Acute review of To End All Wars points up ghastly human sacrifice
General Sir Henry complained his own casualties were too low
Why US intervention may have caused turmoil for the rest of the century
Christopher Hitchens, himself under a death sentence from esophagal cancer, has long been a child of privilege whose sense of noblesse oblige has led him to voice outrage against the abuse visited upon the people by the ruling classes, of which the Great War from 1914 to 1918 was perhaps the most murderous harm of all.
In this review, informed by his own fury, he shows us just how awful is the tale told by Adam Hochschild in his monumental new book, To End All Wars – A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. Not only were there the most grotesque examples of careless sacrifice of thousands of men, some of whom formed whole communities back home, but the Armistice of 1918 led to the second World War and violent and bitter struggles through 1989, the end of the Cold War, to today.
The most remarkable point made is that if the US intervention led by General Pershing had not supplied fresh troops in the final stage of the bloodbath, the exhausted combatants would have reached a fairer armistice less vengeful in its demand for humiliating retribution on the Germans and thus one which less likely to have spawned Hitler and his ruthless reversal of its terms twenty years on.
A fine example of the clarity and thoughtfulness and precision (and exceptional storehouse of literary and political knowledge he draws upon) of everything Hitchens wrote, and how great a literary loss we will suffer when he leaves the stage.
May 13, 2011
The Pacifists and the Trenches
By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
TO END ALL WARS
A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918
By Adam Hochschild
Illustrated. 448 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $28.
Woodrow Wilson’s fatuous claim about the European war of 1914-18 — sarcastically annexed by Adam Hochschild for the title of this moving and important book — was an object of satire and contempt even as it was being uttered. “A peace to end peace,” commented Sir Alfred Milner, that powerhouse of the British war cabinet, as he surveyed the terms of the Versailles treaty that supposedly brought the combat to a close. Increasingly, modern historians have come to regard that bleak November “armistice” as a mere truce in a long, terrible conflict that almost sent civilization into total eclipse and that did not really terminate until the peaceful and democratic reunification of Germany after November 1989. Even that might be an optimistic reading: the post-1918 frontiers of the former Ottoman Empire (one of the four great thrones that did not outlast the “First” World War) are still a suppurating source of violence and embitterment.
In his previous works, on subjects as diverse as the Belgian Congo and the victims of Stalinism, Hochschild has distinguished himself as a historian “from below,” as it were, or from the viewpoint of the victims. He stays loyal to this method in “To End All Wars,” concentrating on the appalling losses suffered by the rank and file and the extraordinary courage of those who decided that the war was not a just one. Since many of the latter were of the upper classes, some of them with close relatives in power, he is enabled to shift between the upstairs-downstairs settings of post-Edwardian England, as its denizens began in their different ways to realize that the world they had cherished was passing forever.
No single narrative can do justice to an inferno whose victims still remain uncounted. Hochschild tries to encompass the global scope of the disaster, and to keep us updated with accounts of what was occurring at a given time in Russia and the United States, but his main setting is England and his chief concern the Western Front. In this hecatomb along the minor rivers of Flanders and Picardy, the British people lost the cream of their working class and the flower of their aristocracy. The poems of Wilfred Owen and Rudyard Kipling, in their contrasting ways, still have the power to touch the tragic chord of memory that Hochschild strives to evoke.
For men like the Earl of Lansdowne, who tried to propose a negotiated peace, the terrifying thought was the slaughter of the class of well-bred young officers. (Of the 10 grandsons of the Marquess of Salisbury, five were killed in action.) For others, like Fenner Brockway, Alice Wheeldon and John S. Clarke, the war represented the human sacrifice of those miners, railwaymen and engineers whose skills should have been used instead to depose the aristocracy and build a new society. For them, it was a matter of common cause among British, German and Russian workers, and for this principle they risked harsh imprisonment, punitive conscription and even death. Ironically, perhaps, the most renowned of these resisters was Bertrand Russell, a dedicated leftist who was harder to silence precisely because he was the grandson of an earl. Hochschild has done his level best to build a memorial to these dissenters, and is hugely to be congratulated on his hard work: as a buff on this subject, I thought I was the only one who knew about Clarke, an obdurate Marxist who earned his living as a circus impresario and lion tamer.
However, once the howitzers had started their bellowing, proletarian internationalism had a marked tendency to evaporate. Only Lenin and a handful of other irreducible revolutionaries bided their time, waiting for the war to devour those monarchs who had been foolish enough to start it. Meanwhile, fratricide was the rule. Under the fog of war, the Armenians (not really dealt with here) were put to the sword in the 20th century’s first genocide, and British artillery was used in Dublin streets to put down an Irish rising.
Ruthless as they were in the killing of others, the generals were also shockingly profligate and callous when it came to their “own.” In some especially revolting passages, we find Gen. Sir Douglas Haig and his arrogant subordinate Gen. Sir Henry Rawlinson actually complaining when British casualties were too low, and exulting — presumably because enemy losses were deemed comparable — when they moved into the tens of thousands. What this meant in cold terms was the destruction of whole regiments, often comprising (as in the cases of Newfoundland and Ulster) entire communities back home who had volunteered as a body and stayed together in arms. They vanished, in clouds of poison gas, hails of steel splinters and great lakes of sucking mud. Or lay in lines, reminding all observers of mown-down corn, along the barbed wire and machine-gun emplacements against which they had been thrown. Like me, Hochschild has visited the mass graves and their markers, which still lie along the fields of northern France and Belgium, and been overwhelmed by what Wilfred Owen starkly and simply called “the pity of War.” (Owen was to die pointlessly as the guns were falling silent: his mother received the telegram as the church bells were ringing to celebrate the armistice — or better in retrospect to say “fragile cease-fire.”)
We read these stirring yet wrenching accounts, of soldiers setting off to battle accompanied by cheers, and shudder because we know what they do not. We know what is coming, in other words. And coming not only to them. What is really coming, stepping jackbooted over the poisoned ruins of civilized Europe, is the pornographic figure of the Nazi. Again, Hochschild is an acute register. He has read the relevant passages of “Mein Kampf,” in which a gassed and wounded Austrian corporal began to incubate the idea of a ghastly revenge. He notes the increasing anti-Semitism of decaying wartime imperial Germany, with its vile rumors of Jewish cowardice and machination. And he approaches a truly arresting realization: Nazism can perhaps be avoided, but only on condition that German militarism is not too heavily defeated on the battlefield.
This highly unsettling reflection is important above all for American readers. If General Pershing’s fresh and plucky troops had not reached the scene in the closing stages of the bloodbath, universal exhaustion would almost certainly have compelled an earlier armistice, on less savage terms. Without President Wilson’s intervention, the incensed and traumatized French would never have been able to impose terms of humiliation on Germany; the very terms that Hitler was to reverse, by such relentless means, a matter of two decades later. In this light, the great American socialist Eugene V. Debs, who publicly opposed the war and was kept in prison by a vindictive Wilson until long after its ending, looks like a prescient hero. Indeed, so do many of the antiwar militants to whose often-buried record Hochschild has done honor. (Unsentimental to the last, though, he shows that many of them went on to lose or waste their lives on Bolshevism, the other great mutant system to emerge from the abattoir.) This is a book to make one feel deeply and painfully, and also to think hard.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His memoir, “Hitch-22,” will be published in paperback next month.