Af­ter the war

Im­pact of first global con­flict ex­am­ined in stim­u­lat­ing tome

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Graeme Voyer

THIS summer marks the 100th an­niver­sary of the out­break of the First World War (1914-1918), one of the prin­ci­pal catas­tro­phes of hu­man his­tory. Orig­i­nally, the con­flict was known as the Great War, but it was des­ig­nated as the First World War with the emer­gence of the sec­ond global in­ferno a gen­er­a­tion later. Bri­tish his­to­rian David Reynolds’s read­able ac­count is not a his­tory of the First World War per se; it is, rather, a study of the in­flu­ence of the war on sub­se­quent his­tory, with an em­pha­sis on the Bri­tish ex­pe­ri­ence. He has pro­duced a wide-rang­ing nar­ra­tive that en­com­passes pol­i­tics, diplomacy, colo­nial­ism, eco­nom­ics, art, lit­er­a­ture, ar­chi­tec­ture and film. As a di­rect re­sult of the war, three historic Euro­pean em­pires — the Rus­sian, Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian and Ger­man — col­lapsed. In Rus­sia, the Bol­she­viks were to as­sume power; they ad­vo­cated world­wide revo­lu­tion. Bri­tish so­ci­ety, how­ever, largely avoided this tur­moil, ef­fect­ing a smooth tran­si­tion to a mass democ­racy in the post­war era. Reynolds’s ex­pla­na­tion of Bri­tain’s rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity is one of the most in­ter­est­ing as­pects of his ar­gu­ment. In 1918, Bri­tain greatly ex­panded its elec­torate. Most men over 21, and most women over 30, could now vote, a pol­icy that was a re­sult of the war ef­fort. But, as Reynolds ob­serves, no one could fore­see the po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences of this re­form. While there was some un­rest among Bri­tish work­ers be­tween 1918 to 1920, the strikes were eco­nomic, rather than po­lit­i­cal, in mo­ti­va­tion — and the coali­tion govern­ment that ruled Bri­tain sought to mol­lify dis­con­tent. In­deed, the fact that coali­tions ruled Bri­tain for much of the pe­riod dur­ing and be­tween the world wars was another fac­tor in pro­mot­ing Bri­tish sta­bil­ity. There was, how­ever, an ex­cep­tion: Ire­land, which, from 1916 to 1923, fought a war of in­de­pen­dence and then a civil war. The in­flu­ence of the Great War could also be seen in Bri­tish plan­ning for a new war in the 1930s. Re­spond­ing to omi­nous de­vel­op­ments in Europe, Bri­tish mil­i­tary strate­gists fo­cused on the air de­fence of Bri­tain. The Bri­tish pub­lic, they re­al­ized, would not coun­te­nance send­ing another mass army to the con­ti­nent, which had wit­nessed so much carnage be­tween 1914 and 1918. Reynolds also de­votes con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion to how the ex­pe­ri­ence of the Sec­ond World War af­fected pub­lic un­der­stand­ing of the First. As he writes, “For most of the na­tions in­volved the two world wars be­came sym­bi­otic, with each un­der­stood in the light of the other.” Reynolds’s ef­fort is a com­mend­able, if some­what pro­lix, ac­count of the im­pact of the First World War on Euro­pean his­tory and of the chang­ing pub­lic per­cep­tions of the war de­vel­oped through­out the 20th cen­tury. How­ever, this book has one flaw: it is re­plete with aca­demic tropes about “the Other” (al­ways cap­i­tal­ized) and the “so­cial con­struc­tion” of nar­ra­tives. One would think that Reynolds, an es­tab­lished his­to­rian, could avoid these trendy plat­i­tudes, but aca­demics are a con­form­ist lot. Still, The Long Shadow is a timely ex­plo­ration that stim­u­lates new think­ing about the mean­ing of what con­tem­po­raries called the Great War.

Graeme Voyer is a Win­nipeg writer.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.