A historian and novelist’s musing on history, fiction, and a milestone date.
The guns on the Western Front stopped firing one hundred years ago today. I am one link away from WWI, in that I have a friend and a supervisor who both knew relatives who participated in that conflict.
In some ways, the century that separates us from the end of WWI is amazingly short, because of the longer lifespans that developed in part because of medical technology and practices that arose from warfare in the 20th Century, and in part because of the documentation of that war. In other ways, it is hugely long. The world changed far faster between 1918 and 2018 than in most of the rest of human history.
One problem with the history of WWI is that getting a good overall picture is relatively easy, especially if each volume focuses on a single theater of the war. We in the States and Britain tend to forget that there was a whole separate conflict raging from 1914-1920 in the east and south. Longer, if you include the Russian civil war. But getting an individual perspective, how did the war change life, that’s harder. That’s a place where fiction can really shine, if it is done well. The stresses, the hunger, the certainty that turned into uncertainty and then anger, the sense that something was amiss but not certain what had gone wrong, the terrible loss of faith in G-d and institutions… We can read historians but to live it, to see what it meant for ordinary people, well, fiction can help a great deal.
One of the things that stood out in reading about the period from 1914-1939 was the mis-application of blame. Ordinary Austrians, Hungarians, and Germans assumed that the British, French, and Americans were manipulating their currencies to destroy the schilling, koruna, and mark, not their own governments causing the problem. After all, in the past, that’s what had happened, so it was the same thing this time, right? And it was those same outsiders who were buying up valuables and anything else people could sell for food and fuel. Looking back, we shake our heads because we can see where the problem was. Ordinary people at the time couldn’t see it so clearly, especially in Germany. In Austria, a few people realized early on that having twice the government employees for a country less than a quarter the size of the old Habsburg Empire and paying all of them very well (at first), while having no national source of income… didn’t lead to fiscal success. The government then in power did not care to listen to that information and really, in some ways, could not have acted on it at all if their wanted to, because they were trying to stave off complete chaos.
We writers can tell that story.
With the centenary of the First World War, a lot more material about all aspects of the conflict has emerged. Things look far more complicated now than they did [cough cough] years ago when I first learned about WWI. In some ways it is far easier as a fiction writer and researcher to do a good book on WWI, and to play with the “What ifs…” for alternate history. In some ways it is confusing as heck, because things are more muddled, even for Americans. We had a relatively short, good war, or so the post WWII generations thought. Or did we?
The hard part is trying to keep the story from turning grim-dark, especially if your characters continue on after 1918-1919. I struggled with the ending of Against a Rising Tide because of what really happened. Happily, the alternate reality of the Cat Among Dragons and The Powers was such that I could play with things and leave the world a little better than it actually was.
WWI’s echoes ring much stronger and longer than most of us recognize. The death of Christian faith for so many people, the terrible mental scars left on people, the lingering resentment and desires for revenge, the sense that the future can’t be worth anything other than grasping for material comfort and supporting anyone who can promise those, the shattering of trust in cultural institutions… What stepped into those voids is something the world is still trying to sort out.
Today is Veterans Day in the United States, Armistice Day and Remembrance Day elsewhere. And the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, the Great War, the War to End All Wars. Or the start of the second phase of Europe’s Second Thirty-Years-War.
New Release Book Plug: The third in an alternate-history series, Against a Rising Tide continues the story of István Eszterházy as he struggles to cope with family duties, his loyalty to House Habsburg and the Habsburg Confederation, and an enemy who will burn the world in order to destroy everything István holds dear.