Nov 12, 2014

The Memory of the Great War and More

The History Book Club met on Veterans Day (chosen as a special meeting day given our book's focus on World War I) As usual we met at the Kensington Row Bookshop. The owners, who offered their usual great hospitality, have made the shop's website still more attractive and useful -- check it out.

A dozen members were present and the discussion was unusually spirited. Before we started the scheduled discussions, long time member Allen Wiener signed copies of his new book, Channeling Elvis: How Television Saved the King of Rock 'n' Roll.

The Washington Post had recently published a letter to the editor by another long time member, Dorothy Pugh. We briefly discussed it. John Tyler, her subject, while perhaps one of the least known of American presidents, she described as quite an interesting man. Married twice, he had 15 children, 8 by his first wife. After his first wife died, Tyler (at age 54) married a 24 year old woman, Julia Gardner.  We wondered why she might be interested in so old a man, but were told she really loved being the First Lady and White House hostess. Her portrait is still to be found in the White House. Tyler is also notable in that after stepping down from the presidency, he was elected to office in the Confederacy. He wanted to be elected president of the Confederacy but died before the election.

Dorothy also told us about the disastrous voyage of the USS Princeton in 1844. President Tyler and his then fiancee, Julia, were on the ship for a pleasure trip with a number of other people. The voyage was used as an opportunity to demonstrate a new, huge canon that had  been cast in the United States. Unfortunately it blew up, killing Colonel David Gardiner, Julia's father. Fortunately President Tyler and Julia were not injured.

The Ebola Epidemic and Virus Hunter

Occasionally a member will make a brief presentation of a second book at a meeting of the club. Several members had expressed an interest in reading a book that would be relevant to the current Ebola epidemic in West Africa. For that purpose, Virus Hunter: Thirty Years of Battling Hot Viruses Around the World by C.J. Peters and Mark Olshaker was described by a member. It is the biography of Dr. Peters.

Dr. Peters is a consummate professional -- a physician, certified in internal medicine, with additional years of training in immunology and virology. That expertise was applied to study perhaps the world's most dangerous diseases, often at risk to himself, and often in the most trying of circumstances. He was the man most responsible for dealing with the outbreak of Ebola in monkeys in Reston, Virginia in 1989.

There are a handful of such experts who are the world's first line of defense against emerging diseases such as Ebola and SARS. The world is greatly indebted to them for their sacrifices.

The book, as it describes Dr. Peters' career, also provides a history of the emergence of a number of diseases new to science and medicine in recent decades. It explains the complexity of dealing with these diseases, especially the bureaucratic issues that must be resolved. It also provides some familiarity with the technology for the study of those diseases, and a view of the rapid development of that technology over the span of Dr. Peters' long career. For example, he worked in the first Bio Safety Level 4 lab in the USA -- the only lab at the time of the Reston Ebola outbreak designed to study highly infectious diseases for which there were no vaccines, no treatment, and a high probability of death following infection.

One of the members present had worked with Dr. Peters' colleague in dealing with an outbreak of Bolivian Hemorrhagic Fever in Bolivia, and described Peter's work on that occasion. Another member had planned the development of a health service delivery system in Liberia, and described the way in which that system had been damaged in the  subsequent revolutions and political turmoil in Liberia. The group went on to briefly discuss the epidemic in West Africa, and the poor way that the information on the cases in the United States was handled by the media.

After the presentation and discussion, the majority of the group voted that they wanted to read Virus Hunter. Thus, it will be the club selection for February.

The Long Shadow

The main book for discussion this month was The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds. Indeed, the meeting was moved to 11/11 in honor of the date of the Armistice that ended the Great War on the Western Front. A book of considerable scholarship, it traces the shadow of World War I for a century, especially through the writings of historians, the works of high culture of poets and artists, and through the more popular arts of television and novels. The book also considers how the war was memorialized in public monuments.

Prior to the meeting several useful materials were circulated to members:

Streaming video of the Three Part BBC Series Long Shadow with David Reynolds
The review of the book in The Guardian. 

A brief video in which David Reynold's describes the purpose of his book; recorded last November, he is wearing a poppy.

A Facebook post on the Russian "Night Witches"; pilots of World War I.

