Courtesy of Adam Hochschild
Courtesy of Adam Hochschild
Almost a century ago, world powers fought an unexpectedly destructive war thatwe call World War I now. During the conflict, between 1914 and 1918,it was called the Great War, and described by President Woodrow Wilson as “the war to end all wars.” Rather than ending war, the seeds of future conflicts were sown on the battlegrounds of this bloody conflagration that left millions of soldiers and civilians dead and empires in ruin.
At least 8.5 million soldiers died on all fronts and more than 21 million were wounded, according to conservative estimates. According to some accounts, civilian deaths were even higher. The British alone lost 722,000 soldiers killed, and the combat death toll was half again as many for Austria-Hungary, roughly double that number for France and Russia, and nearly triple that for Germany. Despite the unceasing carnage and powerful voices decrying the war, by its conclusion in 1918, a majority of the citizens in each of the warring countries continued to support the war effort.
In his new book, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Adam Hochschild presents a unique history of the First World War by focusing particularly on the moral drama in Britain. Hochschild will read from his book Tuesday (Sept. 20) at the Seattle Public Library's Central Library.
Hochschild contrasts the lives of those who ardently welcomed and initiated the war as a noble crusade with those who saw the war as absolute madness and decried the brutalizing endeavor despite the high price of resistance. He tells stories of a war that divided friends, work mates and even prominent families such as the devoted pacifist woman whose brother was commander-in-chief on the Western Front, and the sisters who fought together for women’s suffrage before the war but split on the war and published newspapers that attacked each other. And Hochschild recounts vividly the human cost of the Great War.
Critics have praised To End All Wars for its unique perspective, engaging storytelling and painstaking research. Renowned poet and human rights activist Carolyn Forche’ wrote: “In prose as compelling as a masterful novel, Hochschild illuminates the lives of those who consigned millions to oblivion, and also introduces us to those who fiercely opposed the carnage — those who imagined, as we might, that the world could be otherwise.”
Hochschild’s other books include Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son; King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, a finalist for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award. and Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award in Nonfiction and winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History. He is a co-founder of Mother Jones magazine and teaches narrative writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. Hochschild recently discussed To End All Wars and its resonance now by telephone from his home in Berkeley.
Robin Lindley: Did To End All Wars grow out of your previous work on human rights history as in King Leopold’s War and Bury the Chains?
Adam Hochschild: I do like to write about times and places where there were people struggling for what they believe in, and this was another instance of that. At the same time, I had been fascinated with World War I for many years, as many people are, because of the destructiveness of the war and because of the contrast between that and the expectations of quick victory and quick glory with which both sides began. And I had personal connections that I write about in the book.
Robin Lindley: What were your personal connections?
Adam Hochschild: An uncle of mine by marriage — he married my aunt — was a veteran of the war. He was a Russian and fought in the Russian army on the ground and in the air as a fighter pilot. He then fought on the losing side in the Russian civil war, and then he came to the United States and went to work as the chief test pilot for his schoolmate, Igor Sikorsky. I heard him talk about his First World War experiences and met friends of his who were also veterans.
My father was of military age at the time of the First World War and tried very hard to get into the U.S. Army. He was bitterly disappointed when he was turned down because he had bad eyesight, although he did succeed in getting into uniform in World War II.
So the war was always a presence in our family. My mother had several cousins she was very fond of who were killed in the First World War. It was always a history people talked about in our household.
Robin Lindley: Many readers may be surprised that farmers are still digging up corpses from the war and live shells almost a century old continue to injure and kill people on the Western Front.
Adam Hochschild: That’s right. The numbers are so enormous. Just on the Western Front in France and Belgium, which was by no means the only front in this World War, where the fighting was concentrated in this narrow strip of territory for four and a half years, more than 700 million artillery and mortar shells were fired. They estimate that about 15 percent of them were duds that didn’t go off, and they’re still going off today when a farmer’s plow hits them or when someone digs down, so people are still being killed today.
Robin Lindley: So you have casualties from the First World War almost a century later. In your book, you contrast the stories of militarists and war resisters, particularly in Britain. Can you talk about your plan for your unique history of the war?
Adam Hochschild: I was really interested in two things. One was the people who made the war: the generals, the prime ministers, the war ministers and so on who planned and directed the fighting. Why did they think that the next battle would be the victorious one? Why did they think at the beginning victory would be quick and easy? Why did they think that cavalry would play a major role in the age of the machine gun and barbed wire?
The other type of person I was interested in were the war resisters who, for whatever reason, felt that this war was madness and that it was not worth fighting and not worth the risk of millions of lives, and they spoke out loudly and clearly.
That struggle between those who thought the war was a noble and necessary crusade and those who felt it was absolute madness took place in all the warring countries, but it was by far the most intense in Britain because Britain, unlike France and Belgium for example, had not been attacked at the beginning of the war and many people felt: why should we fight? More than 20,000 men of military age refused to go into the British Army. Many of them as a matter of principle also refused the alternative service offered to conscientious objectors such as driving an ambulance at the front or working in a war factory. And so, more than 6,000 of them went to prison.
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