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Impact of first global conflict examined in stimulating tome

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This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War (1914-1918), one of the principal catastrophes of human history.

Originally, the conflict was known as the Great War, but it was designated as the First World War with the emergence of the second global inferno a generation later.

British historian David Reynolds's readable account is not a history of the First World War per se; it is, rather, a study of the influence of the war on subsequent history, with an emphasis on the British experience.

He has produced a wide-ranging narrative that encompasses politics, diplomacy, colonialism, economics, art, literature, architecture and film.

As a direct result of the war, three historic European empires -- the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German -- collapsed. In Russia, the Bolsheviks were to assume power; they advocated worldwide revolution.

British society, however, largely avoided this turmoil, effecting a smooth transition to a mass democracy in the postwar era.

Reynolds's explanation of Britain's relative stability is one of the most interesting aspects of his argument.

In 1918, Britain greatly expanded its electorate. Most men over 21, and most women over 30, could now vote, a policy that was a result of the war effort. But, as Reynolds observes, no one could foresee the political consequences of this reform.

While there was some unrest among British workers between 1918 to 1920, the strikes were economic, rather than political, in motivation -- and the coalition government that ruled Britain sought to mollify discontent.

Indeed, the fact that coalitions ruled Britain for much of the period during and between the world wars was another factor in promoting British stability.

There was, however, an exception: Ireland, which, from 1916 to 1923, fought a war of independence and then a civil war.

The influence of the Great War could also be seen in British planning for a new war in the 1930s. Responding to ominous developments in Europe, British military strategists focused on the air defence of Britain. The British public, they realized, would not countenance sending another mass army to the continent, which had witnessed so much carnage between 1914 and 1918.

Reynolds also devotes considerable attention to how the experience of the Second World War affected public understanding of the First. As he writes, "For most of the nations involved the two world wars became symbiotic, with each understood in the light of the other."

Reynolds's effort is a commendable, if somewhat prolix, account of the impact of the First World War on European history and of the changing public perceptions of the war developed throughout the 20th century.

However, this book has one flaw: it is replete with academic tropes about "the Other" (always capitalized) and the "social construction" of narratives. One would think that Reynolds, an established historian, could avoid these trendy platitudes, but academics are a conformist lot.

Still, The Long Shadow is a timely exploration that stimulates new thinking about the meaning of what contemporaries called the Great War.

 

Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2014 G7

History

Updated on Saturday, July 26, 2014 at 8:24 AM CDT: Formatting.

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