In the Shadow of the Great War

Niall Ferguson
Niall Ferguson; drawing by David Levine

It is interesting but perhaps not surprising that, as this conflict-torn century nears its end, the shadows cast over it by the Great War of 1914-1918 seem in some ways longer, darker, and more daunting than ever before. For what that struggle meant and did changed the course of history more than any other in modern times, including its great successor war of 1939-1945. Consider only a few of the consequences of the Great War, offered here in no particular order. It brought the end of the Romanovs, the rise of the Bolsheviks, and the emergence of a Communist system that blighted so much of humanity for the rest of the century. The war also made possible the growth of Fascism and its peculiar German variant, anti-Semitic National Socialism. This ghastly and expensive struggle shattered a Eurocentric world order, shifted the financial center of gravity to New York, nurtured Japanese expansionism in East Asia, and, at the same time, stimulated anticolonial movements from West Africa to Indonesia.

The aerial bomber, the U-boat, and poison gas brought mechanization to the art of killing, making the latter less personal and yet also more far-reaching in its effects. Industrialized labor, trade unions, and socialist parties gained in power, while the landed interest declined. The social and political position of women was transformed in various aspects, despite predictable resistance. The war produced a cultural crisis, in the arts, in ideas, religion, literature, and life styles. It also exacerbated ethnic and religious hatreds, in Ireland, the Balkans, and Armenia, that scar the European landscape today. The Great War is therefore not some distant problem about dead white males on and off the battlefields. Its origins, course, and consequences are central to an understanding of the twentieth century. Any high school, college, or university that does not accord importance to teaching its meanings is shortchanging the present generation of students and discrediting itself.

It is thus not surprising that monographs continue to appear on every aspect of the Great War—its memorialization, its effects on gender, its cultural and psychological dimensions, its varied faces of battle, its economic repercussions—as do the occasional general and synthetic works. Obviously, the sheer number and variety of the specialized works makes the composition of any synthesis so much more challenging. But, thank heaven, there are always a few bold souls in every decade willing to accept that challenge, venturing where the more prudent among us dare not go.

The first of the two general treatments considered here, John Keegan’s The First World War, shows both the merits and the perils of a single-volume synthesis. Keegan is probably the best-known military historian in the Western world today and his remarkable book The Face of Battle is an international classic, sometimes emulated but never equaled. He has always been a graceful prose stylist. Both his military expertise—he taught for many years at the…

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