"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Sunday, November 11, 2018

But the End of the Beginning: on the Centenary of the End of the Great War

More than five years ago now, I noted that the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War was already occasioning a slew of new books from publishers. Without in any way pretending to be an historian of that conflict in all its complexity, I have nonetheless read a great deal for many years now, some of it connected with lectures I gave on the centenary of the Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian genocides of 1915 at the hands of the Ottomans. I am convinced, as many other historians are, that the First World War shaped everything that came after it, and shapes us still. The person who has argued this most persuasively--at least among those I have read--is the Cambridge historian David Reynolds, particularly in the book, The Long Shadow, which I noted here.

In anticipation of today's anniversary of the end of the fighting, I recently finished a book that has been out for some time: Joseph Persico, Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918, World War I and Its Violent Climax (Random House, 2004). It's a not bad book, though its format takes some getting used to as the author jumps back and forth, sketching individual characters or units on 11 November 1918 and then earlier in the war to see where they were, how they changed, and whether they survived to the end or not.

A just-released book also focuses on this particular day: Guy Cuthbertson, Peace at Last: A Portrait of Armistice Day 1918 (Yale UP, 2018), 304pp. I look forward to reading it.

One of the men in Persico's book, as he is of course in myriad others, is General Haig, a man for whom it is almost impossible to have any sympathy. (I have, I suppose, been influenced in my judgment by the ferocious attack on British army leaders in The Donkeys by Alan Clark--he of the uproarious diaries.) Haig is featured in a new study released this spring by Jonathan Boff, Haig's Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany's War on the Western Front (OUP, 2018).

Boff's book is featured in the history catalogue sent to me in October from Oxford University Press. In it they are featuring a number of new and forthcoming books connected to the end of the war.

Coming out early next year is Owen Davies, A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith during the First World War (OUP, 2019), 304pp. About this book the publisher tells us the following:
It was a commonly expressed view during the First World War that the conflict had seen a major revival of "superstitious" beliefs and practices.
Churches expressed concerns about the wearing of talismans and amulets, the international press paid considerable interest to the pronouncements of astrologers and prophets, and the authorities in several countries periodically clamped down on fortune tellers and mediums due to concerns over their effect on public morale. Out on the battlefields, soldiers of all nations sought to protect themselves through magical and religious rituals, and, on the home front, people sought out psychics and occult practitioners for news of the fate of their distant loved ones or communication with their spirits. Even away from concerns about the war, suspected witches continued to be abused and people continued to resort to magic and magical practitioners for personal protection, love, and success.
Uncovering and examining beliefs, practices, and contemporary opinions regarding the role of the supernatural in the war years, Owen Davies explores the broader issues regarding early twentieth-century society in the West, the psychology of the supernatural during wartime, and the extent to which the war cast a spotlight on the widespread continuation of popular belief in magic. A Supernatural War reveals the surprising stories of extraordinary people in a world caught up with the promise of occult powers.
Davies' book immediately puts me in mind of a similar study, that of Phillip Jenkins' The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, which was published in 2014. It is a fascinating book I have often recommended to others and returned to many times, not least for its insight that Catholics, so hysterical about some apparent happenings in some obscure Portuguese village, were far from alone in claiming divine apparitions: it was a game that everybody got in on, with French atheists in foxholes claiming visions of their dead comrades in arms; Russian Orthodox peasants claiming divine visions; staid German Lutherans and English Anglicans also had their own supposed apparitions; and even Muslims were also claiming to have had visions.

Another book just out this month will also disabuse us of common assumptions today about the supposed origins of "fake news" under Trump. Au contraire, as Gill Bennett suggests in The Zinoviev Letter: the Conspiracy that Never Dies. About this book Oxford tells us this:
This is the story of one of the most enduring conspiracy theories in British politics, an intrigue that still has resonance nearly a century after it was written: the Zinoviev Letter of 1924. Almost certainly a forgery, no original has ever been traced, and even if genuine it was probably Soviet fake news. Despite this, the Letter still haunts British politics nearly a century after it was written, the subject of major Whitehall investigations in the 1960s and 1990s, and cropping up in the media as recently as during the Referendum campaign and the 2017 general election.
The Letter, encouraging the British proletariat to greater revolutionary fervor, was apparently sent by Grigori Zinoviev, head of the Bolshevik propaganda organization, to the British Communist Party in September 1924. Sent to London through British Secret Intelligence Service channels, it arrived during the general election campaign and was leaked to the press. The Letter's publication by the Daily Mail on October 25th 1924 just before the General Election humiliated the first ever British Labour government, headed by Ramsay MacDonald, when its political opponents used it to create a "Red Scare" in the media. Labour blamed the Letter for its defeat, insisting there had been a right-wing establishment conspiracy, and many in the Labour Party have never forgotten it. 
The Zinoviev Letter has long been a symbol of political dirty tricks and what we would now call "fake news". But it is also a gripping historical detective story of spies and secrets, fraud and forgery, international subversion and the nascent global conflict between communism and capitalism.
When the war ended, the armistice was of course signed at Versailles. That treaty is the subject of a recent Oxford UP book by Michael Neiberg, The Treaty of Versailles: A Concise History. I look forward to reading it in due course.

But Versailles was preceded by half a year of hard slogging among various powers in Paris. That process was covered by the superlative and unsurpassable book by  Margaret Macmillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. which I have read three times with delight. It has justly won several awards.

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