Latest Book Review

By , May 19, 2014 11:21 am

To End All Wars: A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War

 

Adam Hochschild. To End All Wars: A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War. Pan Books, 2012.

 

Adam Hochschild is one of my favourite writers on depressing topics. Many years ago I spent a summer reading his chilling history of Belgian imperialism in the Congo, King Leopold’s Ghost. Browsing in my local Book City on the Danforth several months ago I came across his book on World War One, To End All Wars. It was on sale at $7.99 so it sat on my pile of future books to read. Meanwhile, my fascination with World War One – not the actual war but its causes – was satisfied by reading Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace. When I started teaching Canadian history for the first time in 15 years I picked up Hochschild’s book from my beside table.

Given the blurb on the back cover, I thought the book would avoid coverage of the battles. And that I was happy about. I didn’t want to read about trenches or artillery. However, I soon found myself immersed in the horror of it all starting with the Boer War. At first I was nonplussed that I had to sit through military details in order to get to the good bits about the pacifists and socialists who did not support the war. I do admit that I was sometimes confused about the need for all the military chapters. Then it hit me (I guess I am slow); the protests and resistance¬† stand out all the more in the context of the stupidity and suffering of the war.

Many aspects of my personal viewing,¬† reading and teaching lives have revolved around World War One lately; there’s Downton Abbey and its class divide that weathered the storm of the war; Mr. Selfridge whose London department store found itself in the crosshairs of a procurement scandal during the war (at least fictionally); the above-mentioned Margaret MacMillan; and of course my beloved grade 12 world history course in which my students study the origins of the war quite deeply. Add in Netflix and a few World War One documentaries and the stage is set for complete obsession.

Hochschild’s book offers a completely different point of view from all the others, however. His is the story of those on the other side (in Britain): trade unionists, socialists, suffragists, conscientious objectors, dissenters. Their bravery came in a different, less celebrated form, one less likely to make it into the official or common story of war. As someone just bungling my way through the teaching of Canada at war for the first time in a long time (to ESL students who have very little context on Canada itself) I find it quite refreshing to see the war through these divergent perspectives.

War does things to families. Hochschild’s case in point is the Pankhurst family of suffragette fame. I knew in general terms that many of the most militant feminists became big supporters of the war. I didn’t realize how much of a 180 degree turn it was for the matriarch, Emmeline. She took her ferocity for women’s suffrage and turned it into rabid war support. Her daughter Sylvia, meanwhile, became a war opponent. In the book they are just one family torn apart by war. Brothers and sisters, parents and children on opposite sides seems to be a common theme. In hindsight it’s not so surprising that such a cataclysmic event would have different effects on people’s passions.

The case could be made that World War One did finally usher in the modern era. Big disappointment that has been.

 

 

 

 

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