Such a Good War
The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War
(Knopf Doubleday, 2011)
While popular demand for documentaries and studies on World War II never seems to cease, there is a considerably more restricted interest in World War I. This cannot be due to a lack of iconic works on the futility of the war, as it gave birth both to Käthe Kollwitz’s print “Nie wieder Krieg,” and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. That the Great War is overshadowed by its more horrifying sequel probably has more to do with its inability to engender a straightforward moral. Just the question of why it started, which leads to the question of whose fault it is, is a quite complicated affair. Well into the postwar years, there was an animated debate among historians of what caused the war, which split the sympathies between nationalism and imperialism, the assassination in Sarajevo, and the search for new markets. In his The Beauty and the Sorrow, Peter Englund sidesteps issues such as cause and guilt. With a wide panorama worthy of its messy reality, he instead exposes how the war was perceived at the time: Englund lets the reader follow 20 people of various nationalities experiencing the war through their diaries, letters, and memoirs.
At the same time as a French soldier gives the reader a glimpse into the murderous battle of Verdun at the Western Front, Englund’s diverse cast of characters enables him to take the reader to the less famous theaters of the war, such as in modern-day Iraq and East Africa. In the latter, through the perspective of a young Englishman, Englund depicts how even the armies could lose sight of the battles: The Germans and the British had a hard time finding each other in a vast area with demanding terrain in an oppressive heat. More generally, the cast illustrates how uneasily the drawn up national borders—and concomitant military alliances—sat with the reality on the ground. We meet a Danish-speaking German, reluctant to go to war for a country whose mother tongue he did not share; a young New Yorker deciding to run away from home to enlist in Italy together with 500 other Italian-Americans; and a Canadian in what is today Poland, whose husband was a subject of the Russian Czar, her children of the House of Habsburg, and herself, of the British crown. As the war caused unwonted death and destruction, Englund’s work quite obviously features a lot of sorrow. But, as the title indicates, Englund reminds the reader that the war had a flip side, for “what we perceive as darkness” was “to them light.” Alongside the familiar story of how the war was greeted by cheering crowds, he shows that it could operate as a vehicle for a women’s liberation of sorts, as an excuse for bored suburbanites looking for adventures, or even for flat-out adventurers seeking action at all costs, as in the case of a persistent Venezuelan named Rafael de Nogales, who was turned away by the Belgian, French, Serbian, and Russian armies before finally succeeding to sign up for the Ottomans.
When giving voice to the everymen and -women of the past, historians more often than not restrict the account to a limited geographical area. In amassing such a motley crew, Englund could, on the contrary, claim to have pioneered the writing of transnational microhistory. He is able to do so by making time, not space, his ordering principle. Each short chapter describes a day in the war for the different characters. Their actions are juxtaposed no matter if they happen to be in Thessaloniki, Istanbul, or Paris. This gives the impression that one follows them into the event, in a way akin to how the viewer follows the characters into the car crash in Iñárritu’s film Amores Perros (2000). Yet, what separates Englund’s narrative from Iñárritu’s film is that the roads of his characters never cross. Still, Englund’s structure never seems far-fetched, not even when he holds back some characters’ entry into the narrative so as not to obstruct its seamless flow. By amplifying the drama rather than interrupting the exposition, his narrative does indeed become so captivating that one almost misses another, and more serious, problem: Englund never quite explains why he chose these people. The poignancy of this question is underlined by the fact that one character—and 15 chapters—has been added to the English translation; the Swedish original only featured 19 characters. But as the book draws to a close, its significance recedes from the foreground. One is more concerned with the three who have been killed along the way. And though not all of the remaining 17 experience the revolutionary fervor of the German seaman in Wilhelmshaven, or the Hungarian cavalryman returning home through a disintegrating Habsburg Empire, no one comes home to a country whose certainties are intact. As if, chillingly, wanting to emphasize the war’s disruptive effect on a prewar worldview and order, Englund ends with an excerpt on the reaction to the German capitulation from Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
Englund’s work is a very readable complement to more conventional historical accounts. Its structure reminds us that one never sees or experiences history. It is but an explanatory narrative retroactively superimposed on the past. And when those cannot be neatly applied, as in the case of World War I, studies like Englund’s are crucial. With the help of the biographies of a few real people, albeit possibly deliberately chosen, Englund masterfully exposes how excitement turned to disappointment, fear, and—foreshadowed in his epilogue—pathological hatred, better than comprehensive, meticulously referenced accounts narrated by omniscient historians could ever do.