Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review

I got Peter Englund's The Beauty and The Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War for Christmas; he claims that the book is not "about what" WWI "was . . . its causes, course, conclusion and consequences" but rather "what it was like" (xi).  His "focus remains primarily on the everyday aspects of the war" because the text is "a work of anti-history" with an emphasis on "the individual, and his or her experiences" (xiii). I don't think his book supports this claim, for reasons I explain below, and I am not sure why someone who has invested as much time and effort would avoid providing explicit argument, interpretation, and analysis.

The text is based on his reading diaries and letters of some 20 participants from different fronts, armies, and occupations: former opera singer and American married into the transnational eastern European aristocracy, left-wing French man of letters, reluctant Danish/German soldier, courageous British upper-class Red Cross volunteer, and so on. Englund doesn't offer any principle for selection of characters. Some of them are hyper articulate, Belgian flyer Willy Coppens for example, while Elfriede Kuhl is far too young to understand and analyze her war.  Paolo Monelli comes across as an Italian alpine Rambo. It seems to me that Englund's actors and the various excerpts he selects, forwards three distinct arguments: the war was badly managed at the top, popular enthusiasm waned rapidly under the pressure of events, and no one really understood the war.

The book is divided into year long sections in which Englund selects excerpts or offers extended paraphrases of diaries and letters for different days of each month. There is a sort of summing up for the characters in the end and, finally, a cleverly selected coda that orients the reader toward the future. This selection, it is Hitler's alleged response to the Armistice, cements, for me in any event, the extent to which Englund is making an argument about the war's consequence as well as course, nature, and causes.

Altagsgeschicte, the history of everyday life, focuses on the everyday and makes no claim to be an "anti-history"; rather it is a history in another key. Englund's claim here, it seems to me, is defensive: an attempt to obscure the extent to which his selection of voices and the diary or letter excerpts is completely conventional. For example, while he doesn't provide citations for the letters and diaries, he does provide explanatory footnotes. By attending to these, the reader finds Englund's argument about the war, that its start was written in the passive voice, that the hopes for a moral cleansing were misplaced, that the was a case of donkeys leading lions, etc, that accepts the consensus view of 10 or 20 years ago.

I would recommend this book primarily because its well-written. It is not for novices in the world of WWI studies. For advanced students the bibliography is probably its nicest feature.

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