Why the ‘war to end war’ lingers on: The Long Shadow – The Great War and the Twentieth Century

David Reynolds’s superb study of the first World War casts light not only on the 20th century but also on present-day conflicts such as those in Syria and Iraq

Assassination: how a French newspaper showed the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, on June 28th, 1914. Photograph:  Popperfoto/Getty

Assassination: how a French newspaper showed the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, on June 28th, 1914. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty

Sat, Jun 28, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century


David Reynolds

Simon and Schuster

Guideline Price:

As the European Union and the United States struggle to come to grips with the deepening crises in Iraq and Syria, few of their citizens might stop to ponder, on this, the 100th anniversary of the assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb terrorist, that this fateful act has direct ties to the present calamity in the Middle East.

Nor would the average visitor to the deeply moving Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC likely recognise the inspiration that the architect of this stunning tribute to those lost in the United States’ second-longest war drew from another deeply moving war memorial, at Thiepval, in a quiet corner of northwest France. The same lack of awareness about the significance of June 28th, 1914, might be seen in the European Union’s response to the current crisis in Ukraine.

Yet, as the historian David Reynolds reveals in his superb The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century, there is much about the present-day world that has been shaped, and is still being shaped, by the powerful impact of the first World War.

Reynolds divides The Long Shadow into two distinct parts. In the first, entitled “Legacies”, he explores the consequences of the 1914-18 conflict in the two decades that followed. Here, in a conscious effort to see the 1920s and 1930s not as the “interwar period” but rather as “postwar decades”, he examines the political, artistic and cultural dimensions of these years as the generation that lived at the time saw them – before the outbreak of the second World War. In part two of the book, entitled “Refractions”, Reynolds explores how our interpretations, and the consequences, of what the post-1939 generation refers to as the first World War have been altered not only by the second World War but also by the long years of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union that followed.

Succinct view

In the chapter “Nations”, for example, Reynolds reminds us that in 1914 there were only three republics on the continent of Europe but that by 1919 there were 13, thanks in large part to the Great War’s destruction of the four major dynastic empires – the Romanovs, Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns and Ottomans – that had ruled central, eastern and southern Europe for centuries. He also observes that the aspirations of local ethnic nationalists – aspirations that in many cases were brought to life during the course of the war – often had more influence on the turn of events following the conflict than did the 1919-20 machinations of the great powers in Paris or Versailles. In some cases, as with the founding of the new state of Czechoslovakia, this transition was peaceful, but in others, such as in the creation of Poland and the briefly independent Ukraine, it was anything but.

Moreover, as the new states of central and eastern Europe in essence arose out of the collapse of Russian and German power at the end of 1918, their hold on independence was somewhat tenuous: first because the inevitable return of Russian (Soviet) and German strength in the years to come, and second because even though these new states based their legitimacy on the “so-called national principle” and promised to respect minority rights, their complex ethnic and religious make-up did not make for what Reynolds terms “the demography of stability”.

Indeed, Reynolds correctly notes that the principle of national self-determination is an artificial construct that “postulates a unity and coherence that does not exist in any state”. Still, the idea that the “national principle” now superseded dynastic inheritance or empire as the prime test of state legitimacy represented a “seismic shift” in European history.

As is the case with many of the other themes examined in the book, Reynolds argues that the experience in Great Britain differed from what took place on the Continent. Here he notes that the pressures of nationalism in the United Kingdom were more prevalent before the war than after it and that, unlike what took place in central and eastern Europe, the war had the effect of strengthening the bonds between Scotland, England and Wales.

The one major exception, of course, was Ireland, where the events of 1914 and 1916, including the carnage at the Battle of the Somme and the “terrible beauty” born out of the Easter Rising, “had a profoundly divisive effect, generating a war for national independence and a civil war, both of which left deep and enduring scars”.


In Russia the crisis of 1917-18 ignited the Bolshevik revolution and the rise of the world’s first communist state, while the reaction against communism fuelled Mussolini’s fascist movement and other right-wing governments, so that by the early 1930s authoritarian regimes backed by military force “had become the norm across central and eastern Europe and above all in Germany”.

Hence, as Reynolds argues, the advent of mass democracy and mass politics was not always positive, a view perhaps best summed up by the British prime minister Stanley Baldwin, who, reflecting on the state of Europe 10 years after the war, noted that rather than trying “to make the world safe for democracy”, as President Wilson had advised, perhaps the great powers should concentrate instead on trying “to make democracy safe for the world” – a lesson that US policymakers, in their continued zeal to emulate Wilson, are learning the hard way in contemporary Iraq.

Reynolds then goes on to examine what he calls war imperialism: the expansion of the British (and, to a lesser extent, the French) Empire that came about as a result of the war, as well as the articulation of the concept of the British Commonwealth of Nations that emerged from the shared sacrifice and sense of Britishness experienced most intensely in Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand – the so-called white dominions – as a result of the events of 1914-18. He also delves into the very important economic consequences of the war – and peace – as the economist John Maynard Keynes so aptly put it, in a chapter entitled “Capitalism”.

Not content to look solely at the economic and geopolitical consequences of the Great War, Reynolds also explores the conflict’s artistic heritage in a fascinating chapter entitled “Civilisation”. Here we learn that the fame of Britain’s war poets did not seriously begin to emerge until much later in the century and that the strikingly innovative and largely anti-war visual art that emerged in the works of such painters as Richard Nevinson, Paul Nash and John Singer Sargent came about under the rubric of a British war art programme. Reynolds also explores the impact of war photography and film, which was especially advanced in France and Germany, as well as how the conflict was portrayed in literature. Equally fascinating is his examination of how each of the major powers decided to bury and memorialise the millions who died on the battlefield, a subject Reynolds returns to in a moving chapter near the end of the book entitled “Remembrance”.

Turbulent decade

In these five chapters he explores how the second World War was influenced by and differed from the events of the first, how the evil unleashed between 1939 and 1945 put the 1914-18 debates about “atrocities” and a war for “civilisation” into new perspective, and how the generations that lived through both conflicts marked the anniversaries and passing of the first World War from “memory” into “history”.

The commemorations marking the 50th anniversaries of the first World War and the depictions of 1914-18 in the new medium of television become especially important. Nowhere was this truer than in Ireland, where the marking of the 50th anniversaries of the 1916 Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, combined with the broadcast of the TV miniseries Insurrection, had a significant impact on the start of the Troubles, three years later.

From the 50th anniversaries of the first World War, Reynolds moves on to examine how the ties of family and the experience of the common foot soldier have become much more important in recent years, especially with the passing of both generations. And in “Remembrance” Reynolds notes how attitudes about the Great War and its history changed yet again as a consequence of the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

We now see history and remembrance used for both good and ill, as a tool for the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, for example, and as a force for peace and reconciliation, best exemplified, once again, by events in Ireland, where the late-1990s decision to build the Island of Ireland Peace Park, which includes a round tower, near Messines in Belgium, the site at which the 36th (Ulster) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division went into battle alongside each other in June 1917, represented an effort “at bridge-building across the past as well as in the present”.

Reynolds’s brilliant and moving analysis of the impact of the first World War makes for fascinating reading – a must for anyone who wishes to gain a deeper understanding not only of the 20th century but also of the turbulent world we live in today.

He concludes with a compelling chapter that reflects on how, even 100 years after the start of this cataclysmic conflict, our changing narrative and interpretation of the Great War is a dynamic two-way process that not only helped shape the course of the 20th century but continues to shape events right up to the present day. Indeed, as the turmoil in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine make clear, we are still very much living in the long shadow of the Great War.

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