BOOK REVIEW: 'To End All Wars': All Wars Are Bad: The 'Great War' Was Senseless

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
    BOOK REVIEW: 'To End All Wars': All Wars Are Bad: The 'Great War' Was Senseless
    If I could go back in time and prevent any historical action from happening, I would travel to Sarajevo, Bosnia -- then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- on June 28, 1914, and kill a Serbian national  named Gavrilo Princip before he killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, triggering what became known as the "Great War" and what we know of today as World War I.
    My view is shared to an extent by Scottish born historian Niall Ferguson, who is quoted in Adam Hochschild's  "To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 480 pages, maps, black and white photographs, notes, bibliography, index, $28.00) as saying the U.K.'s toll from its participation in the Great War was "the worst thing the people of my country have ever had to endure." 
    World War I exacted an horrific toll on the British Empire, including Australia, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India, with at least 1 million deaths and many times more injuries from the weapons of mass destruction created and used in the war. Nobody knows the exact numbers, but more than 20 million people were killed in the conflict, with tens of millions more falling victim to the worldwide influenza pandemic, which Hochschild traces to American troops training in Kansas and shipped to Europe suffering from the flu.
    Adam Hochschild
    Adam Hochschild
    I would add that the entry of the U.S. into the war in April 1917, after recently re-elected President Woodrow Wilson campaigned on the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War," was a disaster for all concerned, since the Great War inexorably led to the much more deadly World War II, and our entry into a war that made no sense in the first place  made things much worse.
     To those who bring up the U-Boat attacks by the Germans on neutral -- including American -- shipping, I would add something that Hochschild neglects to mention: the Germans took out ads in major U.S. daily newspapers warning of the dangers of traveling to Europe in a time of a war. German civilians were being starved by the Allied blockade, reduced to eating cats and dogs, so, possessed of the superior U-Boat technology, they weren't about to let the British and their allies -- including the Russians -- be resupplied with weapons of war and food from America.

    By any standard examining the human species and its innate desire to kill each other, World War I stands out as one of history’s most senseless spasms of carnage, defying rational explanation. It resonates today, with seemingly permanent wars that exact a steady drip-drip of casualties, horrifying but paling in comparison to the thousands killed in a day in an event like the Battle of the Somme. 

    Hochschild brings the incredible senselessness of World War I to life by describing the opposition to the war as well as salient events of it, including the critical role of Germany in expanding the Sarajevo incident with the invasion of Belgium and the crimes committed by the German Army there. Hochschild admits at the start of his book that it's not meant to be a comprehensive history of the war and the period before it. I think he's being overly modest: As one who has read many books on the period, I found "To End All Wars" to be an outstanding, elegantly written and exhaustively researched one-volume introduction to the life and times of the period before, during and after the war.

    Of course, if you want a complete look at the military aspects of the war, read John Keegan's masterful "The First World War" (1999) or either of Barbara Tuchman's books on the war and the events that caused it, "The Guns of August" (1962) and "The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914" (1966). Or any and all the books Hochschild cites in his excellent bibliography.

    Hochschild follows much of "The Proud Tower" model by examining the wars  that were trial runs for the big one, much as the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 was a run-up to World War II. Among these events were the introduction of the Maxim machine gun in the Sudan (a place were war today is an everyday event) to the guerilla warfare of the Boers in South Africa at the beginning of the 20th Century which led to a scorched earth policy by the British and the introduction of the world's first concentration camps. A couple of decades after the introduction of the machine gun, it became a weapon of mass destruction in World War I, with its victims white Europeans rather than the despised (by the Europeans) natives of the Sudan or India.

    "To End All Wars" focuses on the long-ignored moral drama of the war’s critics, alongside its generals and heroes. Among those jailed in Britain for their opposition to the war were Britain’s leading investigative journalist, a future winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and an editor who, behind bars, published a newspaper for his fellow inmates on toilet paper. There were at least 20,000 British war resisters, and thousand of others among all the war's participants. Many of the resisters were socialists or later bolsheviks and communists and one of the outcomes of the Great War was the creation of the terror state of Soviet Russia.

     These critics were sometimes intimately connected to their enemy hawks: one of Britain’s most prominent women pacifist campaigners, Charlotte Despard,  had a brother, Sir John French,  who was commander in chief on the Western Front. Despite their differences, Despard and French kept in touch. Two well-known sisters, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst,  split so bitterly over the war that they ended up publishing newspapers that attacked each other. Their mother, Emmeline, was a well-known suffragette who also opposed the Boer War.

    Hochschild's chronicle, which is certain to be short-listed for several major book prizes, begins and ends in cemeteries. Hundreds of military cemeteries spread across the fields of northern France and Belgium contain the bodies of millions of men who died in the “war to end all wars.” Also containing those unknown soldiers are fields throughout Belgium and northern France, where often bones are discovered by a farmer plowing his fields. After describing the events of the war, including the soldiers tied to  poles and shot for displaying the kind of shell shock for which Gen. George S. Patton slapped a soldier in the next war, 
     Hochschild takes us to an "Imaginary Cemetery" where we learn what happened to the war protesters and resisters, the writers like John Buchan, Rudyard Kipling, John Galsworthy, H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle who contributed to the pro-war propaganda and many others in this most interesting cast of characters.

     I'm sure the propaganda mill of the British, and to a lesser extent of the Wilson administration, inspired the efforts of .the Nazis led by Joseph Goebbels. And by the way, Hochschild describes Adolf Hitler (on page 94)  as a "German corporal." An article I discovered in Spiegel Online notes that Hitler became a German citizen on Feb. 25, 1932 -- less than a year before his electoral victory as chancellor in January 1933 --  after being appointed as a civil servant in Braunschweig, then a Nazi stronghold in the Weimar Republic. Serving valiantly in the German army wasn't enough to gain Hitler German citizenship in those days.

    I'd like to be more optimistic about the future of a human species without war, but reading books like "To End All Wars" makes me even more pessimistic than usual. We have a killer gene in our species and I see no hope of eradicating it.

    Things I didn't know before reading "To End All Wars":

    * Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm, related to the royal houses of both England and Russia (he was a grandson of Queen Victoria and a first cousin to both England's King George V and George's lookalike relative Russia's Czar Nicholas II), wanted, according to historian Niall Ferguson to establish a European Customs union, a "United States of Europe," which would be dominated by Germany because of its size and industrial capacity. His dream was realized after World War II.

    * Barbed wire, invented and perfected by  Joseph F. Glidden, a farmer and sheriff of DeKalb County, Illinois, who became a millionaire because of his invention, was an important wartime commodity, especially around the trenches of the Western Front. In the 1890s Glidden contributed more than 60 acres of his farm to  constitute the original campus for a state teacher's college that later became Northern Illinois University, from which I graduated in 1961.

    * A disproportionate number of officers and members of the upper middle and upper classes  died in the war, including the eldest sons of British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg. 

    About the author: Adam Hochschild, co-founder of the magazine Mother Jones,  was born in New York City in 1942. His first book, Half the Way Home: a Memoir of Father and Son, was published in 1986.  It was followed by The Mirror at Midnight: a South African Journey, and The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin. His  King Leopold's Ghost: a Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa was a finalist for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award. It also won a J. Anthony Lukas award in the United States, and the Duff Cooper Prize in England.  He teaches journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.  

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