The Siege of Strasbourg
By Rachel Chrastil
Harvard University Press – £25.00
When most people think of total war, they probably think of that tragic and ultimately pointless of events, The First World War – oft referred to as The Great War.
And in the big scheme of things, they’re probably right.
But there were several conflicts prior to 1914 – such as The Crimean War of the 1850s and the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s – that could well be argued for having fundamentally set the template for what was to become known as ‘total war.’ None more so than than the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
With that most cultured and beautiful of cities, Strasbourg, having been the prime target of the invading German armies, Rachel Chrastil has herein fully captured what transpired; not to mention what it must have been like for the beleaguered citizens of the city – to have endured six weeks of continuous bombardment.
Throughout The Siege of Strasbourg, Chrastil, who is Associate Professor of History at Xavier University, illuminates how the many delineating characteristics of total war, were indicative of the siege of said city.
The harrowing aftermath of which, unfortunately went on to define many a ghastly conflict of the twentieth century. Several having since become embedded in our collective conscience: ”The Franco-Prussian War clearly did not share all the characteristics of the wars of the twentieth century, but it shaped the experiences and attitudes that made those catastrophes possible. It was one of the the first conflicts in which both sides had signed the Geneva Convention and in which both sides failed to live up to it. When the Prussians targeted civilian non-combatants in the bombardment of Strasbourg, they made possible Dresden, Leningrad, Sarajevo, and Gaza. When civilians accused Prussia of breaking the ”laws of war,” they anticipated war crimes trials at Nuremberg and The Hague. When bombs destroyed libraries and set the cathedral on fire, they prefigured the destruction of cultural heritage in Leuven, Rheims and Baghdad. And when Swiss humanitarians intervened on behalf of besieged civilians, but unwittingly helped Prussia conquer Strasbourg, they paved the way for the ambiguous successes of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.”
What I particularly enjoyed about reading this altogether fine book, was its redolent consideration of the civilian populace. Reason being, the authoress never loses sight of how it must have felt to have normality vanquished from that of everyday life.
Whether or not this shows a slight shade of femininity is of course, open to debate. As in the book’s final chapter, ‘Strassburg,’ (note the slight change of spelling), she nevertheless writes: ”As Michael Walzer reminds us, ”Ordinary life is a value, too. It is what most of the citizens of a defeated country most ardently hope for.” Unprecedented international aid helped the citizens to rebuild. But the price of normalcy was acquiescence to the German Empire. Pride, sorrow, relief, and mistrust converged as newcomers rushed in and long-time citizens debated whether or not they still belonged.”
Apart from the subject matter itself rather defining the kernel of what is truly meant by ‘total war,’ The Siege of Strasbourg incorporates the initial use of language (such as the actual legality of war, international aid and humanitarian intervention) having since 1870, morphed into the everyday expectancy of war associated vocabulary. And for this reason alone, many beleaguered citizens of today’s wars might unknowingly be grateful.