The Great War and the Making
Of the Modern World
By Jeremy Black
Continuum – £20.00
By providing a justifiably more than cohesive assimilation of the facts in relation to the First World War, this book will no doubt trigger a number of debates – some no-doubt heated – which in the grand scheme of things, can only be an exceedingly good thing. Reason being, there’s a veritable shortage of documentation on what came to be known as The Great War; especially when compared to the sheer bombardment of information concerning the Second World War.
This is somewhat substantiated by the fact that throughout an array of history faculties, there has always been a never-ending university question that begins thus: the First World War was essentially started on the streets of Sarajevo – discuss. In and of itself, this open-ended question has no doubt, provided history boffins the length and breadth of the English speaking world with hours and hours of social and political, jocular and satirical deliberation. The sort of which is perhaps still raging as I write.
Almost a century on from the catastrophe of the heinous event itself, it ought come as no surprise that Jeremy Black’s The Great War and the Making of the Modern World has finally come unto being. I say finally, because there really hasn’t been that many books of late, that delivers the bear, brutal facts in such a way as they desperately need to.
Without political agenda.
Without anything to gain.
In fact, as is written on the book’s back cover: ‘’There is a civic and professional duty for historians, a responsibility to the present and the future, as well as the past, to try and to explain and discuss the war without yielding to the ease of conventional platitude.’’
Lest it be said, if there’s one thing this totally independent book does not yield to, then it’s that of ‘’conventional platitude.’’ It walks its own walk and most certainly talks its own talk. Already in the book’s Introduction, there’s enough courageous evidence to suggest that Black has thrown nigh all of his considered caution to the wind; which in turn, makes for a thoroughly refreshing read throughout: ‘’As we move further into the twenty-first century, so the respective weight of the two world wars will probably alter, a process that will accelerate when the last of those who fought in the Second World War die. Nevertheless, the extent to which Hitler was such a distinctive enemy, whereas Kaiser Wilhelm II, the ruler of Germany in the Great War, appears banal and mediocre, if not weak and ridiculous, will remain an important difference.’’
The above is a rather brazen statement to make – especially so early on. This absolutely isn’t to suggest that The Great War eventually evolves unto a beige manifesto of the bland. Far from it. If nothing else, its nine chapters (plus Conclusion) is a clear and literary concise consideration of not only the Great War itself, but also that of its totally myopic causes and unspeakable trajectory.
For instance, in the final chapter, Black writes: ‘’Europe went to war in 1939, and it is easy to trace this resumption of hostilities to the failure of the Versailles peace settlement of 1919 and the deficiencies of the League, and thus to see the Second world War as the sequel of the Great War […], a product in part of the factors that had caused and sustained that conflict and, more particularly, of the unfinished business its unsatisfactory close had left. Focus on the reparations (payments) demanded from post-war Germany as an aspect of its war guilt proved a particular source of liberal (and German) criticism in the 1920s and 1030s. This criticism ignored German reparations from France after earlier victories and, instead, encouraged the view that the peace settlement had been mainly retributive. It was argued that a mishandled, if not misguided, total war in 1914-18 had led to a harsh peace, the latter a consequence of the former.’’
Such analytical writing ensures The Great War and the Making of the Modern World is a tough, thought provoking and more than stimulating read for all and sundry; not only readers and teachers of history, but also countless cynics and disbelievers.