Tag Archives: World War I

Reflections After Reading THE WAR THAT ENDED PEACE by Margaret MacMillan

This year, 2018, marks the final centenary of World War I. Margaret MacMillan’s sober rendition, not of the war itself, but of the numerous small decisions that led to that war, makes chilling reading, especially given today’s political climate and the possibility of nuclear annihilation.

Underneath a picture of Wilhelm II, the German leader under whose reign World War I took place, is McMillan’s description: “Wilhelm II was vain, bombastic, and neurotic. This photograph, taken when he was a young man, shows something of the insecurity which lurked behind the bristling mustache . . . ”

Substitute a flowing yellow hairstyle for the mustache, and I can’t help but think of Donald Trump.

MacMillan writes further of the German leader: “He did not like being contradicted and did his best to avoid those who disagreed with or wanted to give him unwelcome news.”

The War That Ended Peace stuns the reader with the shortcomings of most of the leaders during this period. We marvel at how eager they were to subjugate smaller nations, to spend huge sums on weapons, and to believe that their nation must dominate all others.

The last few sentences of MacMillan’s book are a brilliant summation of the period:

“And if we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things: First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.”

Today’s Glorious Autumn; Echos of Another Fragile Season

In western Washington State, we are enjoying one of the most beautiful autumns in several years. The maple tree across the street has retained that brilliant scarlet, known only in autumn, far longer than I thought possible.

I hold on to the beauty a bit tighter because of several novels I have read recently, set around the First World War. The years 2014 to 2018 mark one-hundred-year anniversaries of events in that war. Today’s authors have written a number of novels in that time frame.

A Fine Summer’s Day, by Charles Todd, is one of them, set mostly in the months just before the war began. The book sets the stage for the post-war Ian Rutledge detective novels about a shattered veteran returning to work for Scotland Yard after his traumatic service in that war.

Todd captures the bitter-sweetness of the spring and early summer of 1914, before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, archduke of Austria-Hungary, began the blood-letting.

Young men and women fall in love and plan marriage. Fields are planted as they have been for millennia. Times seem as golden as the trees of this autumn.

Then the war came, a surprise to many Europeans, who thought the modern world had given up that sort of thing. Many of them were positive it would last no more than a few months. They believed their leaders were too wise to allow a prolonged conflict.

Unfortunately, a refusal to understand the limits of human wisdom and an inability to corral national pride contributed to an inhuman slaughter. It did not stop until an uneasy armistice came into effect over four years later.

I hope we do not take our blessings for granted. Humans still make foolish decisions.

My Kind of Escape Reading

My reading is more or less divided into two camps: stretching and escape. Most of my nonfiction is of the stretching variety, magazines and books I read to learn and to encourage ideas.

My fiction tends to be of the escape variety. Recently I’ve discovered a detective series that suits my kind of escape reading. It’s Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge novels. Rutledge is a detective from Scotland Yard, well beloved locale of many British novels.

Rutledge, however, is a wounded hero. He suffered trauma during World War I as a commanding officer for four years. In his imagination, he carries on conversations with one of the men, Hamish, a Scottish soldier Rutledge sent to his death for disobeying orders during the terrible Battle of the Somme.

Seeking to recover from what we now call post traumatic stress disorder—as well as he could recover—Rutledge suffered a broken engagement.

His investigative work is his salvation. He struggles to quiet Hamish’s sometimes accusing voice; yet Hamish provides a foil against which Rutledge can bounce off his theories as he attempts to solve complicated crimes.

Though grim deaths are a part of the plot, violence is not glorified, nor is sensuality.

I enjoy the fight for survival the hero makes, the cynical comments that are honest but not overwhelming, and especially the small lives of villagers and ordinary characters drawn well by the author.

The series is my kind of fiction: realistic, yet not drowning me in despair. Occasional kindness. An imperfect hero, yet with high standards. Bringing me out of my everyday world, but not, as my mother would say, leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth. Enough hope that I check out the next one.

Upping the Permission to Harm

I just finished Dead Wake by Erik Larson, the story of the ocean liner Lusitania’s final voyage. The Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine in 1916, during World War I. Out of 1,959 passengers and crew, 764 survived.

Larson gives poignant details for many of the passengers. We follow survivors as well as ones who perished. He analyzes reasons why the tragedy happened, asking why no ships of the British navy accompanied the liner as it neared England in submarine infested waters.

Mentioned over and over was the belief that no modern nation would sink a non military ship with so many innocent civilians aboard. It reminded me of how often we are deceived into thinking that “civilized” people have passed beyond the barbarity of their ancestors.

When the temptation is great enough, we are apt to condone, if not to conduct, acts of barbarity.

Previously, ships that sank other ships were supposed to warn the targets first so the passengers could escape in lifeboats. The attacker, it was thought, should also pick up survivors.

Submarines, however, were a new form of war, unsuited to the old civilities. If a submarine warned a ship, the ship would escape because ships were faster than subs. And a sub had no room in its crowded compartments for survivors.

Faced with the choice to use their power or see it made useless by the old rules, the subs chose to attack the Lusitania and other civilian ships.

With each conflict, we invent new weapons to harm and less means to protect innocents.