The Long  Shadow; The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds. W.W. Norton, 2015 paper.


David Reynolds explores how the Great War has shaped the rest of the twentieth century. He notes that by the end of the Second World War, historians were no longer talking about the Great War, but instead were referring to the European warfare between 1914 and 1918 as the First World War, the Second World War 1939-1945, and the years between the two wars became tagged the “Interwar Period.”

The history of the Interwar Years, The Long Shadow, has been well-charted: the Russian Revolution that ended Imperial Russia, the diplomacy surrounding the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations, the rise of nation-states in Eastern Europe to replace empires, the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy, and Spain. These years were also economically unsettling: reparation payments and hyper-inflation in Germany, the coming of the Depression in the US, the rise of the Welfare State in Britain.

Some historians lump the two wars together, including this Interwar period, calling the years from 1914 to 1945 a second “thirty-years war,” referring back to the prolonged warfare in Central Europe in the 1700s.

The death toll from the First World War was huge. Perhaps the most significant consequences of the war were the demographics that followed from that slaughter. Reynolds might have speculated on the impact of the death of so many men in their twenties and thirties in Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany. The loss of so many young men to the Great War’s killing machine affected many families over several generations.

The Great War is remembered for the trench warfare that is characteristic of the French-Belgium front. But the war also was a war of movement, and Reynolds makes that point. The term Blitzkrieg is associated with World War II; the German invasion of France in 1914 was equally and unexpectedly rapid, an earlier Blitzkrieg. Neither the tank nor the plane were important to outcomes in the First World War. But they were introduced. The horse and the cavalry charge disappeared, in favor of infantry armed with machine guns. Bombardment by heavy guns was true of both wars. German submarine warfare was one of the legacies of the Great War. The tank and the heavily armed truck saw their day only in the Second World War.

Reynolds suggests that an entirely appropriate response in the interwar period was pacifism, particularly in Britain. That response is a partial explanation for Neville Chamberlain’s fateful visits to Germany in 1938 to negotiate the agreement, involving the sudetenlanders  – Germans who had been included in Czechoslovakia by the Versailles settlement in 1918. Chamberlain returned from Germany, claiming that the agreement brought “peace for our time.”

Chamberlain and his government were also responding to the German complaint that Versailles had been a dictate and the reparations demanded from Germany too steep and detrimental to the post-war European economy. An eminent British economist, John Maynard Keynes, agreed. Germany paid those reparations with inflated Deutsch marks that further complicated the post-war economies of Central Europe.

How best to demonstrate the inappropriateness of the European imperialism after 1918 is to look at the mandate. The Ottoman Empire’s Middle Eastern lands were divided between France and Britain much to the detriment of an eventual peace in the area. At some point in the midst of the Great War, Britain came to the conclusion that in the future oil would fire its war machine, not Welsh coal and the most likely source of that oil would be the Middle East.

In November 1917 Arthur Balfour, then Foreign Minister in the wartime Conservative Government proclaimed Palestine as the national homeland for European Jewry. He ignored the fact that there was a population of Palestinians that would have to be forced off their lands. Balfour was also hoping that his Declaration would find favor with Russian and American Jews and get the former to pursue its war aims more rigorously and the latter to enter the war on Britain’s side. We now live in the shadow of that diplomacy.

To explain the German war machine’s collapse in 1918, German conservatives came up with the “stab in the back” myth. It was widely believed that the German Army had not lost the War but was instead betrayed by Weimar politicians. This theory was promoted by Erick Ludendorff, a General in the German army, who was given credit for the military victory at Tannenberg early in the Great War, later a prominent nationalist leader, and Paul von Hindenburg, later President of the German Republic.

The last veterans of World War I are gone. Soon there will be no living memory of the Great War. Veterans from World War II will follow them.  How we view that war will be left to the historians and to the rituals of remembrance that are performed by the descendants of those warriors.

When I was growing up in a small Iowa town, honoring those who served in both wars was a yearly Memorial Day ritual. Small flags and bouquets of lilacs were placed on their graves. The high school band played some patriotic tunes, there was a gun salute, and we then retired to our homes for a day off, having remembered for the moment those who had fought in both World Wars. How much longer will these remembrances cast their shadows over our homes and hearts?

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