Thursday, October 23, 2014

Final comment on The Long Shadow (of World War I)

Old soldier visits the poppy field at the Tower of London
This should be the 5th and final post on The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds. (See my first, second, third and fourth posts.)

My friend Allen, who is also reading Reynold's book, recommended The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, a six part TV series that was aired in the UK and the USA in 1996. I watched the streaming videos, and it was a useful complement to the book.

Chapter 11 is titled "Remembrance". It continues the authors discussion of the views of World War I, but now looking at the works of history and literature after the fall of Communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union. He also considers some of the memorial architecture and services from this time period.

He notes that now there seem to be, at least in British society, two parallel but not intersecting streams of memory, that of the historians and that of modern literature. The treatment is also different in different countries/nations.

I think two important points are made in terms of historiography:
  • The interpretation of the war differs from time to time, with perhaps a basis in the concerns of the time;
  • The selection of the events to describe and the sources to use differs from text to text.
Thinking about these facts, I am reminded of the blind men describing an elephant. It is just too big for any one of them to comprehend with the information available to him. Perhaps big history too has this characteristic.

I was impressed by a couple of the specifics brought out in this chapter. The breakup of the Soviet Union and elimination of its domination of a swath of states from Yugoslavia to Estonia was accompanied by new interest and interpretation of World War I in the countries involved. The "bloodlands" narrative of the damages done by the Nazis and Soviets came to the fore, and the 20 million people who died in Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 40s could compete for historical space with the Holocaust, and especially the Jewish deaths within the Nazi Holocaust.

So too, the author cites a coming together of Unionist Northern Irish and Irish Republicans and of Turks and Australians/New Zealanders recognizing common histories of sufferings during World War I.

The Long Shadow

The final section of the book, which is brief, it titled "Conclusion: Long Shadow". It summarizes the contents of the previous sections of the book, making the point again that the views on World War I have varied over the century following its end, as they have varied according to the subsequent experience, and as they have varied among nations (Britain -- England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Eire, France, Germany, the United States and Russia). He points out that the history of the war remains unbalanced, lacking attention to many aspects -- the four million men from Africa and Asia who fought, the Balkans, the impact on colonialism, etc.

It occurred to me that Reynolds seems to assume more homogeneity in national views than I observed. I lived through the Vietnam War in America and remember it as far more divisive that Reynolds seems to recognize; so too, the Cold War seems to me to have had very serious policy debates within American society. From what little history I have read, the key decision makers in U.S. government during World War II and the the 1950s and 60s may have been using their understanding of the lessons of World War I, but the debates within government may have related to different but contemporaneous understandings of what those lessons were.

Final Comments

Rather than wonder about the shadow of World War I in the social construction of the past and the faulty memory of individuals, we might look at what we know about what actually happened in the last century. Perhaps the big currents of history are more informative than the ways people interpreted the past as they were buffeted by those currents. Here are some:

Decolonization: The overseas colonial empires of European countries and some multi-ethnic empires ended. North America led with the American Revolution and purchases of territory from France, Spain and Russia. Latin America freed itself from Spain and Portugal in the early 19th century. World War I saw the end of the German overseas empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman empire, and the empire of the Russian Tsars; the breakup of the Soviet Union also ended its domination Europe west of Russia and of the the former Soviet states in central Asia. The Japanese empire was ended in World War II. Africa and Asia were decolonized after World War II.

Technology: The Second Industrial Revolution (electricity, internal combustion engines, continuous production lines) and the Third Industrial Revolution (telecom, microelectronics, computers, Internet) took place. The technological revolutions were diffused to other regions; early leaders lost advantages to producers with larger markets.

Globalization: The first wave which ended in the Great Depression was followed by a second wave which started after World War II and continues today. It was matched by the growth of multinational corporations and of multinational markets such as the European Economic Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

There was a growth of international organizations. The League of Nations was replaced by a much stronger United Nations. A system of intergovernmental organizations that began with the Postal Union and the organization to regulate international telegraph operations now includes more than 1000 organizations, notably the World Trade Organization, Note also the European Union, the British Commonwealth and the Francophonie.

Population and Production: World population grew from perhaps 1.75 billion to some 7.25 billion today -- most of whom live in Asia. A demographic transition occurred worldwide, with life expectancy increasing greatly, the portion of the global population in older age brackets increasing greatly, and family size decreasing around the world.

Growth of the world gross domestic product (1950–2010)
Source: Nature

World GDP grew more rapidly than world population, and a middle class emerged on the world scale, as the wealthy minority also grew in number and the portion of people living in extreme poverty decreased.

Culture: Languages have become international -- English, French, Spanish and Chinese come to mind as languages which are spoken by hundreds of millions or billions of people living in many countries. The world religions also provide cultural connections beyond individual nations, especially Christianity and Islam. Indeed, movies and television have cultural impacts far beyond the countries in which they are produced. The large cities of North and South America, Asia and Europe are in many ways much alike.

Since 1900 countries have become significantly more democratic and  their peoples more free. Perhaps as a result, conflicts have become less life threatening, as is shown in the following graph;


Could it be that mankind is being swept along by huge waves of change which we only dimly understand, and that the frequent reinterpretations of the Great War are merely a sign of our failure to reach a better understanding of the forces of history?

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