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A photo of the cover of "The Long Shadow: The Legacy of the Great War in the Twentieth Century".

David Reynolds's latest book, The Long Shadow, looks beyond the myths and perceptions of World War I.

Photograph courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company

Simon Worrall

for National Geographic

Published July 27, 2014

The Great War, as it came to be known, lasted four years, from 1914 to 1918. But its aftereffects haunted Europe and the rest of the world through the 20th century—and are still felt in our own times.

In this groundbreaking book, British historian David Reynolds ranges far and wide across economics, poetry, diplomacy, and politics to tease out the complex consequences of what was hoped to be "the war to end all wars" but instead became the precursor of World War II and numerous other conflicts, including the war in Iraq.

Book Talk

Here Reynolds talks about how women's lives were changed by the conflict, how Woodrow Wilson's policies led to the rise of America as a global power, and why it's crucial to look beyond the myths that have shaped our perception of World War I.

Tomorrow is the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War. Why did you call your book The Long Shadow?

Because I think the Great War does cast a long shadow over the 20th century. George Kennan, the American historian and diplomat, called it the seminal conflict of the 20th century. The Germans' historians have called it the Ur-Katastrophe, the original catastrophe. So I think that in a variety of ways I try to explain [that] this is a war that we're still living with in terms of its legacies.

The war resulted in the collapse of two empires. What were the consequences of this? Particularly in the Middle East?

I would say that three big empires collapsed, if you think of the Romanov [Russian] empire, the Habsburg empire, and the Ottoman Empire, which still had control over a large area of the Middle East. It is fighting the Russians in the Caucasus. It is fighting the British around the Mediterranean. The British gradually conquer what became Palestine, and what is called Mesopotamia, at the time but becomes the state of Iraq. Those are areas that are hugely controversial all through the 20th century and remain so now. If you think of the fraught relations between Arabs and Jews. If you think of the patched-up state of Iraq. These are fundamental issues in our newspapers today.

One of your aims in the book is to dispel some of the myths about World War I. What are those myths?

Every country has its own great war, so part of what I am trying to do is to explore different countries' takes on 1914-18. The one I am particularly focused on is the British point of view, and the British view of the war is stuck in the trenches and trapped in Poets' Corner—meaning that the British mostly think of the First World War as a story of mud and blood along the Somme, a war that is static and goes nowhere, a war in which the tragedy of ordinary soldiers is understood through war poets like Wilfred Owen, a poet who is hardly known outside Britain but who is fundamental to the English school curriculum.

Though it was geographically distant from the conflict, the United States was also deeply affected by the Great War.

In 1914 the U.S. is a neutral country. Woodrow Wilson, the president, stands aloof from the conflict, not least because he is very conscious that the increasingly ethnically pluralist population of the U.S. is almost a microcosm of the warring powers in Europe. You've got a lot of people of British ancestry, who are fervently supporting Britain. And you've got a lot of people of German ancestry. Wilson says that the best position for the U.S. is neutrality so that the war will not spread to American soil in the form of civil strife. He also argues that it is an imperialist war, the sort of thing that the Europeans have been doing for centuries and the New World should take a principled stance against.

But the problem for the U.S. is that it is economically so important to the belligerent powers that the position it takes economically, as distinct from politically, becomes a major factor in the war. America's economic ties are overwhelmingly with Britain, and so what develops is an economic bias toward Britain, which is in tension with Wilson's political stance of neutrality.

That's an issue which becomes fundamental to the Germans by the winter of 1916-17, when the war is deadlocked on the land front. The Germans start unrestricted U-boat warfare to cut Britain's lines of communication with the U.S. It's an act of desperation and a breach of international war. And it's what ultimately pushes the U.S. into the conflict in April 1917. Its new position as the arbiter of world affairs is the start of America's rise to global supremacy in the 20th century.

America was also the biggest economic beneficiary of the war. America before the war is a net debtor in international currency flows, to the tune of $3.7 billion. Rather neatly, by the end of the war it is a net creditor of $3.7 billion.

Perhaps partly because you are a British historian, it's the British experience that is at the heart of the book. Britain came out of the conflict with its empire enhanced. The war also forged a new sense of British identity. Can you unpack those two things?

The British Empire grows to its largest extent as a result of the war of 1914-18. Particularly in terms of its new possessions in the Middle East, like Iraq and Palestine, which prove to be something of a poisoned chalice but are big assets for the British at the time. In the case of Iraq, the British get access to crucial new resources, like oil.

The empire grows in another way. One of the distinctive things about it was the so-called settler colonies—where people of British stock have gone abroad and established their own colonies, usually at the expense of native populations—like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa. These "dominions" were extremely important to the war effort and again in the Second World War. And that sense of a British world, or Commonwealth, was a very powerful addition to Britain's capabilities. The Indian Army contributes something like one million men to the British Army in World War I, and they become part of the story.

The way the war dead were commemorated varied greatly from nation to nation and says a lot about the cultural values of the combatants, doesn't it?

