The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the 20th Century — An Excerpt

By David ReynoldsMay 26, 2014

The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the 20th Century — An Excerpt

The Long Shadow by David Reynolds

ACCLAIMED HISTORIAN David Reynolds, Professor of International History and a Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge University, and Chairman of the Faculty of History, is the author of 11 books, and three edited or co-edited volumes. He has also written and presented nine historical documentaries for BBC TV (most recently World War Two: 1941 and the Man of Steel and World War Two: 1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly), as well as the award-winning BBC Radio 4 series America, Empire of LibertyHe was awarded the Wolfson History Prize in 2004, and elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2005.

His most recent book, The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the 20th Century, was published last year in the United Kingdom and awarded the 2014 Hessell-Tiltman Prize. This month, it is being published in the United States by W. W. Norton & Company; the Los Angeles Review of Books is honored to present its introduction to our readers.



1914–18 is the forgotten conflict of America’s war-torn 20th century. Forgotten yet also essential. Essential in guiding the United States when waging the Second World War and handling its aftermath — to avoid the “mistakes” of 1917–19. Essential, too, in helping define the country’s self-image across the whole 20th century — as a redemptive force in a world scarred by European imperialism. For a nation that was economically precocious in the 1900s yet deeply insecure about its social coherence, the bloodbath that swamped Europe between August 1914 and November 1918 could be seen as bizarrely reassuring — proof that American values were superior and must be the basis of a “new world order.” This ideology was articulated above all by President Woodrow Wilson. His ambitions came to nothing in 1919–20: the massive stroke he suffered while campaigning for the League of Nations served to couple political failure with personal tragedy in a way that has haunted the American political imagination. But Wilson’s ideas were resurrected and reworked to wage the war of 1941–45 and the Cold War that followed. Repackaged by 21st-century neoconservatives, they also played a central role in the “War on Terror.”

The Great War was America’s first real involvement in great-power politics outside the Western Hemisphere, and the way Wilson addressed that challenge has been a reference point, good or bad, for subsequent policymakers. Perhaps more than any other president, Wilson has served as a symbol of the American people’s “hopes and aspirations” and equally of their “frustrations and disappointments.” Wilson’s ideology, too, has been susceptible to different emphases — either a comprehensive system of international security (a “league of nations”), which implied coexistence and cooperation among states, or the promotion of democratic values, self-determination, and human rights (a “world made safe for democracy”), which implied unilateral American action. But although Wilsonianism has proved a “conflicted” concept, its central predicate was clear: the folly of the Old World and the virtue of the New World.The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald conveyed this idea vividly in Tender Is the Night (1934). “See that little stream,” Dick Diver tells his companion as they tour the old Somme battlefield near Thiepval, “we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a whole month to walk to it — a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs.” Then comes Dick’s punch line: “No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation.”

But they did. Not exactly like the Battle of the Somme in 1916, it must be admitted, but between 1937 and 1945 empires walked again and again across the world, fighting and dying in even larger numbers — on battlefields of mud, snow, desert, and jungle, also in great cities under a hail of bombs or in squalid camps amid clouds of gas. After that war had ended, and with it the last pretensions of Europe as the center of civilization, the United States assumed a self-appointed role as world policeman to avert World War III and perhaps the destruction of the planet. In the process, notably in Vietnam, America was drawn into the mass killing and moral compromises from which it had once proudly claimed to stand aloof.

In 1979 American diplomat and sage George F. Kennan characterized the First World War as “the great seminal catastrophe of this century.” He was struck by the “overwhelming extent” to which communism, Nazism, and the Second World War were all “the products of that first great holocaust of 1914–18.” Refashioned by German historian Eberhard Jäckel as Die Urkatastrophe,Kennan’s idea is now almost a commonplace of historical writing.August 1914 has been depicted as “the great train crash” that ushered in “History’s Age of Hatred,” characterized by a “Fifty Years War” in Europe that was followed by “the Third World’s War” in the second half of the century. The sense of tragedy is made more poignant because of a feeling that 1914 was unintended and avoidable. Europe’s leaders were like “sleepwalkers,” in the title of another recent book, “watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.”

