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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Book Review: The First World War

The First World War. By John Keegan. (New York: Vintage Books, 1998. Pp. 427).

"The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict." This opening sentence to John Keegan’s book The First World War serves as the prevailing thesis for the duration of his book. By suggesting that the First World War could have been avoided, Keegan invites the reader to join him in an in-depth look into the origins, causes, and consequences of Europe’s "Great War." In this work, Keegan rejects the notion that the First World War was an inevitable conflict between rival superpowers, but insists that the growing trends of nationalism, combined with the massive military/industrial buildup of the various European nations, brought already existing tensions to a frenzied crescendo. As a result, cooler heads were unable to prevail over the supercharged militaristic intentions of the differing European powers.

Though primarily written as a military history, Keegan provides a good amount of scholarly insight into the origins of the First World War. Keegan’s prose effectively sheds light on the true nature of the First World War, which he claims is often overshadowed by the subsequent Second World War. Keegan insists that both world wars can and should be understood jointly, as opposed to the traditional view of separate world conflicts:
The derelict fortifications of the Atlantic wall...the decaying hutments of Auschwitz...A child’s shoe in the Polish dust...are as much relics of the First as of the Second World War.
Though separated by roughly two decades, it was the First World War that sharpened the resolve and fury of the Second World War. Or as Keegan put it, "The First World War inaugurated the manufacture of mass death that the Second brought to a pitiless consummation."

The initial chapters of Keegan’s book focus on the origins of the First World War. Keegan points out the fact that early twentieth-century Europe actually saw itself as a relatively peaceful and civilized society. International dependence in the economic, religious, and political arenas created an imaginary sense of stability between the various European powers. These illusionary factors, however, were unable to prevent the turbulent tide of nationalistic and militaristic development, which propelled Europe to the avant-garde of warfare. Once one nation started down the path of military development, its rival powers soon followed. Such an atmosphere of militancy made any effort to keep the peace progressively more difficult. As Keegan points out:
The tragedy of the diplomatic crisis that preceded the outbreak of fighting...is that events successively and progressively overwhelmed the capacity of statesmen and diplomats to control and contain them.
In essence, diplomacy was held at bay by the aggressive agendas of militarism.

Along with presenting the origins of the conflict, Keegan effectively demonstrates the impact that the First World War had on shaping European identity. Throughout the text, Keegan strives to depict the “Great War” as one of the preeminent international events that propelled the world into modernity. According to Keegan, the development of nationalism and military might essentially pushed aside the rational ideology left over from the Enlightenment. As a result, an injection of nationalistic fervor infected Europe’s populace, creating an atmosphere of patriotic loyalty. Keegan alludes to this fact when he writes of how each nation’s citizenry rallied behind the war:
Crowds thronged the streets, shouting, cheering and singing patriotic songs. In St. Petersburg...the entire crowd at once knelt and sang the Russian national anthem. In Germany, the flag was carried higher than the cross.
Keegan’s description of the war itself gives the reader a full view of its dramatic impact. Since virtually every European nation believed that the conflict was to be short, the general public was utterly shocked to its core once reality set in. The sheer terror of seeing so many soldiers killed or maimed caused soldiers to desert and citizens to reassess where their loyalties stood. As Keegan points out:
Civilian discontent fed military discontent, just as the soldiers’ anxieties for their families were reinforced by the worries of wives and parents for husbands and sons at the front...nationalism and popular patriotism took its appropriate back seat to basic human needs and desires.
The war’s violent impact brought the once fevered nationalistic chants to a dull roar. As Keegan suggests, the war’s lengthy duration, combined with its bloody outcome, left the masses in a virtual daze. Gone were the days when massive crowds gathered in public squares to thank god for their nationalistic superiority. Instead, families and friends came together to bury their dead and pray for an end to the violence. One's nationality barely mattered anymore.

Keegan’s work takes a bold stand against the traditional historiography of the First World War. Instead of seeing the war through the traditional lenses of military greatness and national pride, Keegan seeks a different rout of understanding. As he states in the book’s final pages:
Why did a prosperous continent, at the height of its success as a source and agent of global wealth and power...choose to risk all it had won for itself and all it offered to the world in the lottery of a vicious and local internecine conflict?
It is likely that the various European powers that participated in the conflict would respond by invoking their nationalistic and militaristic duties to protect and defend their respective homelands as a justifiable reason for declaring war. Keegan, however, would likely respond by using the same words that he chose to begin this book: “The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict.” Or as George Bernard Shaw put it:
Patriotism is your conviction that your country is superior to all others because you were born in it.
That is the First World War in a nutshell.

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