Here come the 100-year retrospectives and revisionisms on World War I. Scores of books are planned to commemorate the remorseless battles, the fetid trenches, the mass slaughter, the broad disillusionment, and the grave implications of the conflict that stretched from 1914 to 1918 and haunts us to this day.
But few of those volumes will have the breath and depth of “The Long Shadow,” David Reynolds’s masterly look at what the war meant and how its meaning changed decade by decade.
In this war, the Romanov, Hohenzollern, Habsburg, and Ottoman empires lay in ruins, along with the governing assumptions of the war’s combatants, its politicians, and its poets. The war’s losers were left hungry and living in rubble, the winners haggling over borders of a world remade by violence and reduced to penury.
“The Long Shadow” isn’t a history as much as a meditation on the place of the war in history — and the implications of the war for the future.
In the book’s first half, Reynolds, a Cambridge University historian, examines the seismic geopolitical shifts of the first two decades of the aftermath. He argues that the war produced a fundamental departure in world history: While states such as Germany and Italy, for example, were founded through the unification of various European polities, the new states after World War I were created out of the division of old states or empires.
“A process of state building and national mobilization that had taken decades, even centuries, in Western Europe,” he argues, “occurred almost overnight from the Baltic to the Adriatic, often with horrific violence.”
And while the French justified their loses by reclaiming territory they had earlier lost to Germany, Great Britain had no such tangible byproduct, which is one reason why the war there seemed so worthless, the huge and painful losses of men so pointless, the poetry so hopeless.
In the United States, the rationale for its (late) entry into the war was principle, primarily Woodrow Wilson’s concept of global democracy.
Breaking up the empires brought tumult, trouble, and ultimately another great war. Even so, the British and French empires actually grew and so did, fatefully, Japan’s. These and other betrayals of Wilsonian idealism sent some activists (China’s Mao chief among them) into communism, and the increased role Britain played in the Middle East sowed immense problems that have lingered for decades.
The postwar period was marked by deep reflection and, across Europe, depression, followed of course by the Depression. The conflict known as the Great War for civilization produced a wreckage of civilized values.
In his history’s final portion, focusing on the 20th century’s second half, Reynolds provides a brisk survey of postwar art, literature, and poetry, some of the best known of it viscerally antiwar, but he concludes, darkly, “[u]ltimately the meaning of the War would depend on the persistence of the Peace.”
In one of the most bracing assertions of this volume, he argues that Franklin Roosevelt’s move toward war — his heightened rhetoric, his support of Lend-Lease — represented “a fundamental reinterpretation of America’s war in 1917-18.” Part of it was due to the fact that the fall of France “removed the Western Front that had been central to the Great War.” But he also argues that FDR’s insistence on unconditional surrender, a phrase borrowed from Ulysses Grant and America’s Civil War, was intended to prevent a repeat of Germany’s post-World War I trauma about a “stab in the back” — claims that led to the rise of Hitler and Nazism.
This is history from 30,000 feet, a view that leads Reynolds to argue that Winston Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech in Missouri that reflected the beginning of the Cold War grew more out of worries that America might again, as it did after 1920, turn away from world responsibility than out of worries about Soviet adventurism in Eastern Europe.
He contends, moreover, that the advent of World War II, and the atrocities prosecuted by the Nazis, changed the world’s view of the earlier war. “They helped give the Second World War a moral clarity that the conflict of 1914-18 had lost and never thereafter regained,” he writes.
The decisive end of World War II and the moral superiority of the Allied cause stood in stark contrast with what he calls “the equivocal ending and moral ambiguity of the Great War.” The message is that what followed the war — a fraught peace, a difficult interregnum, the appeasement crisis, another war, the Holocaust, and then the Cold War — changed the world’s view of World War I.
“The Great War,” he argues, “took on a different aspect once it became the First World War, always to be contrasted with the Second.” Reynolds helps us see that changed aspect with clarity, and his book is a warning that our view of the war, and of the world it produced, is itself tentative. History is ever changing, and World War I will change many times before our descendants mark its bicentenary.David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.