When war broke out in 1914, very few people realized what it was going to involve. While the French soldiers scrawled A Berlin on the railroad cars taking them to the front and the German Crown Prince called for a “bright and jolly war”—a frisch-fröhlichen Krieg—the British were confident that “it would all be over by Christmas.” Only very few people saw beyond the immediate upsurge of patriotic enthusiasm to the long term social and political consequences of the war—the revolutions and, as the French socialist leader, Jean Jaurès, had prophesied in 1905, “the crises of counter-revolution, of violent reaction, of exasperated nationalism, of stifling dictatorship, of monstrous militarism, a long chain of retrograde violence and of enslavement.” Sir Edward Grey, it is true, saw the lights going out all over Europe; but more people would probably have agreed with the German industrialist Walther Rathenau, who heard “the ringing opening chord for an immortal song of sacrifice, loyalty and heroism.”
In fact, for all the belligerent countries, the outbreak of war provided a temporary relief from internal tensions. In France the “Carnet B,” the list of left-wing agitators who were to be arrested on the outbreak of war, was put aside as militant syndicalists loyally and even enthusiastically obeyed their mobilization orders and the Union Sacrée was proclaimed. In Germany the political truce, the Burgfrieden, gave people of nearly all political views a moment of passionate patriotic solidarity, an awareness of Germany as a community, a Volksgemeinschaft, such as they had not felt since the period of national unification nearly fifty years before. Even in England, Mr. Asquith noted on July 26th, 1914, “Anyhow, it is the most dangerous situation of the last forty years. It may incidentally have the effect of throwing into the background the lurid pictures of civil war in Ulster.” The liberal doctrine that all problems have solutions reached a paradoxical conclusion in the belief that, in some cases at least, war might settle the difficulties with which each country was faced. Any analysis of the world before the war, therefore, must include a study of the political and social tensions from which the war seemed to be a release, and of the concept of ultimate national interests for which the Great Powers were prepared to fight if necessary.
It is understandable that Mrs. Tuchman, having provided in The Guns of August an excellent narrative of the opening campaigns of the First World War, should have been attracted by the idea of studying in depth the society which disintegrated on the battlefields. In her new book she has attempted an ambitious piece of historical painting. She concentrates on internal social and political problems and does not deal with the factors that actually caused the war. This is because she does her best to ignore the final dénouement; “it was not a part of the experience of the people of this book.” It is only a later generation that thinks of the prewar decades as inevitably…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.