Adam Hochschild’s ‘To End All Wars,’ on World War I

May 13, 2011

Adam Hochschild does many things well in this account of World War I as experienced by Great Britain, not least taking a very familiar story and making it new. We all know that the war bogged down in ghastly stalemate as it degenerated into a battle of attrition in the trenches; that the political leadership of virtually every participating nation was foolish at best, incompetent at worst; that the war’s awful casualties — “more than 8.5 million soldiers were killed on all fronts,” civilian deaths “estimated at 12 to 13 million” — were exacted for no clear purpose; that the terms laid down at the Treaty of Versailles left Germany bitter, angry and vindictive, paving the way for Hitler and the even worse cataclysm that followed. We know all of this, yet Hochschild brings fresh drama to the story and explores it in provocative ways.

Best known for “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa” (1998) and “Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves” (2005), Hochschild was drawn to World War I by its terrible deadlock, by the “astonishingly lethal” toll it took on the British ruling classes, by “the way it forever shattered the self-assured, sunlit Europe of hussars and dragoons in plumed helmets and emperors waving from open, horse-drawn carriages.” He chose, however, not to write a conventional narrative history of the war — which, after all, has been done before, and in some cases done very well — but to concentrate on the war as undergone by those in Britain who took diametrically opposing views of it:

“A war is usually written about as a duel between sides. I have tried instead to evoke this war through the stories within one country, Britain, of some men and women from the great majority who passionately believed it was worth fighting and some of those who were equally convinced it should not be fought at all. In a sense, then, this is a story about loyalties. What should any human being be most loyal to? Country? Military duty? Or the ideal of international brotherhood? And what happens to loyalty within a family if, as happened in several of the families in these pages, some members join in the fight while a brother, a sister, a son, takes the stance of opposition that the public sees as cowardly or criminal?”

Or, as Hochschild puts it more bluntly a bit later: “Was loyalty to one’s country in wartime the ultimate civic duty, or were there ideals that had a higher claim?” Writing about James Keir Hardie, the Scottish labor leader who passionately opposed the war and paid a heavy price for his convictions, Hochschild puts another spin on these wrenching questions: “Hardie faced a dilemma common to peace activists then and now: how do you oppose a war without seeming to undermine the husbands, fathers, and brothers of your fellow citizens whose lives are in danger?” Most vividly, Hochschild gives us Bertrand Russell, the great philosopher and incredibly productive writer who in 1950 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, who “loved his country deeply but believed from the start that the war was a tragic mistake.” To say that Russell was heartbroken is no exaggeration:

“Part of Russell’s intellectual bravery lay in his willingness to confront that last set of conflicting loyalties. He described himself poignantly in the autumn of 1914 as being ‘tortured by patriotism. . . . I desired the defeat of Germany as ardently as any retired colonel. Love of England is very nearly the strongest emotion I possess, and in appearing to set it aside at such a moment, I was making a very difficult renunciation.’ What left him even more anguished was realizing that ‘anticipation of carnage was delightful to something like ninety per cent of the population. . . . As a lover of truth, the national propaganda of the belligerent nations sickened me. As a lover of civilization, the return to barbarism appalled me. As a man of thwarted parental feeling [he as yet had no children], the massacre of the young wrung my heart.’ ”

To call it “propaganda” is, if anything, understatement. Beginning in 1915, Britain’s new War Propaganda Bureau “launched a flood of books, pamphlets, newspapers, posters, postcards, slide shows, and films for consumption in Britain and abroad,” a flood that was soon joined by similar undertakings by Germany and other belligerents, the end result being a “xenophobic torrent” that amounted to “the greatest political propaganda barrage history had seen” and of course provided the template for the subsequent barrage the Nazis directed at their fellow Germans.

Words and images, though, were not killers, at least not directly. That fell to science and technology. In 1917 a prominent British aristocrat, Lord Lansdowne, published a controversial paper in which he said that the war was a catastrophe, that a settlement must be reached and that the conflict had produced “the prostitution of science for purposes of pure destruction.” He was vilified in those many places where nationalism and patriotism trumped truth and common sense, but he was right. Britain entered the war confident that it would be won by cavalry, men on horseback wielding lances — but that was yesterday. This was war with clip-loading rifles firing “15 rounds a minute,” of machine guns, of airplanes and tanks, of mustard gas and long-range weapons.

It was “the first industrialized war,” and it destroyed in a stroke “the metaphor of war as sport.” By “the beginning of 1915, if you were a British officer peering into no man’s land, what met your gaze resembled the cratered surface of the moon more than any fox-hunting meadow or polo field. The only horses in sight were dead ones.” It didn’t take long for word of these conditions to reach civilian populations, yet protests against the war did not significantly increase; rather, war fever grew ever more perfervid. Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, vocal feminists before the war, did 180-degree turns and became vehement war hawks; when Christabel’s sister Sylvia “became one of the first suffragettes to speak out against the war,” her mother and sister openly and bitterly repudiated her.

The cause of women’s rights was far from the only great issue in the air before and during the war. Britain, like most of Europe, was under intense pressure from labor activists and socialists, and “the spread of revolution” turned late 1917 into “a time of great nervousness for British ruling circles” after the overthrow of the czar in Russia and the eventual triumph of the Bolsheviks. Everywhere there was a sense that the old order was gone and that a terrifying unknown lay ahead. That sense was right. World War I was neither as cataclysmic nor as widespread as the war that followed it two decades later, but the first war set the stage on which a second war soon became inevitable, and it set humankind on the path toward warfare that became ever more mechanized, ever more deadly, ever more impersonal.

To say all of the above is only to hint at what Hochschild has accomplished in “To End All Wars.” His title, which needless to say is ironic, is drawn from one of the many euphemistic phrases uttered by Woodrow Wilson as he took the United States into the war and then helped preside over the mess at Versailles. Hochschild writes sharp portraits of the many men and women, some of them warriors and some of them doves, who come under his microscope, and he is fair to them all. His depiction of life in the trenches is so vivid that some readers may have difficulty stomaching it, as is also true of his account of the awful battles at the Somme and Passchendaele; his ultimate judgment of “the war’s madness” is fully earned by the evidence he presents. “To End All Wars” is exemplary in all respects.

TO END ALL WARS

A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918

By Adam Hochschild

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 448 pp. $28

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