Not Only The Great War But Our Perceptions of it Have Created Our Modern World

the-long-shadowDavid Reynolds’ The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century (2014) is one of those rare books that is as good as its press. But it is not a book to be simply read, but to be read and absorbed. The Long Shadow is, as we are told it will be by reviewers, thought-provoking: In its approximately 400 pages, this book explains the huge role played by the Great War in shaping the twentieth century, and even the force it has continued to exert in the twenty-first.

We tend to see the Great War as a monolithic thing, but it was a great many things to a great many different people, from those who experienced it first hand, to those who grew up in its shadow, and to those growing up in a world where the last veteran has died.

And it was a great many different things to the nations that fought it. As Reynolds points out, the twentieth century also shaped the Great War “in its own light, with different nations and eras persistently reinterpreting the conflict through their own preoccupations.”

Great Britain’s direct experience of the war from safely across the channel was very different than that of France, over which trench warfare raged for five years, let alone that of Russia, which saw defeat and civil war (and the resultant consignment of the Great War to ‘ideological oblivion’), or that of Germany, defeated, but in its own mind, not defeated but betrayed. And America, 3,000 miles across the Atlantic, had a different experience altogether.

Not only did these countries deal with staggering numbers of casualties, in dead and wounded and psychologically destroyed, but there was the economic cost, and the societal changes forced on them by years of total war, for example, the expansion of the voting franchise, not only to women, but to men who had found themselves able to fight but not to vote. All that changed. Think about it: Reynolds tells us that a quarter of the adult male population of the UK served in the British army, with an unbelievable 43 percent of those being volunteers.

Whereas before these largely propertyless men could not vote, those who were previously seen as rootless were in the wake of victory now seen as patriotic. As of 1918, all men over 21 and soldiers of any age, Reynolds tells us, could vote (conscientious objectors could not). Then there were the 800,000 women working in the munitions industry, the Rosie and Riveters of their time, called “Tommy’s sister” (a British soldier was a ‘Tommy’).

Not all women, just as not all men, earned the right to vote as a result of the war, but women over the age of 30 who were “householders or their wives” earned the right to vote, as did women university graduates (the vote did not reach the other women until 1928). The problem was, the powers that be did not want an electorate that had more female voters than male because women vote based on emotion and looks, don’t you know.

Change came, but if change was incremental, it was also significant. The world of 1918 and into the 20s and 30s was not the world of 1914. How drastically that post-war world varied depended upon where you lived, safely in America or England, or a ruined Germany or Eastern Europe and Russia, where the end of the Great War did not bring an end to war.


The Great War saw not only fighting on the front lines, but commerce raiding and submarine warfare on the world’s oceans, shortages of food and other resources, strikes, violence in Ireland (to become a war for independence in 1919), and mutinies on the front lines.

As “peace” came in 1918, the West had respite, but Eastern Europe and the Balkans sank into chaos, as did the old Ottoman Empire, and in China, as a result of the Paris Peace Conference, we saw Mao Zedong turn to communism with consequences of which we have yet to see the conclusion.

The Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia made themselves independent (and had to fight to show they meant it) as did Poland. The Ukraine even tried for a short-lived independence but was divided instead at the Paris Peace Conference between Poland and Russia. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia arose out of what had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and in the Balkans, the Great War was more a continuation of a series of Balkan Wars, dating back not to 1914 but to 1912, a Third Balkan War to follow the Second.

The Long Shadow points to the different ways in which the war was remembered as time passed (If you think this sounds strange, look at how quickly we were able to ‘remember’ we were fighting to spread democracy in Iraq rather than for revenge). As Reynolds tells us, what we think of as the “interwar years” between the Great War and World War Two, were the “post-war years” for contemporaries, years whose failures only became apparent after 1939, and he recommends in our attempts to understand that we try to view that period as contemporaries saw them. But after a second world war had begun, some started to see the Great War as only the first part of a thirty years war. The Great War itself became the ‘First World War.’

Only now, he says, is some detachment from the conflict possible. From early and strictly nationalist memorials we have seen the rise of ‘remembrance as reconciliation’ with joint monuments to the dead. One of these is at Kobarid (old Caporetto), where, in one of those ironies of history, hundreds of thousands of Italians died or became casualties in a dozen futile battles during the First World War for a slice of real estate that would, as a result of a right wing shift in response to a Marxism unleashed by that war, end up as part of Slovenia after the Second.

The changes wrought on America, and by America on the world, were also extensive, and we are feeling their effects still (as is Iraq). The World was the recipient of the idea of being made “safe for democracy,” what Reynolds calls the “Wilsonian vision.” For America, the Great War became the first phase of American leadership, with the Second World War finishing the task. And the Great War, which had been seen as a mistake before the Second World War, now was reinterpreted as a “stepping stone” and a “second chance” to spread democracy.