Although America was sucked into the 20th century’s wars, it has still kept its mental distance from the Urkatastrophe. What the British called “the Great War” of 1914–18 remains on the margins of American cultural memory, apart from the periodic Wilsonian refrains. From Europe’s suicide pact in 1914, the United States stood aloof — joining the conflict in 1917, it is believed, only to sort out a mess that was quintessentially European.

Yet that moral superiority is misplaced, or at least a little blinkered. America had fought its own great war only half a century before, during which 620,000 died — more than the combined American death toll in all its other conflicts from the Revolution to Korea, including both world wars. Proportionate to total population, that would equate to six million American dead today.The network of trenches outside Richmond, Virginia, in 1864–65 prefigures the Western Front 50 years later; the carnage at Antietam and Cold Harbor stand as dreadful foretastes of the potency of modern firepower. Was the Civil War an “irrepressible conflict” or an “unnecessary war”? That debate, still simmering, parallels the endless argument about the causes of the Great War: sole German guilt stemming from its deliberate bid for world power or a botched diplomatic crisis in which all the nations “slithered” into war. And what was the Civil War about? Both the Union and the Confederacy claimed to be fighting for “freedom” — defining it in fundamentally different ways, just as the two sides in 1914 pitted “civilization” against Kultur. In retrospect the dominant American narrative has represented 1861–65 as a crusade to free the slaves, yet the unresolved legacies of slavery rumbled on through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, and the “Southern strategy” — not even settled by the election of the country’s first black president in 2008. Here are American parallels with Kennan’s “seminal catastrophe” that defined 20th-century Europe.

So, in the still-lingering shadow of 1861–65, let us suspend disbelief for a while and look more attentively at Europe’s Great War. To a large extent, American perceptions of 1914–18 have been influenced by debates in Britain — readily accessible via the “common language.” There, 1914–18 has become a literary war, a human tragedy detached from its moorings in historical events, entrenched in the mud of Flanders and Picardy, illuminated only by a few antiwar poets such as Wilfred Owen — perhaps the most studied writer in the English school curriculum after William Shakespeare. “My subject is War and the pity of War,” Owen declared. “The Poetry is in the pity.” Yet by reducing the conflict to personal tragedies, however moving, the British have lost the big picture: history has been distilled into poetry.

This process has been accentuated by the “cultural turn” in academic history as a whole, resulting here in a fascination with the public memory and memorialization of the conflict. Since the 1980s numerous scholars have illuminated the Great War’s cultural legacies, especially attitudes toward death and mourning that had been ignored by traditional military historians. Yet the cult of “memory,” like many new historiographical trends, has sometimes been pushed too far, obscuring the direct, material impacts of the war — political, military, economic, social, and intellectual.The Long Shadow is a book about the living as much as the dead because life went on after 1918. Indeed, as Woodrow Wilson’s propaganda chief George Creel put it in 1920, this was a world turned “molten” by the volcano of war.Most of postwar Europe was not frozen in perpetual mourning; the 1920s and 1930s were not predominantly a “morbid age.”

Part One develops this perspective by exploring the impact of the Great War on the next two decades. These were perceived by contemporaries as the “postwar” years and not, as we see them now, the “interwar” era. In other words, before perspectives on 1914–18 were transformed by the onset of another global war. A series of thematic chapters examine in turn the new national map of eastern Europe, the challenges to liberal democracy, the future of colonial empires, the dislocation of the world economy, the ferment of cultural values, and the overarching problem of international peace. Some of the Great War’s legacies were negative and pernicious, but others proved transformative in a positive sense: the 20th century was not solely an “age of hatred.”

