World War I: Too Big to Write?

Trench warfare on the Western Front during World War I

Having just finished the terrific, deeply flawed The Beauty and the Sorrow by Peter Englund, about World War I, I find myself wondering if it is possible to write a sensible history of that massive, world-changing conflict.   I hope people keep trying to do so, because I want to try to understand it better, but the task is beyond daunting.

First, the Englund book, which just crests 500 pages in chronicling the wartime experiences of 20 semi-ordinary people who happened to leave memoirs or reminiscences of their experiences.  The cast includes a bloody-minded British soldier who thrived in trench combat, a British nurse who wandered the Eastern Front in search of people to help, a French bureaucrat with a sharp eye for changes in public attitudes, a reluctant but tough Italian mountain soldier, an ethnic Dane in the German army who disliked military service, a Venezuelan aristocrat who somehow ended up fighting for the Ottoman Turks in the Middle East, and a Scot serving in the forgotten conflict in the torrid climes of East Africa.

It’s a great idea for a book and Englund has chosen his protagonists well.  They offer an expansive range of experiences of a conflict that undermined the established order on three continents.  Some of them end up as prisoners.  Some die.  All suffer terribly, sometimes from war wounds, sometimes from illness.  Wisely, Englund does not pontificate or draw Big Lessons for his readers.  He mostly stays out of the way of this astonishing, kaleidoscopic view of an entire world gone mad; it is powerful stuff.

And yet.  And yet.  Aspects of the book drove me wild.  A short list of the most annoying would include:

  • A Swede, Englund evidently writes directly in English, since no translator is credited.  Writing in a second language is a remarkable feat; Joseph Conrad wrote in his third language, and did it beautifully.  Englund will not be confused with Conrad.  The writing is distractingly awkward at times.  It’s a shame.
  • Englund tells the stories in the present tense, presumably to heighten their immediacy.  It often only confuses, since he quotes from material that is written in the past tense.  It was a bad decision.
  • Englund jumps from story to story, moving every few pages to a new narrator as the war unfolds from Palestine to Greece to Flanders to Moscow to Croatia.  That is a good decision, as it reinforces the global nature of the conflict.  But he does not sufficiently remind us of the identity and background of each new narrator as he or she takes the stage.  It’s disorienting.  A “cast of characters” at the beginning of the book is too terse to help the floundering reader trying to remember exactly which Austro-Hungarian officer is the current narrator.
  • Englund does not want to interrupt the tales of each individual with background material about the progress of the war, so he drops footnotes in the text which are in (roughly) six-point font.  It is a lazy writer’s solution.  It is more work to fold background information into the narrative, but if the reader needs it, please do it.  And who selected that tiny font!  There should be a special circle in hell for the editors at Knopf who approved it.  History readers trend old.  Our eyes are not good.  Be kind to us.

Yet with all of these complaints, I recommend the book without reservation.  I am increasingly impressed with how central World War I was in molding the world I have known, even though it ended more than three decades before I was born.  The leaders of Europe, then the dominant force in world affairs, melted down their own world in a bizarre form of self-immolation.  Barbara Tuchman strained to explain that heedless rush to oblivion in The Guns of August and The Proud TowerDiplomatic historians can chart how Europe tumbled, in slow motion, into war over a two-month period after the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, but they cannot really explain why.

But the war’s fallout was immense, even beyond the millions slaughtered and treasure squandered.  The legitimacy of Europe’s rulers and its social order was fundamentally undermined as monarchies toppled.  The war paved the way for Marxist rebellions from Berlin to Moscow, which spawned Communism in Russia.  The German wounds from the war were too terrible to heal yet not quite terrible enough to change a culture of militarism, so Adolf Hitler strode hideously to the fore, harnessing German rage over massive sacrifices that could not be dismissed as meaningless even though they seemed to be.

The high-handed colonial attitudes of the victors emerged at the Paris Peace Conference as men blithely carved up Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, assigning millions of people to governments to which they had no connection.  So many of the conflicts of the 20th century, and even today, can be traced to arrogant, ill-informed decisions proclaimed in that treaty.  I hope to read a fairly recent book that makes this argument — David Andelman’s A Shattered Peace though I cannot recommend it one way or the other now.  Indeed, last year I saw a Chinese movie, The Beginning of the Great Revival, about the founding of the Chinese Communist Party; though an appalling propaganda flick at one level, it persuasively portrays the development of Chinese communism as the result of the decision in the Paris Peace Treaty to reward Japan with Chinese lands and to ignore the contributions to the Allies of China, which sent 90,000 laborers to help France and Britain.  Who knew?  Not me.

The go-to quote for World War I (which Englund blessedly avoids) is the proclamation by Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Minister as the war began.  “The lamps are going out all over Europe,” Sir Edward intoned.  “We shall not see them lit again in our time.”  It was true for the whole world.  How could a single book possibly capture its enormity?

Do you know a great World War I book?  Please tell me about it.


  1. Fred Gervasi on March 13, 2012 at 9:51 am

    I’m the last person to comment on a history book, but I do want to make note of 2 excellent novels that may overlap with the characters in Englund’s book. Mark Helprin’s A Soldier in the Great War is a wonderful portrait of an Italian soldier & POW. William Boyd’s The Ice Cream War is a funny/tragic story of friendly rivals in Britain & Germany’s East African colonies who find themselves at war with each other.

  2. Nate Levin on March 13, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    “Dreadnought” by Robert K. Massie is also very worthwhile.

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