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.
So much has happened since… and yet I have, or had, a link. When I was very young, I met one of my great grandfathers. The memories are minor and ever fainter now, but I did. I didn’t know it at the time (too young for it to be meaningful anyway) but he had been with an artillery unit (that’s about ALL the detail I know) in WWI.
My father was named for his uncle who died in WWI.
One of our local hair salon owners is named for the Turk who saved his grandfather at the battle of Gallipoli.
My maternal grandfather was still alive (and willing to talk at length) about his experiences, so I have a relatively strong link to the Great War.
Of course, one has to take that with a grain of salt. Both because memories change over fifty years, and the experiences of one American Private were different in quite a few ways from those of his British, French, German, Italian, Austrian, Russian, etc. peers.
Besides being the “small picture” (just as important as the “big picture” to me – Mom was not a “war baby.”)
When one of my family got back from WW1, he turned his bayonet into a carving knife for the Thanksgiving carving knife & fork set. So every year is a reminder of what we’ve been through as a family, to survive and be thankful.
This being the same family that uses the cavalry sword to cut wedding cakes (We lost the dress one, unfortunately, so it’s the working one complete with little nicks left from bones), well, we have our history and our traditions. We are smaller than we once were, but we know who we are and where we came from.
That is a very good use of family heirlooms, and I like it! Functional and ties the family to reminders of where you came from. I hope it continues for generations more.
An appropriate bit of Kipling: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzLjkIKWH6c
I vaguely knew my great-grandfather who was a WWI veteran and prisoner of war. He finally allowed his daughter-in-law to take the dictation of his story of capture and initial imprisonment, but very little beyond that. We have his helmet somewhere…
My grandfather, who has since passed away, was an officer in the Imperial and Royal Army, and had several interesting tales of facing the Imperial Russian Army.
Both my grandfathers served in WW2, in Holland. It’s unlikely, but I’d like to think they might have met, at least briefly.
My greataunt served in WWII The last time the family asked what she did, we were told: Don’t Ask. She had battle stars when her unit was not evacuated from a zone quickly enough, and they went nowhere without riflemen guarding them.
There’s a story there, that’s for sure.
My grandfather slipped out of Germany about 1910, I always figured about two steps ahead of the Kaiser’s press gangs. Came here through Ellis Island, had cousins in the midwest so went there, and did his level best to become an English speaking loyal American citizen. While always fond of the nation of his birth he never ceased expressing his contempt and loathing for the German leaders he blamed for both wars.
Looking at what we’re learning about the days leading up to July 1914, historians really probably should assign multi-party blame. Yes, the Austrians and Germans moved first, but when you read what Russia was doing and saying in June and July, and what the French wanted (or rather, the French military. Not all of their civilian leaders were quite so eager. But some were.)… I tell my students it’s starting to appear that the “blame” for WWI should be about 40/40/10/5/5.
But Gavrilo Princip still shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand. That all historians agree on at the moment.
Part of the “Fun” of the lead-up to WWI was all of the mobilization of the militaries involved.
It took a certain amount of time to mobilize troops, more time to demobilize and nobody wanted to be the first nation to demobilize.
Imagine the “fun” of one of those nations if they demobilized only for their enemy to launch an attack.
Mind you, I “put” the blame on the politicians of all sides. 😦
The old “wisdom” that the alliances were to blame (to some extent) has been poo-pooed of late, but it certainly looks true. As tensions rose, the multi-party maneuvering became frantic, with no one wanting to be the nation what got steam-rolled because they didn’t have enough allies, and yet not wanting to be part of the team to start something that everyone sensed would be bigger than the recent unpleasantness.
So, they wove the fuses around and between the powder barrels, ensuring that a single match would set the whole thing off.
Russia’s insistence on Slavic solidarity, especially with a Slavic country with which it had no border (Serbia) and which had a history of mischief-making, makes the Czar’s government most responsible.
Unfortunately, I think WWI was inevitable, and costly, due to the culture of the time, and situation (extreme nationalism, rise of Germany/decline of France, technological advances, and mass armies (which goes back to nationalism / stronger central governments)), and Europe had been relatively peaceful for about 100 years, since Napolean’s defeat, and people forgot what war was like. Reading some first hand accounts is quite illuminating.
War is not the worst evil (unfortunately it’s often necessary to defend yourself/city/country/civilization), but many wars were stupid and destructive, with WWI being the worst example.
My grandmother (Mom’s mother) remembered the end of WWI vividly, even though she was only five years old. My grandfather, her future husband, would have only been about twelve that year, so too young to go in the military (and when WWII came around, he was farming, and I imagine they figured that was more important than another warm body in the trenches; a good thing, since he had four small children by then). I don’t know where my other grandparents were; they were just a little bit older than Mom’s parents, but Grandpa would still have been too young to join the military.
There was a WWII propaganda discussion where I read of a story where one woman was advising another about how to cheer up her boyfriend who was not called up because he was working on the family farm. The advice, of course, revolved about reminding him that it was war work.
My mother’s father and one of his brothers were in vital industries (oil patch) and couldn’t enlist in WWII. They were also too old. Other brothers and uncles did serve.
My great uncle was 4-f during WWII… but offered that he could whip any rank Sargent or below- and they let him enlist. He wound up as an Army Aircorp gunnery trainer.
My Grandfather was in the Canadian artillery at Ypres for the First Gas Attack, and lived.
He was hit by the shrapnel of an artillery shell at the Somme, and lived. Barely, according to the stories.
But he survived the treatments for his wounds. He lived to be 96 years old, and passed in 1986.