By exploring these themes through the 1920s and 1930s, I want to show that the United Kingdom’s experience of the conflict differed in significant respects from that of continental Europe — of France and Germany, let alone Russia and the Balkans. This is a major argument of the book. The United Kingdom was spared invasion or serious bombing; it was not engulfed in revolution or wracked by civil war and paramilitary violence. In fact, despite folk memories of the General Strike and the Great Depression, Britain in the 1920s and 1930s was politically and economically much more stable than its continental neighbors. There is, however, an exception: Ireland in the years after the Easter Rising of 1916. The Irish experience of the Great War era was much more “continental” than that of mainland Britain. The legacies of 1916–23, of Ireland’s war of independence, its civil war and partition, would sour the rest of the 20th century.

The Great War also had global ramifications, reshaping the Near East, colonial Africa, and East Asia.Here, too, the British experience was unusual: while other great empires collapsed, the Pax Britannica (like the Empire Français) reached its peak after 1918. Yet the unexpected expansion, especially into Palestine and Mesopotamia, created hostages to fortune for the future. As new war clouds loomed on the horizon in the 1930s, the Great War also guided British reactions — not just in pursuing the diplomacy of appeasement to keep the peace but also in making contingency plans for a possible war. Rather than preparing to send another mass army of cannon fodder to the Continent, policymakers focused on the air defense of Britain itself. In the 1930s the British were trying to avoid a new Great War, and this almost undid them in 1940 when the next war turned out quite differently from the last.

The United States was even more distant from the Great War, both geographically and emotionally, and its growing disillusion about what the conflict had achieved paralleled that of the United Kingdom. The crucial difference, however, was the body count. The UK death toll was 723,000, the US figure 116,000 — more than half of them actually soldiers who fell victim to the influenza pandemic of 1918.It was the imbalance between, on the one hand, the magnitude of British losses and, on the other, the remoteness of the issues apparently at stake that created the sense of anguish in Britain about the Great War. For Americans, who suffered much less and more briefly, the war of 1917–18 was then overshadowed by the titanic struggles of 1941–45 and the Cold War. Yet the Great War was the United States’s first serious encounter with European conflict and global diplomacy. It would prove a benchmark all through the 20th century for American leaders as they wrestled with the political burdens and moral dilemmas of being a world power.

The various impacts of the Great War were clear and pervasive in the 1920s and 1930s, but this “war to end war” took on a different meaning when it was followed less than a quarter of a century later by a second, even more horrendous conflict in which Britain was heavily bombed and faced imminent invasion. The 1920s and 1930s now became known as the “interwar” era, and the Great War itself was relabeled “the First World War,” implying a job half-finished that had to be done properly a quarter-century later. For two decades, 1914–18 was largely obscured by the Second World War and the Cold War, by the even greater horrors of the Holocaust and the Bomb, before being rediscovered in the 1960s around the time of its 50th anniversary. This was when 1914–18 became for the British supremely a story of trenches and poets. For the United States, by contrast, 1941–45 became a “second chance” to grasp the destiny of world leadership that had been spurned in 1919 — the first steps of a budding superpower.

As the direct material impacts of 1914–18 diminished after 1945, the cult of memory did become more important, but remembrance was constantly shaped by contemporary concerns — for instance the 1960s youth revolt against the Establishment in Britain and the “silent generation” in Germany, complicit in Nazi crimes, or the mass protests in the United States against the Vietnam War. For many Americans, in fact, the trauma of Vietnam prompted a new interest in an earlier apparently futile war in 1914–18. More recently the Great War has been redefined anew by post–Cold War efforts at international bridgebuilding — evident in shared memorials on the Somme in France and at Kobarid/Caporetto in the foothills of the Alps and in the Island of Ireland Peace Tower near Ieper in Belgium. In a set of chronological chapters, Part Two therefore traces the shadows cast by 1914–18 over the second half of the 20th century, with the light now not direct but refracted. Refracted first through the prism of 1939–45 and then through the prism of 1989–91 — the Cold War’s denouement, but also the end of the long postwar since 1945. In these chapters I seek to connect various books, films, and events with which readers may be familiar in a random way into an integrated argument about the ever-changing presence of the past.

