Narrative history of WWI focuses on war resisters

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Posted: May 02, 2011 7:09 AM
Narrative history of WWI focuses on war resisters

"To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by Adam Hochschild: Even today, people are killed in northern France by unexploded shells left over from the 700 million artillery and mortar rounds fired on the Western Front during World War I. The fighting between 1914 and 1918 left at least 8.5 million soldiers dead worldwide, including half of all Frenchmen ages 20 to 32, and more than 21 million wounded.

Volumes have been devoted to the "war to end all wars." Now Adam Hochschild has contributed a riveting narrative history that broadens the focus beyond generals and heads of state to include the lesser-known stories of war resisters willing to risk prison or worse for their pacifist beliefs.

A veteran journalist whose previous books include "King Leopold's Ghost," about Belgium's brutal colonial rule in the Congo, Hochschild well knows a cardinal rule of the trade: Tell your story through people.

In "To End All Wars," he has assembled an irresistible, unforgettable cast of characters, including a mother and three daughters radicalized by the women's suffrage movement; a fiery union organizer who went to work in the mines as a boy; a clergyman's daughter whose first crusade was on behalf of civilians interned by the British during the Boer War; and the eminent philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, briefly jailed for his anti-war writing.

In the end, Hochschild must decide whether the vast and unprecedented carnage of the Great War was worth it. The prevailing view has been that it was a "needless tragedy," he says, at least for Great Britain, which was not directly attacked. But in recent years, he notes, some British military historians have argued that it was necessary to keep Germany from overrunning Europe.

Hochschild subscribes to the earlier, bleaker view of the war as one of utter folly. Why? It ushered in the modern era of total, industrialized warfare, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians and the use of chemical weapons. Wildly exaggerated propaganda on both sides made it all but impossible to reach a negotiated settlement and, after the hostilities were over, left a deeply cynical public. The bitterest legacy of all was the harsh peace imposed on the losers, which all but guaranteed that a resurgent Germany would one day seek revenge.

Although Hochschild acknowledges that humans may very well have devised other ways to maim and kill each other had the First World War not happened, he argues eloquently that the world is far worse off because of it.