Review of “The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century” by David Reynolds

The Long Shadow is an extremely ambitious book that, as its subtitle avers, attempts to trace the influence of the First World War to the present day. It is divided into two halves: (1) legacies (direct outcomes of the war) and (2) refractions (changes in the ways in which the war was perceived). It is difficult to summarize because its scope is so vast. In fact, it is so loaded with facts and background and insights and references that one can lose sight of the major thesis of the book, which is a shame, because it is an important one.

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Reynolds employs a number of broad themes (nationalism, imperialism, capitalism, etc.) not only to document the wide range of effects of the war. He also illustrates the ways in which the history of WWI was interpreted, first of all to serve the social and political agendas of the combatants at the time, and second, to readjust the understanding of the conflict in light of WWII. It is not revolutionary of course to claim that history is contingent, or that it is used by those in power for their own ends. But such an analysis is uncommon to most accounts of WWI, which focus on specific treaties, leaders, social movements, and battles. Similarly, such an evidentiary approach is generally taken to explain the factors contributing to the short hiatus between WWI and WWII.

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Reynolds, on the other hand, wants to show us exactly how the historical reconstruction of WWI – i.e., the deliberate formation of the collective memory of the war – was used by each country to reshape what happened into a narrative that could justify not only what came before the war, but what came next. [For example, given the casualties of just one battle, that of the Somme (estimated to be some 600,000 on each side), such sacrifices had to be vindicated in light of the fact that another world war came just twenty-five years later.] Reynolds is making a broader point than “the victors write the history.” At its simplest, that precept can mean only that reports on the outcome of battles tends to be self-serving.

Some British participants in the Battle of the Somme

Some British participants in the Battle of the Somme

Reynolds uses his multifaceted approach to take us away from the material aspects of the conflict, to see how the perceptual and ideological lenses informing its history led to quite different (and selective) memories of that time. The meanings thus generated have gotten embedded into the public consciousness, whether factual or not. Especially when narratives are couched as “histories,” a certain authority or legitimacy is conferred upon what is actually a specific set of values, norms, and perspectives that in turn changes popular reactions to events.

His book is important because, while many such analyses of the social construction of memory have been made of other seminal events, such as the Civil War or the Holocaust, most books on WWI focus stay down in the trenches, so to speak.

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One of the important points Reynolds makes about the construction of WWI history relates to the nature of the source documents used, particularly right after the war. When dealing with events that took place over a variety of countries in which different languages are spoken, it is critical to get information from all parties, both the vanquished and the triumphant. But this was not the case after WWI. Reynolds writes:

…in the 1920s and 1930s most scholars of the origins of the Great War relied heavily on German materials. These served as the basis for the influential works of American revisionist historians….”

As a result of using the fragmentary German documents (many of them had been destroyed, falsified, or removed by the Russians and unavailable until after Stalin’s death), a massive legacy of disinformation ensued, foremost of which was the belief promulgated that “nobody wanted war” in 1914; that the precipitating crisis was “a gigantic muddle”; and that the nations involved “slithered over the brink into the broiling cauldron” quite blindly. By the 1930s it was hard, Reynolds contends, even for Great Britain to believe that Germany had played a major role in bringing about the war. (Certainly, and most unfortunately, Germans themselves believed the selective information they received that the war was a “defensive” one, for which they therefore suffered unfairly.) Even now, some respected scholars argue that the nations of Europe “sleepwalked” into the conflict. [See, for example, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark, and reviewed here.]

In fact, the “sleepwalking” theme has had amazing staying power, for a variety of reasons explored by Reynolds. The upshot, however, is that the dominant narrative of WWI – i.e., a war started by “a succession of accidents”; “a family quarrel among the crowned heads of Europe”; senseless carnage informed by no clear war aims, is absolutely still embedded in public consciousness. But it is, much to the chagrin of historians, certainly not the case. [See, for example, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings, reviewed here, and The War That Ended Peace by Margaret McMillan, reviewed here. Both of these scholars bemoan the way in which Germany’s large role in the genesis of the war has gotten obfuscated over time.]

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Reynolds goes further to suggest that part of the power of the revisionist histories can be attributed to a major cultural development, and that was the technological advancement of artistic media – especially in the form of sound movies and later television. This changed the game of memory construction altogether. He credits the breathtaking power of movies, especially because of their novelty and their emotional impact, for creating an iconography of enduring images and establishing a narrative pattern that changed the way everyone remembered the war. (For example, many believe that the war was primarily fought in trenches, because of the overwhelming number of striking images of that phase of the war.) Reynolds even cites some historians as charging that “there were virtually two Western Fronts – the literary and the historical.”

Artistic creations focused on several recurring themes. In Europe, the predominant message was one of the horror of war, fought in muddy deprivation by young romantically heroic men fated to die meaningless deaths. Poems and paintings reinforced those images. In the U.S., by contrast, the war was portrayed as a great adventure, with American men as heroes, beloved by comrades and beautiful women alike, rescuing the desperate continent and “saving the world” for democracy.

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When the continent once again became roiled in war preparations, the European message especially was not very convenient, and needed to be rewritten.

