THE LONG SHADOW: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century. By David Reynolds. Norton. 429 pages. $32.50.
For World War 1 historians, the centennial years 2014-18 will be filled with activity, excitement and a certain amount of satisfaction. There is a distinct possibility that with the plethora of books, articles and remembrances that are now appearing, the Great War will finally achieve the status many believe it so richly deserves.
Within that conflict lay the seeds for the resurgence of Germany, the rise of Japan and that of the Soviet Union, the still explosive geopolitics of the Middle East and, indeed, the "flow of the entire century."
The title of David Reynolds' book, sweeping though it may sound, is actually a rather modest reflection of what he has attempted and, by some miracle, largely accomplished. Reynolds, professor of international history at Cambridge University and author of 12 other books, including "In Command: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War," turns World War I over and over using a long list of topical filters, including nationalism, democracy, empire, capitalism, historiography, art, literature, film and memorialization.
If there is a fault to be found with the book, it is that the inclusion of so many angles of vision and the mountain of data the author uses, though of great interest, sometimes leaves the reader in a state of over-stimulation laced with a slight feeling of failure. No matter how serious one's intent, to follow so many trains of thought can present a challenge. But then such is the nature of the Great War. Its complexities can ignite a constellation of discussion points, as David Reynolds makes abundantly clear.
One of the more interesting strands of inquiry is the story of the rise, fall and rise again of Woodrow Wilson's theories of national self-determination and the importance of actively promoting democracy around the world, culminating in the second of Bush's forays in the Middle East, leading one observer to characterize Bush as "Woodrow Wilson on steroids."
The Middle East itself, largely defined by the victors at Versailles, remains the most significant imperial legacy of the war, Reynolds contends. To read a description of how the region was arbitrarily cut up to suit the strategic needs of those doing the cutting is to comprehend with sickening force the situation that exists today. For instance, the British "got themselves into a monumental mess," particularly in Palestine, where they made conflicting promises to the Jews and the Arabs, believing the former more prepared for self-government than the latter, who, as one senior official put it, "were no more capable of administering themselves than Red Indians."
Zionism, Arab nationalism and Europe's ethnic sectarianism predated 1914, but the war heated up these movements considerably. Thus, the sometimes tortuous attempts at state building that took place as a part of the peace negotiations often made the beleaguered participants in Paris "more firefighters than architects," and the shuffling and reshuffling of players and allegiances would go on for decades.
Reynolds switches to the cultural realm with an investigation of how the arts, documentaries and historiographical trends reflected various attitudes toward the war, both at the time it was fought and over the years since. Many were eager to join the war, but it didn't take long for the horrific reality to sink in, particularly on the stalemated Western Front, where spurts of butchery alternated with mind-numbing immobility.
This is the image that most persistently served as inspiration, particularly for poets, and led to the general belief that, despite individual acts of courage and loyalty on the part of soldiers, the war had been pointless. Reynolds' broad-based approach to his analysis illustrates the fact that an event that produced so much change in so many areas of human endeavor can hardly be considered entirely "pointless."
His emphasis on perspective, and his use of concepts like remembrance and what he calls "refraction," helps the reader understand why for years the Germans considered their part in the war one of self-defense, why the main British reaction was mourning for the dead, how in the 1990s the Irish came together to honor those who had fought and why the Australians added a "transnational dimension" to their commemoration of the battle of Gallipoli by inviting those who had beaten them, the Turks, to join them on Anzac Day.
That just a small sample of Reynolds' exhaustive and many-sided examination of the role World War 1 played in determining the course of history since it began with the assassination of Austria Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, a place most ot the combatants had never heard of. In point of fact, there can be no real understanding of the 20th century without an understanding of the Great War, which this beautifully written and dauntingly thorough book will help bring to center stage.
Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.
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