Saturday, May 21, 2011

World War One as Prelude: Christopher Hitchens

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918Christopher Hitchens provides us with a lively and insightful book review titled The Pacifists and the Trenches. The subject is the book To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild.

Hitchens is effusive in his praise for the author who he describes as a historian “from below.” By this he means that Hochschild focuses on the people who had to suffer the consequences of the war rather than the rulers and statesmen responsible for starting it.

“No single narrative can do justice to an inferno whose victims still remain uncounted. Hochschild tries to encompass the global scope of the disaster, and to keep us updated with accounts of what was occurring at a given time in Russia and the United States, but his main setting is England and his chief concern the Western Front. In this hecatomb along the minor rivers of Flanders and Picardy, the British people lost the cream of their working class and the flower of their aristocracy.”

It was a time when vast social changes were called for across Europe, but the people who could have pushed for this change were consumed by the conflict. Some tried in vain to stop the inexorable move towards war.

“....the war represented the human sacrifice of those miners, railwaymen and engineers whose skills should have been used instead to depose the aristocracy and build a new society. For them, it was a matter of common cause among British, German and Russian workers, and for this principle they risked harsh imprisonment, punitive conscription and even death.”

“However, once the howitzers had started their bellowing, proletarian internationalism had a marked tendency to evaporate. Only Lenin and a handful of other irreducible revolutionaries bided their time, waiting for the war to devour those monarchs who had been foolish enough to start it.”

The mass slaughter that occurred may no longer be familiar to younger generations whose focus has moved on, but this butchery was only a hint of what was to come.

“What this meant in cold terms was the destruction of whole regiments, often comprising (as in the cases of Newfoundland and Ulster) entire communities back home who had volunteered as a body and stayed together in arms. They vanished, in clouds of poison gas, hails of steel splinters and great lakes of sucking mud. Or lay in lines, reminding all observers of mown-down corn, along the barbed wire and machine-gun emplacements against which they had been thrown. Like me, Hochschild has visited the mass graves and their markers, which still lie along the fields of northern France and Belgium, and been overwhelmed by what Wilfred Owen starkly and simply called ‘the pity of War’.”

For those interested in the period and its history, Hitchens provides Hochschild’s book with an enthusiastic recommendation.

“This is a book to make one feel deeply and painfully, and also to think hard.”

What I found particularly striking was Hitchen’s observations on Woodrow Wilson and the US role in the war. He suggests it was the American intervention that foreclosed any hope for a conclusion that could lead to stabilization rather than inevitable further conflict.

“We read these stirring yet wrenching accounts, of soldiers setting off to battle accompanied by cheers, and shudder because we know what they do not. We know what is coming, in other words. And coming not only to them. What is really coming, stepping jackbooted over the poisoned ruins of civilized Europe, is the pornographic figure of the Nazi. Again, Hochschild is an acute register. He has read the relevant passages of “Mein Kampf,” in which a gassed and wounded Austrian corporal began to incubate the idea of a ghastly revenge. He notes the increasing anti-Semitism of decaying wartime imperial Germany, with its vile rumors of Jewish cowardice and machination. And he approaches a truly arresting realization: Nazism can perhaps be avoided, but only on condition that German militarism is not too heavily defeated on the battlefield.”

“This highly unsettling reflection is important above all for American readers. If General Pershing’s fresh and plucky troops had not reached the scene in the closing stages of the bloodbath, universal exhaustion would almost certainly have compelled an earlier armistice, on less savage terms. Without President Wilson’s intervention, the incensed and traumatized French would never have been able to impose terms of humiliation on Germany; the very terms that Hitler was to reverse, by such relentless means, a matter of two decades later. In this light, the great American socialist Eugene V. Debs, who publicly opposed the war and was kept in prison by a vindictive Wilson until long after its ending, looks like a prescient hero. Indeed, so do many of the antiwar militants to whose often-buried record Hochschild has done honor.”

As always, Hitchens provides us with something interesting and provocative.

It is good to see that Hitchens is still at it. Hopefully we will have many more years of him to contend with and to enjoy.


  1. Good article by Hitchens. Sad he passed away in 2011.

  2. Few do their jobs better than Hochschild and Hutchens.


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