In Germany in particular, the outcome of the war had to be refashioned. Thus, Germany used a very distorted picture of the unfairness of the reparations clause in the Treaty of Versailles to accomplish several goals: deflect attention from the fact that they imposed an even bigger reparations burden on France after its defeat by Germany in 1871; blame the reparations bill rather than an inept government for the failure of their economic policies after the War; and help promulgate the “stab in the back” myth that allowed the political takeover of a militaristic party to help restore Germany’s glory. The interwar government, worried about Bolshevism, never saw fit to mention to the public that British and American bankers provided funds to support a new German currency and helped restructure reparations payments at a lower level, backed by an international loan. Between 1924 and 1930, Reynolds points out, German borrowed almost three times what it paid in reparations. The interpretation of reality by Germany, however, was shaped to alter the terrain of popular knowledge in order to help legitimate the representation of Germany as an innocent victim, deserving of revenge.

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Reynolds also warns us to guard against retrospective assessments. For instance, Neville Chamberlain is now reviled for having “appeased” Hitler at Munich, but at the time, Chamberlain was responding to the absolute “gut-wrenching fear” in Britain over the possibility of a war enhanced by aerial bombers. (Whereas England had always felt a modicum of security by virtue of its geographical isolation, the populace was in a panic over the idea that Germany (or other aggressors) could now reach them quite handily by air, and moreover, wreak havoc in a way that would make no distinction between combatants and civilians.) But once it became clear just what kind of evil was unleashed with Hitler, everyone in Britain was eager to disown Chamberlain’s policies, blaming Britain’s inaction on just that one man, and grabbing on to the lifesaver of Churchill’s outstanding oratorical mastery to reframe who the British were.

Neville Chamberlain after meeting with Hitler in Munich

Neville Chamberlain after meeting with Hitler in Munich

One other notable instance of WWI historical reconstruction highlighted by Reynolds pertains to the role of the U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson. It is interesting to hear a British scholar’s perspective about the effect of Wilson on world events subsequent to WWI. In America, Wilson has been white-washed in many ways (not least of which to cover up his vile racist attitudes and actions, not only domestically but with respect to his rejection of a “racial equality” clause for the League of Nations), and restyled in public memory to have been a man desperate to bring peace to the world. But by Reynold’s account, Wilson did the opposite, and was notably unpopular for it abroad. By lecturing Europe on the need for “self-determination” of minorities, he roiled up anticolonial agitators and alienated most of the other world leaders, who scoffed at him for his hypocrisy and excoriated him for not understanding the effects “his seductive words would set in motion.” In response to the hostility of the Allied leadership against Wilson for stirring up trouble without knowing what he was talking about, Wilson not only backed down, stating that he had spoken “without the knowledge that nationalities existed….” but acquiesced in the imperialist policies of his allies. That precipitated a backlash against Wilson throughout the world outside America by the people as well as their leaders, with disillusioned nationalists turning to communism. Reynolds argues, “Right across the colonial world, in fact, Leninism gained from Wilson’s shattered credibility.”

David Lloyd George, French prime minister Georges Clemenceau and US president Woodrow Wilson on their way to the Versailles Peace Conference, June 1919.

David Lloyd George, French prime minister Georges Clemenceau and US president Woodrow Wilson on their way to the Versailles Peace Conference, June 1919.

Discussion: Just as selective use of documents promulgate a certain view of what happened and why, the vivid use of images shape what people remember, or by their omission, what people forget. The ability to impose a view is what is at stake with the spate of new works by so many scholars in honor of the 100th anniversary of World War I. Reynolds reminds us that these histories will be far from value-free, and that history too exists within a complex ideological web. These narratives not only help define who we are and who we were, but are pedagogical, setting the stage for future actions. As Reynolds makes apparent, the memory of World War I is still being renegotiated, even now.

Evaluation: This book is by no means just a hermeneutical analysis of World War I interpretation. It is also a densely packed account of what happened during and after the war. But overarching the details is the theme that since “lessons from the last war would guide planning for the next,” what was contained in those lessons varied by country, ideology, and political agendas. Thus perceptions of what happened have changed over time. As historian James Young famously observed, “Memory is never shaped in a vacuum; the motives of history are never pure.” We would do well to remember this as we confront the barrage of new histories coming out now on World War I, or indeed, on any subject.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2014

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2 Responses

  1. I have had this on pre-order for a while now, much for the reasons you mention here in the review. Reynolds hits the proverbial nail on the head, I’m gathering, but it is frequently politically incorrect to say so in historical circles for some time. It is hoped that the one hundred year secrecy orders placed on so many WWI documents that we will see lifting in 2014 onwards will go far towards revealing what so many of us who studied this era have known (but get our hands slapped for saying): WWI was not an accidental event. It was event by and large precipitated by German and Austrian aggression. (It is at this point that I wait for the criticisms to fly — they always do.)

    Reynolds’ observations regarding the propaganda surrounding the Versailles Treaty and it’s involvement in the precipitation of WWII is also spot-on…this was later manufactured to rehabilitate reputations. Again, WWII had everything to do with German aggression. See the Franco-Prussian War of the previous century.

    This is one of my most-anticipated books of the summer. Happy to see a good review here.

  2. I put it on hold at the library! I think its interesting how history is perceived years later and how memory can be tailored!

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