The British set forth this display of ceramic poppies in remembrance of those who died in the war.
The discussion began with comments about how well David Reynolds writes. He captures a great deal of content in concise, clearly written chapters. It was noted, however, that he focuses more on the British experience than on that of the rest of the world, perhaps because he is a professor at Cambridge University.

The book was described as one of historiography and cultural history. Its main focus seems to be how historians have viewed World War I. However, a strong secondary focus is on the cultural history of how that war has been viewed in television. art, literature and even memorials to those who fought and died. Of course, the book describes a great deal of history as it describes how people wrote and thought about the war and its influences. An important theme of the book is how ideas about the war changed over time (and with the then current events that absorbed peoples attention at various periods). So too, the book stresses how differently the war was treated in the histories and memories of different countries, and how differently the popular conception of the war sometimes was from that emerging as the dominant historical paradigm. A member said he may never believe a history presents the "truth" again after reading this book. (The discussion here resembles that from last March.)

One member said that she found the chapter dealing with the partitioning of the Near East after the war as full of errors. A member complained about the minimal treatment of the impact of the war on art; he cited Dada as an example. He noted that Dadaist art was first made in the USA and then in Switzerland, and perhaps wasn't mentioned in the book because it had little impact in England. Another suggested that Picasso and his friends didn't start out to create "cubism", that the idea that the paintings that they made at the time constituted "a movement" was something we later imposed on a body of work that may not have been so intended by the artists.
Member: "Reminds me of the Marilyn Monroe song, My Heart Belongs to Dada."
Other member: Don't you mean My Art Belongs to Dada."
A member mentioned that there was almost no discussion of the partitioning of Africa, nor of African nor Asia views of the war and its aftermath. Another was concerned with the impact of the war on the independence movement in Africa; African troops fought in the armies of a number of European imperial armies; tens of thousands of Africans were enlisted in the German army, but were rejected eventually as a result of German prejudice against blacks. There was of course a portion of the war fought in sub-Saharan Africa. We assumed that the Africans who fought for European powers must have been affected by that experience on returning to their homelands, and that the experience must have influenced feelings about their colonial status.

Similarly, there was a large Indian contingent that fought the Ottomans in the Middle East; a member noted that his English uncle had served in the British Army in India during the war. Thus Indians were defending the empire away from home, and English were serving in India to assure that it remained a British colony. We noted that the book did not deal in any depth with the impact of the war on the Indian independence movement; only three pages were devoted to Gandhi. A member suggested that that was true of Asia in general - that the majority of the world who actually lived in Asia didn't get much play in the book.

A member mentioned that one way the war could be understood was in terms of the end of the divine right of kings as a theory of government in the West, and a considerable reduction in the trust of the aristocracy's right and ability to run government well. Thus an aftermath of the war, well described in the book, was competition among democracy, communism and fascism as political systems to replace monarchy, and competition among economic systems.

The member also commented that a way to understand the war was as a step toward the ending of multi-ethnic and colonial empires. Perhaps surprisingly, the Berlin conference in which European powers had divided up Africa was not mentioned in the book; seemingly one of the contributing factors leading up to the war was imperial territorial ambitions in Africa.

An outcome of the war was the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the German Empire. Russia lost that part of its empire that existed in Central Europe. While the British and French gained territory after World War I, there was relatively rapid decolonization of Africa and Asia after World War II. With the fall of the USSR at the end of the 20th century, the Soviet empire lost much of its territory. Thus World War I could be seen as the beginning of the end of imperialism, and the start of decolonization.

Ireland was an exception, achieving independence from the British Empire soon after World War I. A member who had written a thesis on the Irish revolution described a relative's capture in Queenstown when that relative tried to join the Rebels. Another shared a photocopy of a grand-uncle's letter describing his efforts to organize branches of the Friends of Irish Independence in South Dakota in 1919; he also described the death of an Irish uncle in the British army putting down the Iraq rebellion in 1921. We noted the complexity of soldiers from Ulster coming back to Ireland feeling that they had fought for the Union, other soldiers returning to support the IRA and Irish independence.
From the letter:  "The Wilsonian League of Abominations"
We were diverted into a brief discussion of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark. Two members had recently read the book, which is longer than that which the club chooses to read. One part of the causal chain leading to World War I was the weakening of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, with the tacit approval of France (that held the western part of the Maghreb, and Britain which controlled Egypt, Italy successfully fought the Ottomans and took control of Libya.