This book therefore uses the Great War as a way not just to explore the immediate legacies of 1914–18 but also to illuminate important features of the century that followed. The chapters range across a variety of historical sub-disciplines, from military history to cultural studies, from ideology to economics, and also engage with recent trends in historical research. By setting the United Kingdom’s experience of the Great War within a European context, I hope to offer a much-needed corrective to narrowly Anglocentric conceptions of what the hell it was all about. Situating the British experience comparatively also offers a new perspective on America’s own brief but formative encounter with the 20th century’s seminal catastrophe.

We need to start by expanding our sense of the Great War’s chronology. The British are fixated with 1916, indeed with one day of that year — when the Battle of the Somme began on July 1 and 20,000 British Tommies died in a morning.* For Americans, the conflict only starts in earnest with Wilson’s war message in April 1917, before fast-forwarding to the US Army’s victories in the latter half of 1918. Yet the Great War lasted nearly four years, and it fell into several phases, of which the last and most neglected is of particular importance if we want to understand the impact of the conflict on subsequent decades. For the purposes of this book, how the war ended matters more than why it began. And that “molten” aftermath was a consequence of the volcanic pressures built up through years of stalemate.

The initial phase of the war fits neatly into 1914. Despite premonitions and tensions, the July crisis came out of the blue and gained a momentum of its own. The question of who was to blame, indeed whether any one nation was to blame, will be explored throughout: suffice it to say here that what began as a short, sharp strike by the Habsburg Empire, backed by the kaiser’s Germany, to deal once and for all with its troublesome neighbor, Serbia, rapidly sucked in tsarist Russia and its ally the French Republic. After anguished debate, Britain’s Liberal government threw in its lot with France and Belgium, whose neutrality the United Kingdom was pledged to defend. What followed in 1914, it is often forgotten, was a war of movement as the French thrust into Alsace and Lorraine, the Russians surged into East Prussia, and the Germans pressed grimly toward Paris. Each government gambled on a quick and decisive victory, but their troops soon outran command, control, and supply networks. Worse still, they totally underestimated the devastating effect of modern artillery and machine guns on attacking infantry. For most of the belligerents the casualty rates in 1914 were the highest of the war — half a million in the case of France. On its worst day of the war, August 22, 1914, the advancing French Army lost 27,000 men — a far larger death toll than the British suffered on the first day of the Somme. Attacking in their massed lines and bright uniforms (blue tunics and red trousers), the French poilusof 1914 were easy targets for German machine-gunners.

By 1915, the war in western Europe had settled into its long second phase, defined by lines of trenches from Switzerland to the North Sea. This is the muddy, bloody stalemate that we now take as axiomatic. In fact, all the belligerents still entertained hopes of a decisive stroke that would bring dramatic victory on the battlefield and shatter the enemy’s will to fight. The British and French tried this against Germany’s ally, the Ottomans, in April 1915, but the result was disaster at Gallipoli. Italy had the same hope in May when it attacked AustriaHungary, only to become locked in a grim war in the icy foothills of the Alps. Germany enjoyed more success in 1915, overwhelming Serbia and seizing much of Poland from the Russians, but even these victories did not deliver a knockout blow: Russian morale held firm. Indeed, a feature of the first half of the Great War was the strength of all the home fronts — contrary to fears beforehand about the corrosive effects of socialism and pacifism. As the costs of war soared, so did the price of peace. Only clear-cut victory seemed acceptable; anything less, in the words of the German chancellor in November 1914, “would appear to the people as absolutely insufficient rewards for such terrible sacrifices.”

