Books in the Background 2: The Great War

Ron Berman


            Hemingway scholars are tuned to battlefield experience of the Great War, especially as described by Paul Fussell (The Great War and Modern Memory, 1975) and Niall Ferguson (The Pity of War, 1998).   There are excellent passages in Ferguson and in Ian Kershaw's To Hell and Back  (2015) on apologetics for the war in the press, from universities, and by intellectuals. But there is now more emphasis on the connection between beliefs, conditions, and events. Fitzgerald stated in Tender is the Night that the war really took a century to make and depended on "the exact relations that existed between the classes." Such relations and the war's contingent past, are being recovered by recent work.  Margaret Macmillan analyzes the pre-history of the war and provides an archive of letters, declarations, books, and conversations about the beginning of it all, just before 1900.


Macmillan, Margaret. The War That Ended Peace. New York: Random House, 2013.  739pp. $20.00.

            The grail for historians of the turn of century has been the discovery of the war's  cause. There was more than one, and The War That Ended Peace accounts for conflict over colonies by the great powers; the monstrous subjugation of nationalities in central and eastern Europe; alliances that turned into entanglements; an economy that made national budgets useless. Nothing was more important than the incompetence of German, Russian, and Austrian government; and especially intrusions into policy by Tsar Nicholas, Wilhelm II, and varieties of Hapsburgs. From small causes: Wilhelm found a correlative for his Freudian obsession with battleships in Mahan's definition of war as the annihilation of enemy forces. That seemed plausible—if one ignored the costs not of defeat but even of victory at sea. A casualty rate of fifteen per cent is large in an infantry battle but ships can—and do—go down with all hands. Macmillan says that Wilhelm's many reviews of the British Navy nevertheless had an "effect on him . . . much like the first sight of a motor car on Toad in Wind in the Willows: 'Glorious, stirring sight!'" (99).  That might have been the right reaction to the battle of Tsushima a half-generation earlier. It might never lead directly to, say, the Battle of Jutland.  But a new class of military bureaucrats like Admiral Alfred Tirpitz had the budget and enjoyed the social and intellectual standing of expert functionaries. The daydreams of rulers became memoranda which became files which inexorably became "plans" for the movement of troops or the acquisition of colonies. It proved more difficult to change a plan than make a policy. Eventually, the role of bureaucracy was to give rational expression to irrational desires. Even Moltke, Chief of the General Staff, realized that his ingenious invasion plan--altogether splendid on paper--might not really work.    

            The fiction of Fitzgerald and Hemingway depicts the world before 1920 with great accuracy.  Both strongly argued that the past was responsible for the failings of the present. Macmillan agrees: "Too often when we look back at the Europe of that last decade of peace, we see the prolonged golden summer of another, more innocent age. In reality European pre-eminence and the claims of European civilization to be the most advanced in human history were being challenged from without and undermined from within” (250-51). Macmillan writes of a compliant press, as does Niall Ferguson, but concentrates even more on manipulated "news" accepted as truth by readers;  and the intentional deception of governmental decrees. And there were indirect effects.  Macmillan’s account of the cultural life of diplomats shows that they were not removed from public illusions but shared in the general packaging of ideas.  Even after the war, they applied ideas of 1914 to events in 1919.

            She uses materials like the diaries of Count Harry Kessler, possibly the most social being in Europe of his time. Macmillan notes that he had some ten thousand entries in his address book.  He was a patron of the arts, personally familiar with Diaghilev, Shaw, Rilke, and Mahler. Kessler also knew the political favorites of the Kaiser's court and was one himself. He supported the war but when it was over and he returned to his house in Weimar and went over the things that chronicled his life--figures of Mailliol, mementos of the Russian Ballet, books given to him by Oscar Wilde and Robert de Montesquiou, scripts and letters and notes from the men and women in his life—he suddenly understood the recent course of history.  These artifacts showed that the old culture had failed to include the war in its imagination.  He suspected that the new dispensation was equally flawed. The tragedy of history might well arise "from the playing at shepherds and the light spirit of Boucher and Voltaire" (641). It wasn't that Grand Opera had caused the war but that Europe played with ideas that shaped a vision of reality.

            Hemingway experienced the war directly on the Italian front.  Those important to him intellectually—Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein—were already writing before the war. Their view of life was necessarily affected by living through events from the long, slow Russian catastrophe to Sarajevo. Hemingway's journalism indicates how much he knew about the period after the war, from Mussolini's Rome to secularized Istanbul. His African stories are in themselves a distant consequence of Versailles in their awareness of Kenya as a mixed world of ancient tribes living within a British dependency unhappily open to American money.  The long slide into the war, the war itself, and the world experienced after Versailles all combined to make up his viewpoint. A Farewell to Arms is about love and war—and also about European history from Napoleon and Metternich to the rise of Fascism.

            Few sources are more helpful for the long view than  Macmillan's companion volume, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (2001). It has been much reviewed, serving as a bridge between the causes of  the Great War and the consequences of the peace. The book concludes, as do many current histories, that Versailles may well have been a vast entertainment in a Hall of Mirrors; but it was not entirely responsible for the embattled future.  It showed the inability of western elites to solve the problems of rewarding victors and punishing losers; and in fact continued the kind of thinking that had led to the war. Macmillan is especially clear on the willful confusion of self-interest and morality. As ever, politicians wanted badly to please electorates and remain in office. So diplomats considered the map of the world with doubts, anxieties, and inhibitions—but carved it up  anyhow. However, she concludes that although Versailles did not solve the results of the First World War, agents of the twenties and thirties themselves failed to prevent the Second.  Here is how Macmillan puts the case: "Eighty years later the old charges about the Paris Peace Conference still have a wide circulation. 'The final crime,' declared The Economist in its special millennium issue, was  'the treaty of Versailles, whose harsh terms would ensure a second war'.  That is to ignore the actions of everyone—political leaders, diplomats, soldiers, ordinary voters—for twenty years between 1919 and 1939” (493). War weariness was not the only theme of the age and writers from 1919 to the thirties well understood their own times.  

            From his coverage of the Genoa Conference in 1922 to "Notes on the Next War" of 1935 Hemingway showed his awareness of what he called "the temporary peace." In fact, Macmillan cites him at length for taking a more intelligent position on "the Greek adventure in Asia Minor" than Lloyd George (452).  Hemingway's account of the terrible retreat becomes part of her own description of the exodus of shopkeepers, farmers, priests, old men and women, and Greeks from Turkey who had long forgotten their own language, stumbling "into a new country unable to feed and house them." 

Ron Berman 01/26/2016

How to cite this blog in MLA 8: 

Author's Last Name, Author's First Name. "Title of Post."  THR Blog, The Hemingway Foundation and Society, Date blog was published, Link to blog entry (omit http:// or https://).