Logo

To End All Wars: Adam Hochschild on World War I

February 27, 2014

From the cover of "To End All Wars"

MLADEN JOKSIC: In To End All Wars, you argue that World War I remains very much a part of our lives. Let’s start this conversation by examining some of the consequences of World War I that are still with us, even if far below the surface.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: The consequences of the war are still with us, but mediated by all sorts of events that have happened between 1918 and today, the Second World War and subsequent division of Europe being perhaps the most important. Can you imagine the Second World War without the First? I can't. Neither Hitler nor Lenin and then Stalin would have risen to power without the vast disruptions of the First World War, I believe, and we are still living in a world shaped by their legacies.

MLADEN JOKSIC: The historian Margaret MacMillan points to a number of similarities between today's world and the era just before World War I. Do you agree with those parallels? 100 years later, are we in danger of repeating the same mistakes that started World War I? 

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: We do live in a potentially explosive world, but I think there is one mistake we won’t repeat: a belief (which many people on both sides had in 1914) that a war with another major power will result in a swift and easy victory. In the nuclear age, the consequences would be dreadful, and most politicians in both the U.S. and China know that. 

MLADEN JOKSIC: In the summer of 1914, the European public responded with unprecedented enthusiasm to the call to arms. How do you explain this widespread enthusiasm for war? 

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Young men everywhere tend to think of themselves as invincible. But one factor that increased that in 1914 was that the recent experience Britain, France and Germany had had of warfare was entirely colonial wars, in Africa and Asia. There, the European power had the repeating rifles, the machine guns, the artillery, and the Africans and Asians had much more primitive weapons. European generals on both sides tended to project that experience of warfare onto the fighting that began in 1914—even though they should have known better. 

MLADEN JOKSIC: The outbreak of World War I had a disastrous effect on the Second International. Did the socialist vision of working-class internationalism and anti-militarism ever really have a chance against the mass patriotic hysteria of this war?  

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Sadly, tribal or national feeling—"my country right or wrong"—is an immensely powerful force, then and now. In 1914, it overrode the socialist movement’s internationalism far more crushingly than anyone, either socialists or governments hostile to them, expected. The Russian Revolution and Russia’s withdrawal from the war did raise hopes among some leftists in other countries, but there was another wave of patriotic hysteria on both sides in early 1918 when it looked as if Germany was going to capture Paris and win the war. 

MLADEN JOKSIC: Britain's anti-war movement was one of the largest and most vocal in Europe. One of its leaders was a distinguished thinker and mathematician, Bertrand Russell. Can you tell us about Russell's anti-war efforts? 

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: One thing I admire so much about Russell is that he was so honest about his conflicted feelings. He later described himself at the start of the war as being "tortured by patriotism. Love of England is very nearly the strongest emotion I possess. I desired the defeat of Germany as much as any retired colonel." Nonetheless, he knew the war was a tragic, pointless waste of life, and he said so, repeatedly and eloquently—and eventually went to prison for six months for his beliefs. Someone else thrown in a British prison for six months for his anti-war stance was the great investigative journalist E. D. Morel. He served his sentence at hard labor, and it broke his health. He died of a heart attack half a dozen years later, at the age of 51. 

MLADEN JOKSIC: Britain also had thousands of conscientious objectors, who, on religious, moral, or ideological grounds, refused to enter the British armed forces. How were conscientious objectors treated by the British government and army? 

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Not well. Those who refused alternative service like driving an ambulance at the front or working in a war factory were imprisoned under very harsh conditions: silence, minimal diet, freezing cold due to a shortage of coal. 

MLADEN JOKSIC: How did the experience of a nascent anti-war movement during World War I influence the growth and activities of the peace movements of the later 20th century? 

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: I'd like to think we can look back at these people as models, men and women who had the courage of their convictions. I certainly do. Has their example sufficiently empowered us to stop military spending and end war for good? Not yet! 

MLADEN JOKSIC: Through the entire course of World War I, there were no behind-the-scenes peace negotiations among warring countries. Why not? 

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: It is notable that there were no serious behind-the-scenes negotiations. Any war has momentum, and after months or years when huge numbers of soldiers have died or been horribly wounded, no one wants to think this was all in vain. Both sides convinced themselves that they were fighting for civilization itself, which made it very hard to talk of compromise. A further unusual and complicating factor was that German and Austro-Hungarian troops occupied huge swaths of Allied territory, in France, Belgium, and Russia. They didn’t want to give this up, and the Allies didn’t want to see those gains frozen in place. 

MLADEN JOKSIC: To engage the civilian population and galvanize public enthusiasm for the war effort, the British government created the War Propaganda Bureau. Tell us something about the sophistication, scope, and achievements of its propaganda.  

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: It was the most sophisticated such effort yet seen. Posters, postcards, rallies, patriotic organizations, bond sales, and documentary films. The government gambled that showing some of the war's death and destruction on the screen would raise people's enthusiasm rather than dampen it, and they turned out to be right. 

MLADEN JOKSIC: Throughout Europe, the war unleashed nationalist fervor, witch-hunts for spies and traitors, censorships, and show trials. Did Britain experience any of this?

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Absolutely. Some publications, or particular issues of them, were suppressed, although less than one might expect. Until the U.S. entered the war, the British were very worried about what the Americans might think if there was too much censorship. But there were witch hunts, perhaps the most notorious of which was the prosecution of Alice Wheeldon and her family. She was a leftist who made her living running a second-hand clothes shop in Derby and the government was angry at her because she had sheltered draft evaders in her home. But they cooked up an absurd charge that she had been plotting to assassinate the prime minister, and sent her and a daughter and son-in-law to jail. Pacifists in Britain today are trying to get the case retroactively thrown out, and the Lord Mayor of Derby is supporting them. 

MLADEN JOKSIC: World War I is remembered for its senseless carnage, the horrors of the trenches, and the enormous destruction it wrought. Did the war have any moments where universal moral values and a common humanity prevailed, even briefly? 

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Prisoners of war were treated reasonably well—certainly vastly better than the Germans and Soviets treated each other's prisoners in the Second World War, or than the Japanese treated American prisoners then. And then there was the remarkable, spontaneous Christmas Truce of 1914, when soldiers from both sides came out of their trenches in France and Belgium and traded food and drink in no-man's land and in a few places even played soccer. 

MLADEN JOKSIC: How should the Centennial of World War I be commemorated in a manner that is both meaningful and relevant to our times? 

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: How about a commemoration of the Christmas Truce? Far better to celebrate that moment of sanity than the vast battles where so many men needlessly died.

blog comments powered by Disqus