Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Great War: The War to End All Wars by Russell Freedman

European powers had been fighting one another for centuries, but as 1914 began, Europe was at peace.... There were blood ties linking Europe's royal houses. Except for France and Switzerland, every nation in Europe was a monarchy, and almost every European head of state to was related to every other.

Most Europeans looked forward to a peaceful future. 'The world is moving away from military ideals,' declared the influential British journal Review of Reviews, 'and a period of peace, industry, and world-wide friendship is dawning.' It was easy enough to ignore the rivalries and suspicious among Europe's great powers that spelled trouble ahead.

Indeed, the kingdoms of Europe had close family ties, many through the notably fecund Queen Victoria. Her grandson Kaiser Wilhelm dashed off affectionate, handwritten "Dear Nicky," notes to Czar Nicholas, married to Victoria's granddaughter Alexandra, signing them "Your very sincere and devoted cousin Willy." George V of England also penned personal notes to Willy and Nicky, and Spain's Queen Ena, also one of Victoria's grandchildren, was cousin to Kaiser Wilhelm, George V, and Alexandra of Russia.

Underneath these bonds of blood and marriage, however, there were powerful disruptive forces at work, forces brought about through the divisions of territory and the separation of ethnic groups following previous wars and the inevitable conflict of mercantile and colonial interests around the world. These rivalries led to an arming of Europe which Czar Nicholas lamented. "The accelerating arms race" he said, would transform "the armed peace into a crushing burden that weighs on all nations and, if prolonged, will lead to the very cataclysm it seeks to avert." Although most of the kingdoms of Europe were nominal democracies of one sort or another, nationalistic and ethnic loyalties trumped the powerful drive for peace and prosperity and the ties of friendship and blood, leading to an essentially European tribal conflict, another "cousins' war." like many before it. Eventually almost all of Europe, their far-flung colonies, and their American cousins as well were drawn into what came to be called The World War.

It began with two deaths, the bloody shooting by Serbian nationalists of the presumed heir and heiress to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Germany's closest ally, on June 28, 1914. Fearing an uprising by the ethnic Serbians within their patchwork nation, the Austria-Hungarian throne had reason to fear that the Russians would intervene in the interest of their Slavic brothers. Soon, despite desperate diplomatic intervention and the private pleadings of the royal cousins, the nations of Europe took sides in the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, and the Triple Entente, which eventually included England, France, and Russia. Both sides felt they were defending national honor and territory and were certain the war would be a short one. Before the fighting began, a German soldier wrote home confidently:

"It is a joy to go to the Front with such comrades. We are bound to be victorious! My dear ones, be proud that you live in such times and in such a nation, and that you too have the privilege of sending several of those you love into this glorious struggle."

But because of their rearmament with fearsome new weapons--the Maxim gun, tanks, flamethrowers, poison gas, long-range artillery ("Big Berthas"), and the airplane--during the early years of the twentieth century, the opposing forces quickly fell into stalemates along several fronts, and their fearsome battles that slaughtered hundreds of thousands on both sides still ring in memory and dot the landscape with vast burial grounds--"the Great Retreat" across Belgium, the battles of the Marne, Nueve-Chappelle, Verdun, the Somme, Chateau Thierry, Gallipoli, Belleau Wood. Meanwhile, the German U-boat blockade of England threatened the populace with slow starvation, and in the process of shipping food and war materiel, the United States was finally drawn into the conflict after the sinking of the passenger liners Lusitania and Laconiaia. With the aid of the Americans under General Pershing and the exhaustion of German manpower and war production, by 1918 the Battles of Saint-Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne were decisive for the Allies. The Russian Empire had already fallen to the Red Revolution and cousins Nicky and Alexandra were dead. Germany was on the brink of internal turmoil, and with cousin Willy abdicating, Germany capitulated, its society and economy in shambles and a generation shattered.

Most of Europe was in similar economic decimation, with over eight million young men dead, the same number missing, and 21 million wounded, many permanently disabled. Society was permanently changed, with women who had replaced the soldiers in the home workforce never again willing to become second-class citizens. Germany was never again a monarchy, and the old boundaries of Europe and its colonies were changed forever. The controversial Treaty of Versailles separated much of the German kingdom and that of Austria-Hungary into rivalrous ethnic enclaves. Even the Ottoman Empire, formerly at some remove from European conflicts, ceased to exist, and the artificially designated states of Iraq and Palestine came into being to haunt their creators.

But was it the "war to end all wars?" President Woodrow Wilson believed that the memory of devastation would enable the League of Nations to ensure that "great and small states alike" would "settle their differences peacefully instead of going to war." But Britain's Lloyd George prophetically warned that this treaty meant that "we shall have to fight another war all over again in twenty-five years." Indeed, George's prediction was overly optimistic: the next war, to be named World War II, came shortly after the twentieth anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles.

Russell Freedman, author of the Newbery Award-winning Lincoln: A Photobiography,(Houghton Mifflin social studies) and the noted Give Me Liberty: The Story of the Declaration of Independence, Children of the Great Depression (Golden Kite Awards (Awards)), The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane, and Immigrant Kids, has, in his latest, The War to End All Wars: World War I (Houghton Mifflin Clarion, 2010), a gripping historical study of the Great War which focuses initially on the political, ethnic, and familial rivalries which led to what was universally agreed to be an unnecessary war, and then turns to graphic descriptions of the horrific trench warfare whose futile "over the top" assaults led to the slaughter of a generation. In his text Freedman alludes only briefly to conflicts and subsequent changes in Europe's distant colonies in Africa and the Middle East and the roles of colonial recruits in the continental conflict, which regrettably limits his attention to the oft-recounted campaigns in western Europe, with opening and closing maps showing the changes wrought only in pre- and post-war Europe and Turkey.

Freedman's final focus, in the closing chapter, "Losing the Peace," succinctly summarizes some of the failures of the armistice--the humiliation of the German people through loss of territory and crushing reparations and the separation of ethnic and language groups in Europe and the Middle East into weak, artificial "nations" within which and among which ethnic rivalries soon festered. Indeed, today's turmoil within the old Ottoman sphere of influence can be traced to that armistice. Despite the incredible devastation of that war, Freedman asserts, "the war to end all wars" failed to solve the problems which caused the initial conflict and imbedded conflicts which led to the next, the even more widespread World War II, and its perilous postwar aftermath up to the present era.

For middle and young adult readers, Freedman's account of it all, The War to End All Wars: World War I, forthcoming August 2, will grab and hold the attention of young readers. Never lapsing into a mere recounting of battles, its primary virtue lies in focusing young readers on the interconnections in the sweep of history in the century just past and perhaps a better understanding of the complexities in solving these same problems and keeping the peace in modern times.

As School Library Journal's reviewer puts it, "Elegantly written and filled with vivid, powerful photographs, this masterful work demands a spot in every collection."

In addition to his Newbery Award, noted American nonfiction writer Russell Freedman has been honored with three Newbery Honor Awards, a National Humanities Medal, the Sibert Medal for young adult nonfiction, the Orbis Pictus Award, and the prestigious Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for lifetime achievement in literature for young people.

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