants fiercely loyal to Britainwent "over the top" on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, losing some 5,000 men. At home people lauded their heroism in what was deemed a righteous war, contrasting it with the so-called "stab in the back" a few months earlier in Dublin. These two "blood sacrifices" in 1916 became ideological markers for the Nationalist and Loyalist causes, re-enacted every year and especially on the 50th anniversary in 1966. "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland had many causes, not least the persistent discrimination against Catholics in jobs and housing, but these competing historical memories helped keep the two communities divided. Only in the last decade or so has a less sectarian view of history been developed on both sides of the border.

ZACH DORFMAN: At the end of The Long Shadow, you note the overwhelming predominance of histories of the Western front in the Great War and the paucity of English-language scholarship about the countries of the Eastern front. Indeed, as you write, "for millions in Eastern Europe the Armistice of November 1918, so important, in the West, was of relatively consequence," as a number of interstate and civil wars continued well into the 1920s. You consider the case of Poland to be paradigmatic in this regard. Can you tell us why? And can you describe the immediate shocks of the war in places like Finland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states?

DAVID REYNOLDS: The national map of Western Europe was not substantially changed by the war, except that France regained Alsace and Lorraine, but the political geography of Eastern Europe was transformed. The sudden collapse of the great empires of the Romanovs, Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns in 1917-18 allowed nationalist leaders to seize their chance, hastily building new states on the debris of the old empires. But these edifices were raised on shaky foundations, with disputed borders and fractious minorities. Although the war in the west ended cleanly on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, in the east fighting went on until at least 1921, with bloody revolutions followed by civil wars in Russia and the Baltic states. Polandre-invented through the collapse of the German and Russian powerbecame a particularly vicious battleground, while the reconfigured Soviet and Polish states doomed Ukraine's brief bid for independence. These contested ethnic borderlands of Eastern Europe lay at the heart of the next war in 1939, and the underlying issues have still not been resolved, as we know only too well in 2014.

ZACH DORFMAN: Finally, how should the Centennial of World War I be commemorated in a manner that is both meaningful and relevant to our times?

DAVID REYNOLDS: The dead should be remembered and the losses mourned. But no veterans of 1914-18 are still aliveas special ceremonies for the "Last Tommy," the "Last Doughboy" or "le dernier poilu" have highlighted over the previous decade. In Britain we are now as far from the men who resisted the Kaiser in 1914 as they were from the soldiers who fought Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. So I think that in 2014 it is time not only to remember the dead but also to understand the war as history. That means getting out of the trenches of France and Belgium to explore the Home Fronts, especially the roles of women, and also to see the War as a global conflict with profound implications for China, Japan and India.

For Americans it means taking seriously one of the shortest and most forgotten wars of America's war-torn 20th century. To recognize that the ideology of Woodrow Wilson has been a benchmarkpositive or negativefor American leaders from Paris in 1919 to Iraq in 2003. To appreciate that America's hyper-nationalism of 1917-18not drained, as in Europe, by a long warsurged on into a Red Scare that defined American politics and ideology in the inter-war decades and especially the Cold War. Above all to see that many of our contemporary problems have roots in what George Kennan called this "great seminal catastrophe" of the twentieth century. My book The Long Shadow is an attempt to throw a fresh light on the War and its legacies.

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