Reviewed by Adam R. Seipp (Department of History, Texas A & M University)
Published on H-German (July, 2004)
A War Re-Imagined
These are exciting times to be involved in First World War studies. After nearly two decades of methodological innovation and an undiminished public appetite for studies of the conflict, the field continues to seek novel ways to track the causes, courses, and legacies of the Great War. Stephene Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker, as directors of the Historial de la Grande Guerre, have done much to set the research agenda in the field. In this complex, compelling, and thought-provoking volume, now available in English translation, Becker and Audoin-Rouzeau survey the existing literature and offer their vision of the future course of research into the war and its consequences for the violent twentieth century.
This is a book inspired and driven by paradoxes. The authors decided to survey the state of the field in the late 1990s, when anniversary celebrations of 1918 and 1789 fell so close together that it seemed appropriate to contemplate the long-term impact of the First World War. As they remind us, our ability to understand the war has been made more difficult by the passage of time, even as the changing political constellation of European states makes us feel closer to the tensions and hatreds that sparked the conflict. The "Great Paradox," they tell us, is that the war was "accepted from 1914-18, and much later rejected" (p. 170). The book is comprised of three extended essays, each examining one of what they consider the crucial elements of the war's legacy: violence, the spirit of crusade, and mourning. Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker hope to shed light on what the war meant to those who experienced it first-hand, and how its meaning has changed since 1918.
In their essay on violence, the authors suggest that historians have all too often been guilty of overlooking the horrendous physical brutality of the war, directed both at combatants and civilians. This was a war in which the destructive potential of the industrial world co-existed uneasily with old methods of limiting and managing violence. The result was what the authors call "total battle," a term that tries to capture the pervasive nature of modern warfare (p. 24). While historians of late-nineteenth-century warfare might take issue with how novel this expansion of violence really was, the sheer number of killed and horribly wounded during the First World War seems to suggest that, if total battle did not represent a sea change, then we at least need to further consider just what was different about the battlefields of 1914-18.
The authors are on surer ground when they connect this expansion of violence to the wartime treatment of civilians and prisoners of war. There was a "spacial expansion" of warfare, fostered by technology and the need for wartime production that effectively rendered women, children, and POW's weapons of war (p. 61). They cite the examples of occupied France and the Armenian genocide, in which civilians were subject to horrific violence, confiscation of property, and forced labor. What is most compelling here is their argument that these issues, which received a great deal of attention at the time, quickly faded from public discussion, in large part due to the "increasing banality of the brutality that the Great War had induced" (p. 69).
This three-part essay is quite compelling, but it does reveal some of the few weaknesses in an otherwise splendid book. First, it is not always clear whether the authors are criticizing the field of First World War Studies in general or French historians in particular. Sometimes, like when they argue that more attention should be paid to the methodological innovations of John Keegan and Victor Davis Hanson, it is evident that they are chastising their French colleagues. At other times, it is not so clear. Also, because the book is now a few years old, there are some important studies that speak to these issues that the authors obviously could not have included. Recent works by, among others, Omer Bartov, Deborah Cohen, John Horne and Alan Kramer, and Joanna Bourke discuss some of the very important issues concerning the legacy of violence raised so well here.
The essay on "Crusade" is the most provocative, and potentially problematic, of the three. Again, they point to the "absurd discrepancy" between the emotions that fired and sustained the conflict at the time, and the much later and more persistent vision of the war as a pointless and fratricidal conflict (p. 93). At their heart, they argue, the warring nations "harbored a true drive to 'exterminate' the enemy" (p. 103). This explicit connection between the First World War and the mass murders that accompanied conflicts later in the century was perhaps the most profound and horrific legacy of the conflict.
This vision of the Great War as a crusade evolved early in the war, as atrocity propaganda, far from being imposed from the top, found a genuine upwelling in popular culture. For participants on all sides, the war quickly became a battle against barbarism, a vision that many intellectuals enthusiastically promoted. This climate, in which combatants understood the war in strongly binary terms, severely diminished the capacity of neutral organizations like the Vatican or the Red Cross to function effectively as arbiters. The authors are particularly interested in the role of religion, which fostered an eschatological vision of the war and helped the ideal of the conflict as a sacred struggle to permeate all levels of European societies. This religious fervor, they argue, was forgotten after 1918, as Europeans sought rational explanations for the violence. However, the hatreds of the sacred war could not be demobilized with the armies after 1918 and presented a poisoned chalice to the generation that hoped that the First World War would be the last European conflict.
The problem with this approach is that it minimizes the very real fissures that appeared in combatant societies as the war progressed. The mobilization of religious feeling not only had the capacity to inflame national passions but also to exacerbate regional differences. While the 1917 Lutherfeier undoubtedly helped to "prove the validity of Germany's cause" in the Protestant heartland of the country, one might question its efficacy among Germany's substantial Catholic population (p. 117). The authors also largely ignore potentially countervailing trends. Certainly by 1917, increasingly influential propaganda directed against the war or aspects of war-like conscription openly mocked the overheated religious language of wartime propaganda.
The third essay on mourning builds upon the recent and growing literature on the ways in which combatant societies made sense of the war in its aftermath. They argue persuasively that historians have overlooked the personal history of bereavement in favor of the study of the public commemoration of the war dead and suggest that micro-histories might be a more effective way of understanding the intensely private mourning that went on all over Europe during and after the war. They suggest that the dead were so present in the postwar years because they functioned as a link with the now fragmented unity of the war years. Individual mourning, however, was circumscribed by a "mourning taboo" that discouraged overt acts of grief as a betrayal of the sacred cause for which the dead had been killed (p. 226).
While their sobering analysis of the ubiquity of mourning suggests some interesting avenues for research, I wonder how the continued sacralization of the war and its dead squared with the changing memory of the war in the postwar period. If support for the war was "shattered for good" in the last months of war and the early postwar period, how did these mourning taboos and public rituals retain their power? Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker, to their great credit, do not so much attempt to answer these questions as they do suggest that answers can be found by future study.
Anyone seeking to better understand the war and its impact on European society will profit from this exceptional volume. It belongs on the bookshelves of specialists and the reading lists of graduate students and advanced undergraduates. While readers may disagree with some of the authors' bold and, at times, polemical interpretations, the book reflects the best traditions of innovative and international First World War scholarship. As historians continue to try to come to terms with the extraordinary legacy of the war, Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker have given us a critical examination of where we have been and fascinating insights into where we might be going.
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Adam R. Seipp. Review of Audoin-Rouzeau, Stephane; Becker, Annette, 14-18: Understanding the Great War.
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