A snippet from a recent conversation:
Guy: Downton Abbey is just a crap period drama.
Me, hackles up: It’s a very well-done “crap period drama” that prides itself on historical accuracy.
Guy: Ooohhh, what is it? Victorian England?
Me: It takes place between 1912 and 1924.
Guy, perplexed: What historically interesting happened in England then?
Me, choking: Uhh… WWI, dude!
WWI, dismissively: Why would they focus on WWI? England wasn’t affected by WWI.
Needless to say, he isn’t part of the WWI book club I belong to (although maybe he should be). When I relayed this to the club’s other member, her response mirrored mine: “WHAT?!? How can he say that?!?” followed by much sputtering.
So, yes. This “club” is only made up of the two of us. How many lines of people do you see who want to spend a year reading about WWI? Yeah, that’s what I thought. I can imagine what you’re thinking, “Where’d you guys meet? A nerd convention?” She and I have been friends for several years and belong to another book club together (an art book club, to up the nerdiness ante). We had often talked about spending a year reading books all about one subject, but since we both have interests that reach far and wide, which subject to choose? We knew that we both had studied WWI before and decided that we could further our knowledge. It is also apropos as we are in the hundredth anniversary of that war.
How does one embark on such a feat? (Because maybe you’d like to start a book club of two…) Like the generals in the war, we needed a plan of attack. However, it couldn’t be like the Schlieffen Plan that didn’t allow for change or revision. It also had to fit into our daily lives that include other book clubs (and in my case, teaching). We have decided to read eight books: four works of history and four memoirs that represent different perspectives. Since the works of history tend to be longer (600+ pages), we will take two months to read to read them, while the shorter memoirs get a month. We meet once a month to discuss what we’ve read. The way I found some of the titles was by searching a book about WWI on Amazon and seeing what others purchased; I’d click on one from that list and it would lead me to another list and so on and so forth. Based on the descriptions, I’d add it my interest list. Goodreads also provided many recommendations.
Our first book was Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. MacMillan’s premise is to understand why and how Europe, which seemed to be moving towards a society of peace and progress, all of the sudden blew up into total war. So imagine a 1900 map of Europe under a microscope through which MacMillan’s eye peers and studies the minute actions at play under the surface. Like a scientist she gathers the information to discover the under-lying symptoms of the disease of war. She provides in depth character studies not just of the leaders, but also of society in how the growing labor movements, the rise of public opinion, and the shifting roles of the aristocracy helped prime people for war.
Often times in history classes one hears generally about alliances, militarism, and nationalism, and then boom! one day Archduke Franz Ferdinand, some dude from the Austria-Hungarian Empire is killed by some anarchist in some city and all of Europe falls apart. It’s a tenuous reason for millions to die and the possible end to Western civilization at best, but MacMillan does an excellent job showing how these forces developed and reacted over time through different countries’ decisions and skirmishes in Morocco and the Balkans to finally end in war. She tries to weigh how much of the war was the fault of “great men”– those in power– and that of forces hurdling towards conflict. Between 1900-1914, European nations had consistently used bluff and brinkmanship in their skirmishes, and each time they got closer and closer to war, and while she proves that they always had choices to avoid war, was it ultimately inevitable?
What I found most interesting was how many people had the foresight to understand what a long, bloody battle this war would be. Unfortunately, none were in charge of the militaries or countries and their views were often discounted.
MacMillan’s style is clear and easy to read. Each paragraph has a clear point followed by interesting and relevant evidence. She has a knack for finding interesting and funny quotes and for connecting issues if the past to issues in our modern times. The first half of the book sets up her argument on the state of Europe and the second half proves it (for us, the first half was more interesting as the second half was more military talk and policy). I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand how countries at peace can suddenly end up at war.
March memoir: e.e. cummings’ The Enormous Room
Readers: What book (or novel) about WWI do you recommend and why?