He drank whiskey, took snuff and smoked a pipe the whole time, and never gave a good goddamn about most anything the whole rest of his life, except for this family and his garden. He love his peach tree, and his roses, and his sons, his grandchildren.
He never told us any of the stories growing up. Never talked about it. My brother finally got it all out of him when he was well into his 90’s, so it is written down and save for posterity.
But what I remember most about him is that he didn’t value money or pride or position. He liked his house, car, things like that, but he didn’t fuss about them. Mostly when I went to see him he wanted to know what I was doing, he’s show us the flowers, the peach tree, and let us play. The Old Man was happy to be alive, right to the end.
Therefore, in my life, I’ve tried to be more like him. He learned those lessons the hard way, I’ve been able to avoid most of the -huge- mistakes I could have made by following his example.
So far, so good.
Sounds much like my grandfather, although mine was willing to tell the stories (at night, when he couldn’t be putzing around with gardening, concrete work, iron work, carpentry…).
Nope, he never told until we were grown up. Same with my uncles, they went all the way through WWII. One of them was in Sicily. Never said shit about it, except the one who was in Sicily had a funny story about running a jeep into a Stag Hound armored car.
They didn’t want us to know what it was like.
I found out why from a Korea vet. I’ll never forget what he said. “When you kill somebody, you don’t feel bad. You say ‘where’s the next son of a bitch I’m gonna kill?’ But then later, after the war is over, then you feel it.”
Two generations of men going through life with that on their backs, matched by the crushing guilt of the men who didn’t go.
My father is 92. He was a year too young to go. He was in Basic in 1945 when VE day came, and never saw the elephant. 60 years later he still feels it.
But now we have the SJWs pissing on their monuments and tearing down their statues. I wonder if they realize what monster they’re trying to wake up?
There are two lovely children’s books by Kate Seredy about life in Hungary before and during WWI; they have a very different perspective – and one that will break your heart.
My mother once told me that the reason Armistice Day was November 11 was that it is the Feast of Saint Martin and both the French and the Germans celebrated him. That meant that they would both celebrate something on that day. She’s the only one who ever said this to me. Saint Martin was one of the first saints who wasn’t a martyr, although he had been a soldier. He went on from cutting his cloak in half to being a hermit and being dragged out of it by the Pope who sent him to be bishop of Tours.
I’ve also heard that one reason why the Russians got so involved is that they felt it their duty to protect and defend all the Orthodox. They called Moscow the Third Rome so Serbia was their little brother. Interesting, since now the Ukrainians are breaking away and taking Kiev (which is the motherland of the Russian Orthodox identity) with them.
Just by the way — My mother was born in March of 1918 when the flu epidemic had started. The doctor was too busy to come so my grandfather was the midwife — and at that, was probably pretty good. There are lots of stories in my family but nothing about him and WWI. On the other side my grandfather and a great uncle were in the war; my grandfather was a doctor but again there are NO stories about it. And there are stories about everything else. My father was a mathematician and the army wouldn’t let him enlist during WWII. They said his brain was way too valuable and his hands were way too stupid.
Most of them have died of old age, but I used to see lots of very elderly women in Vienna and in parts of Germany with bowed legs because of malnutrition from WWI, the inter-war years, and WWII. Red Cross workers who got to Vienna in 1919 were horrified by the stunting and malnutrition. “zu hamstern,” to go hamstering, was the verb that described people from the cities and larger towns racing out into the countrysides to find anything they could eat.
Wasn’t Audrey Hepburn very tiny as a result of poor food during WWII?
Another children’s book to look at for this is The Winged Watchman. It describes the city people going to the country to find food at one point…
My Dad lived on a farm in upstate NY. He said during the depression city folks, and it was a small city, Corning, NY, dropped their kids off at farms, sort of like puppies. They knew that their children would at least be able to eat regularly and knew they’d have to do stuff to support the enterprise. It would be stuff like feeding calves, gathering eggs, whatever. Their children would be fed and grow up better than if they’d stayed in the urban environment.
I actually met one of the drop offs at my Dad’s memorial service. As members of a species we are morally obligated to to take care of each other so long as it doesn’t become self destructive as that does no one any good.
Let us wise up – we are so affluent we cannot begin to comprehend what our ancestors did to this point where we’re sitting at computer screens jabbering at each other with absolutely no concern about where our 2,000 calories for tomorrow will come from.
God Bless Capitalism – it keeps me fat and worry free.
My great-grandfather was too young for WW1, and by the time WW2 rolled around, was ‘critical personnel’ at C&O.
My grandfather was in the German army in WW1 and was in some of the big battles. He hid in a basement during WW2 and survived in the middle of Berlin. I have his dog tags and the Jewish star he wore. His son, my father, was in the British Army in WW2, having escaped on the kindertransport. His wife, my grandmother, lost something like 4 brothers in ww1.
Once, when I was 18 and they had just passed the law enabling 18yr olds to vote, I pulled a long volunteer afternoon at the local Republcan HQ, and the other volunteer during a long, dull day of stuffing envelopes was a gentleman in his 90ies – who nonetheless, still looked very fit and able. He began telling yarns about his youth to pass the time – and it turned out that he grew up in Montana on a ranch, and went to a one-room schoolhouse. And he had been a cavalryman in the Army before WWI – when there were real horses involved. He had been in the punitive expedition which went after Pancho Villa, after Pancho Villa was so inconsiderate as to raid into the United States. Then one day in 1917, he got called into his commanders’ office, was promoted to lieutenant and told that he was going to France.
I knew at the time that he was an interesting person, and only wish that I had asked more questions and ran a tape recorder.
Understanding the Great War, and the before & after effect, is the single most important thing to know before one can hope to understand the world today.