And it’s not only what we did to the world with this second chance, but what we did to ourselves. Europe faced firsthand the spread of Marxism, and on the continent the response was a rise of an equally diabolical right-wing fascism, but as Reynolds points out, though the United States withstood Marxism, “the backlash against alien radicalism was in its own way destabilizing. Wartime ‘100% Americanism’ and the postwar Red Scare, though a brief spasm, laid the basis for a Manichean ideology of hyperpatriotism and vehement animosity toward the political left.”

When we think of recent Republican efforts to delegitimize all things Democrat, we must realize that this demonization has, by now, a century-long history.

The Great War has cast a long shadow indeed, and we are living with its effects today, but as much from the defects of our understanding of the war as because of the real changes it wrought. We must seek to understand the past, but realize that through our understanding, we are also shaping it through the lens of the present, because we have no other perspective from which to view it.

It is all too easy, as events have proved, to put a spin on the past to serve the needs of the present. All countries have done it, but there are real lessons here for Americans of today, badly in need of an antidote to that Manichean ideology born of a war none of us remember and about which many of us remain in ignorance.

17 Replies to “Not Only The Great War But Our Perceptions of it Have Created Our Modern World”

  1. We are still living and dying today with one consequence of European arrogance and greed. The Middle East.

    From Palestine, Turkey, the Kurds and the mother of all clusterfuk, Iraq.

    Maybe the only answer to fix it is to look at the Balkans and eastern Europe where each nationality formed their own country

  2. I began reading about WWI in August last year when I realized that it was 100 years ago that it had begun. First, Tuchman’s August 1914 (formerly The Guns of August) and then Keegan’s The First World War, which I just finished. This will be a nice counterpoint to those two works. Thanks for the excellent essay and the recommendation.

  3. Without World War I, there could have been no World War II, and not just numerically. And perhaps, if the United States had stayed out of the First World War, we might have seen a stalemate and a series of constitutional monarchies, instead of what we did see. Yet the U.S. would likely have remained the cultural backwater to which we look like returning, and if women had gotten the vote, it would likely have been much later.

  4. I was a big fan of Tuchman’s book when I read it and had thought recently of replacing my long-lost copy.

    But Reynolds does not have much good to say of Tuchman’s work, stating that it “left much to be desired,” and that her “afterward reads like an afterthought, added to satisfy a publisher’s demand for ‘relevance.'”

    However, he does point out its positive role in Kennedy’s resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

  5. Reynolds discusses many scholars (not just Tuchman, above) and one of them has suggested that it would have been better for Britain to let Germany have its way in WWI, because the Kaiser’s Germany was preferable to Hitler’s Germany (Hitler would have spent his life painting postcards) and that Europe would have developed the equivalent of the European Union regardless. An interesting, if unprovable, perspective to be sure.

  6. Although historical fiction Ken Follet’s “Fall of Giants” and “Winter of the World” offer considerable insight to how these events developed. There are a number of people who consider Wilson the worst President this country ever had for many reasons not the least of which was entangling the US in the WW1. Interesting fact, Edward Bernays was quite influential with the Wilson administration and the promotion (selling of) WW1 to the masses. I believe he even went to the Paris Peace Conference with Wilson. HH great essay.
    Thank you,

  7. Great article HH. Ken Follet’s “Winter of the World” and “Fall of Giants offer some interesting insight into this period as well as being great reads.

  8. There are many who consider Wilson to be one of the worst Presidents this country has ever had between getting us into WW1 to the creation of the Federal Reserve. Interestingly his administration worked with Edward Bernays to help “sell” the idea of promoting democracy in Europe to the American people. As I recall Wilson even invited Bernays to the Paris Peace Conference.Our government is still using these same techniques today selling us on the war in Iraq and the war on terror

  9. The very problem is we are a living in a generation that really has no idea what war is. The oldest generation remembers WW2. My generation remembers Vietnam vividly as we were treated to it nightly, and we seen the people we graduated with come home with drug problems, and a form of insanity we could never understand.
    And now we have Iraq. A sterile war. One that when seen on TV was made up of the same stock footage every time. War today is something the republicans can say should happen and none of this generation has a clue what it means. They cant even accept the debt produced by a republican war. It didnt happen. War is a piece of cake.
    The republicans and the tea thugs want a war against muslims. They dont stop to think that todays(theirs) kids will have to fight that war. It wont be real till they see their kids coming home in a box. But until then, war is just a piece of cake

  10. Sorry I meant to post this here.

    I couldn’t agree more. Anyone who voted for the authorization of war should have to do so with the thought that one of their children would have to fight in that war. Sadly that is not how our politicians think. Many consider soldiers cannon fodder. Smedley Butler offers good insight to this after WW1 in his book “War is a Racket.”

  11. Wilson was both a good and a bad President, but one whose better ideas were impeded by Congress and whose worse ones were vitiated by a series of strokes. After the most catastrophic of them, Mrs. Wilson was carrying out most of his duties.

  12. Powerful writer, agreed, but Fussell did observe in 2000 of his “The Great War and Modern Memory,” that his work was not scholarship but “an elegiac commentary” – in other words, a work of “art” rather than “history”

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