Shortly thereafter, the Serbs and Greeks fought the Ottomans and gained control of much of the Balkans. The specific trigger of the war was related to Serbia's desire to create a state unifying the Southern Slavs -- a desire supported by Russia and leading to war with the Austro-Hungarian empire. A member mentioned that this book provided the best description of the Balkan politics that he had ever read. (Yugoslavia was created in the peace talks after World War I.)

Clark also describes the formation of the German-Austro-Hungarian Alliance and the counterbalancing triple alliance of Russia, France, and Britain. We mentioned the arms races, such as the German and British competition in building warships, and the building of railroads capable of moving troops and their equipment rapidly to the front. One member expressed surprise that such huge armies were organized, especially by the Russians and Germans. The title of the book suggests that the leaders of these empires were like sleepwalkers, unknowingly moving into a situation more dangerous than they ever recognized, and eventually plunging the world into World War (and a peace that would lead to a still greater war).

We noted the way in which German treatment of Belgium and Belgians was inflated by propaganda to justify the war. As an aside, a disingenuous statement of Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty -- that the navy could not support the movement of troops into Belgium but could move troops into France if necessary -- was influencing national policy far beyond what would have been justified by his rank.

The term "Holocaust", used in conjunction with German atrocities in Belgium while initiating the war with France, led us to discussion of the World War II Holocaust. The latter of course dwarfed the earlier deeds. We noted that in the early years of the war, in spite of Nazi secrecy some knew of the predicament of the Jews in Germany, and Allied government officials kept the information secret. Our oldest member described having leaned of the Holocaust in 1943, and immediately trying to enlist in the army (he had only been 17 at the time, and was required to wait six months more to enlist). We concluded that the Holocaust must have become public knowledge before the end of the war and the capture of the extermination camps. Still General Eisenhower/s efforts to expose the Nazi atrocities were very important; it would be hard to deny the Holocaust later.

We discussed the anti German sentiment in the USA during the two world wars. One of our members is part German American and could speak from her personal experience. Her perception was that during the World War I, some in German communities were frankly pro-German. There was strong anti-German sentiment among most Americans in World War II. It was suggested that there may have been a difference between the east and west coast, with most anger in the east directed towards the Germans and both the Japanese and Germans subject to strong antagonistic feelings in the west. The anger at the foreign enemies spilled over onto German-American and Japanese-American ethnic groups in the USA.

We briefly discussed German sabotage during World War I, as well as mentioning the Zimmerman Telegram (in which the German government encouraged Mexico to declare war on the USA). A member mentioned that German sabotage is discussed in Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany's Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America by Howard Blum. It was suggested that it will be important to understand the background in German sabotage in reading next month's book for discussion, The Great Dissent by Thomas Healy.


Author Reynolds destroys the reputation of Barbara Tuchman's book, The Guns of August, in a brief but devastating section of his book. We noted that that it is our understanding that the reputation of that book has been greatly tarnished by other historians in the last decade. Still, it seems clear that the book greatly influenced John Kennedy and his key advisors during the Cuban missile crisis. Interesting that a not-so-good book could have such great and beneficial influence.

The Long Shadow is quite critical of Winston Churchill. Members who could remember his speeches, thought that they were critically important in keeping Britain fighting in the early part of the war. Someone recalled the Wall Street Journal as lauding Churchill as the finest speaker and finest writer of his time. On the other hand, a member pointed out that Churchill's reputation may well have been greater in the USA than in Britain, and that the Labor Government won the election immediately following World War II, throwing Churchill out of office.

Several of the members had long careers in government agencies. They vented! It seems that political appointees to head government agencies often arrive with little or no practical experience, and don't stay long enough to really understand the agencies, their functions, and the challenges that they face. There are so many checks and balances in government, so many complex processes that simply have to work their own way out for progress to be made, that the senior professionals in agencies may be the only people to fully understand the work of their agencies. Briefings of political appointees may often be -- necessarily or deliberately -- simplifications of reality. The real importance of the senior professional staff is often under rated. (There was reference to the British situation comedy, Yes, Minister.)

Final Comment

There was uniform agreement that this was a very good book, enjoyed by all. A good read!

Here are some comments posted by a member on books discussed:

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