Perpetually hopeful that one last push would prove decisive, the belligerents geared up again in 1916. Defense spending soared in most countries to more than half of the GDP, and governments reorganized economy and society for what was being called “total war.” Politics also hardened: in Germany, the truce of 1914 broke down, with dissident socialists openly opposing an imperialist war. Britain finally imposed conscription, breaching sacred Liberal principles, and a new coalition government under David Lloyd George galvanized the war effort. On the battlefield, the German High Command targeted the strategic city of Verdun, hoping to “bleed France white,” but its campaign failed and the German Army bled almost as much as the French. The death toll for both sides at Verdun has been estimated at between 400,000 and 600,000. A precise figure is impossible because many soldiers were literally blown to bits — the harvest of bones from the battlefield can still be seen in the grisly ossuary at Douaumont. Hoping to relieve Verdun, the Allies mounted an offensive on the Somme. British losses on the opening day were unprecedented — nearly 60,000, a third of them killed — and July 1, 1916, has become, for the British, the most infamous date of the war. Yet the offensive was maintained till November because field marshal Sir Douglas Haig still hoped for a dramatic breakthrough. In the whole Somme campaign, British casualties totaled 420,000, and France lost half that number, but the cost to the Germans was also enormous, maybe close to the British and French losses combined.

On November 13, 1916, as the Battle of the Somme subsided into the winter mud, Lord Lansdowne, a former foreign secretary, asked the British cabinet to consider a negotiated peace: “Generations will have to come and go before the country recovers from the loss which it has sustained in human beings and from the financial ruin and the destruction of the means of production which are taking place.” Casualties had already topped one million and the war was costing Britain £5 million a day. “All this it is no doubt our duty to bear,” Lansdowne went on,

but only if it can be shown that the sacrifice will have its reward. If it is to be made in vain, if the additional year, or two years, or three years, finds us still unable to dictate terms, the war with its nameless horrors will have been needlessly prolonged, and the responsibility of those who needlessly prolong such a war is no less than those who needlessly provoke it.

Lansdowne’s plea fell on deaf ears, but the question he posed — two years almost to the day before the eventual armistice — about the point of carrying on, still gnaws at the British conscience.

In 1916 each side’s knockout blow (Verdun and the Somme) had failed, at enormous cost, while domestic remobilization for an even bigger war effort imposed huge strains on their home fronts. During 1917 cracks began to open up and the war entered a third, more volatile phase. The Germans shortened their line in the west, withdrawing to new and well-fortified positions. The United States still maintained a stance of formal neutrality, but the British war effort was now heavily dependent on supplies purchased from across the Atlantic using loans raised from American banks and private investors. So the German High Command took the momentous decision to mount unrestricted U-boat warfare in the Atlantic — provoking, as anticipated, American entry into the war — gambling that their submarines could sever Britain’s vital transatlantic supply line before the United States mobilized effectively. For a while the German gamble seemed to be paying off. In April 1917, elements of the French Army mutinied after a suicidal offensive against strong German positions along the Chemin des Dames ridge. The troops, if not their hubristic commander, Gen. Robert Nivelle, could see what was coming: many of them went into battle, up the muddy slope in pouring rain, “baaing” like sheep. Although the mutinies were quelled, thereafter the French Army was rarely risked in all-out offensives. In October, the Italians fell apart when defeat on the Alpine foothills at Caporetto turned into a rout. And the British Army’s thrusts along the Western Front, from Arras in the spring to Passchendaele in the autumn, gained little mud at great cost, exacerbating friction between the politicians and the generals.

The only glimmer of light came from the east, where the Ottoman Empire was also cracking: British Empire troops took Palestine and oil-rich Mesopotamia. But that could not offset the collapse of the Eastern Front in Europe during 1917. In February, fury against the war in Russia reached fever pitch. In the capital city of Petrograd it took only a couple of weeks of food riots and army mutinies to topple the tsar. The Romanov dynasty, absolute rulers of Russia for three centuries, was now consigned to the rubbish heap of history. Although the new Russian government fought on during the summer, the Bolshevik seizure of power in October quickly led to a ceasefire on the Eastern Front. For the first time in the war, Germany was free to concentrate on the west.

In the final phase, 1918, the war became mobile again, as in 1914, and both sides went for broke. Having gambled on U-boat warfare in 1917, Gen. Erich Ludendorff and the German High Command, now effectively Germany’s military dictatorship, gambled again with a succession of hammer blows, intended to break the Western Front before the new US Army could be deployed in earnest. Ludendorff’s initial assault in March 1918 nearly split the British armies from the French and the ensuing crisis quelled strikes and antiwar talk back in Britain. But by going on the attack for the first time since 1916, Ludendorff exposed his troops to massive Allied firepower. Each of the five German offensives during the spring and summer proved weaker than the last, as casualties and desertion took a formidable toll. By now the Allied blockade was beginning to bite: Berliners scavenged the rubbish heaps for scraps of meat and rotten vegetables as they tried to keep working on a thousand calories a day, less than half the official minimum. During the summer of 1918, the British and French divisions, backed by a million fresh Americans, started to advance. The prospect of a decisive American offensive if the war continued into 1919 helped break German morale, but the Doughboys were still learning the nature of modern war in 1918 and their bravado victories were won at huge cost. It was in the autumn of 1918 that the British Army finally came into its own. Haig was now commanding nearly 60 divisions, the biggest force ever deployed by the British Empire. At last he was using infantry, tanks, planes, and artillery in a coordinated yet flexible way to blast through enemy defenses and exploit successes wherever they opened up — all very different from the rigid shell-and-march tactics of 1916. Recent British military historians have insisted that Haig’s triumphant last “Hundred Days” and the “forgotten victory” of 1918 were the culmination of what they euphemistically call a “learning curve” that began on the Somme.

Whether the learning was worth all the bleeding remains a matter of intense debate, but that final phase of the war is absolutely critical as prologue to this book. The outcome in November 1918 was not merely military victory for the Allies and defeat for the Central Powers: the price of defeat in total war was total collapse. When Ludendorff asked the Allies for an armistice, exposing to astonished citizens the gravity of Germany’s plight, the Imperial Navy and Army mutinied and the Reich collapsed in four weeks like a house of cards. The kaiser was forced to abdicate. Then, as plain Wilhelm Hohenzollern, he slipped into exile in the Netherlands, ending 500 years of his family’s rule in Berlin. The Habsburg Empire also fell apart. On November 8, the 31-year-old Emperor Karl stood for the last time in the vast ballroom of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, a rather pathetic young man lost amid the baroque splendors of Maria Theresa. For one watching politician it was a sight that symbolized “the deepest tragedy of earthly fame and human power.”

Yet the price of victory was also high: the Allies would find it almost as hard to adjust to the postwar world. Had the fighting ended in 1916 with a negotiated peace, as Lansdowne urged, its impact would have been much less cataclysmic. By going for broke, the belligerents broke Europe’s old order.

This last tumultuous phase of the Great War sets the scene for the chapters that follow. What would replace the fractured empires of the Habsburgs, Romanovs, and Hohenzollerns — previously rulers of most of central and eastern Europe? Could the challenges of Bolshevik revolution and mass democracy be contained in countries where millions of new voters were trained killers? How to manage the colonial empires, whose peoples had been aroused by the new rhetoric of nationalism and democracy? On what basis should the Allies try to reconstruct the shattered structures of global capitalism? How, after four years of mass slaughter, could one dare to affirm the values of civilization? And, above all, was it possible to sustain the postwar settlement crafted by the victorious powers at the peace conference in Paris in 1919? These questions provide the themes for the first half of this book, as we explore Britain’s response to 1918 from an international perspective.

* “Tommy” was the ubiquitous term for Great War soldiers, a contraction of “Thomas Atkins,” who had figured in War Office form-filling since 1815 as the specimen British private.


Excerpted from The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds. Copyright © 2013, 2014 by David Reynolds. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


LARB Contributor

David Reynolds is a professor of international history at Cambridge University. He is the author of books including In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War, which won the Wolfson Prize.

Photo credit: Rob Goldie


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