In previous wars, certainly 19th-century wars, dead soldiers had been basically thrown into anonymous mass graves. But we are now in a democratic era in which, at least officially, each person is counted equally in politics and in society. The powerful feeling among the older men, who have in a sense sent the younger men to war, is that these young men should be recognized and honored. It would be far too expensive to bring the soldiers back: We're talking about 720,000 dead. Instead, you bury them with honor where they fell, and you also ensure that each grave has the man's name attached to it. So all along the western front, for almost a hundred miles, you have this necklace of war cemeteries, beautifully kept up by the Imperial War Graves Commission. The British are honoring their dead in what Rupert Brooke called "a foreign field that is for ever England," and that's part of the poignancy of the British commemoration.

Rudyard Kipling was very active in promoting the concept of the war graves—and there's a reason for that, isn't there?

Kipling was involved in the planning of the war cemeteries and in particular in some of the language that was used. He's the originator of a very poignant phrase for soldiers whose bodies had been found but were never identified: "Known Unto God." Kipling felt deeply about this because he had sent his only son, Jack, into the war. Jack had very bad eyesight and could easily have gotten a medical exemption. But he wanted to fight, and his father wanted him to fight. Jack was last seen on the battlefield of Loos in 1915 with half his face shot off. His body was never found during Kipling's lifetime. It's possible that he's now been found, but that's disputed. And I think he sublimated his guilt in this process of war commemoration in a way that is very, very sad.

We've talked so far mostly about men, but the Great War also had a decisive effect on women, didn't it?

The war changes the terms of the debate. Because a lot of women take on men's jobs, in the factories or running the trams. Eight hundred thousand women work in munitions factories. They are known as "Tommy's Sister." Tommy is the soldier on the front. Tommy's Sister helps him by producing essential supplies like munitions, guns, food that are necessary for an era of what is called "total war." In other words, a war that involved the home front as much as the battlefield. So a lot of politicians who are violently opposed to suffrage in 1914 have to admit that men who fought, and women who have done war service on the home front, have shown their right to citizenship.

It was called "the war to end all wars," but that didn't happen. In 1939 Europe was at war again. How much did the Second World War grow out of the legacy of 1914-18?

In significant ways the war that began in 1939 grows out of the unresolved issues of 1918. Above all, Germany thinks that it had been put in a subordinate and humiliating position in Europe, which was unacceptable. So the German desire for revenge and for reviving its international position was central. Equally, you have a situation in Eastern Europe where you have these various small and not viable new states with disputed borders and minority problems. It's no accident that the big crisis of 1938 is over Czechoslovakia and the German minority there, plus Poland, which is disputed between Russia and Germany. Hitler's ambition is the fire for the new conflict. But the fuel for the Second World War is this tinderbox in Eastern Europe.

What was the most moving part of your research?

I think the part that I found most moving to write was the chapter called "Civilization," which is where the devastation and loss of life of this appalling conflict is understood through poetry and art. It is an attempt to reflect and add meaning—and in a strange way a sense of beauty—to something that was grotesque and appalling. And that struggle, which is what art is about, seemed to me particularly poignant in the case of this conflict.

The BBC and other British institutions, like the Imperial War Museum, are investing enormous resources in centenary commemorations. What do you hope will be achieved?

My hope is that the centenary is going to be not just an act of remembrance for the dead but also an opportunity to understand the 1914-18 war in terms of its broader impact on the home fronts and on the wider world—to move it from simply remembrance to trying to understand this appalling conflict, which fundamentally shaped the century that followed, and in some ways still shapes the world we live in now.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

34 comments
Carlos Ponte
Carlos Ponte

Interesting reading. My Dad always said that Argentina had the same chance as the US after the war. Argentina was at the same level as Canada and Australia, same potential or more since Argentina had the agricultural advantage of having two full major crops per year. Unfortunately Juan Peron and his giant ego, almost "Hitler" like, destroyed the chances of the country to have the same fait as the two mentioned above. And there's also the people who unfortunately get easily brainwashed (Myself included during the 70s') I have heard many argentines say, "we should not have chased the British away when they tried to invade us long ago"... You just wonder... 

Matthew McQueeny
Matthew McQueeny

I did not know much about WW1 a few months ago.  I read a few articles in my normal reading that brought up the centenary.  This lead me to read as much as I could over the proceeding months.  What a fascinating and sad subject.  The way it changed the European landscape, the way battle innovations went from the past to the future in real-time, and the relatively small locations that caused (Sarajevo) and exacerbated (Belgium) it.  I have a podcast and recently brought on a European history expert to talk all about it.  Warning: there is plenty of small talk to start it.  But we get deep into the subject and what it means for today.  Podcast: http://www.matthewmcqueeny.com/2014/07/72-patrick-newman-chris-kerrigan.html)

Leo Kretzner
Leo Kretzner

Interesting article, except he really failed to answer the question of what sort of myths there are about the war that may need correcting.

Charles Griffith
Charles Griffith

Why is there no mention here of that Sykes-Picot Agreement? Certainly it is a seminal document in that it carved up and created those artificial borders creating those new 'entities' straddling ethnic and sectarian areas, those 'entities' which of course are all collapsing today. 

It could easily be concluded that hubristic English/French colonial attitudes contributed mightily towards the current complicated nastiness of Central/West Asia. 

[.....but then, it's all George Bush's fault, isn't it?]

MBG 9
MBG 9

 Causes of WWI:


1. Nationalism in the Balkans.

2. Arms buildup.

3. Prussian militarism.

4. Entangling alliances.

hi ho
hi ho

Yes, a very informative and interesting piece. 


It seems man does not learn rather he prefabricates. 


However, I would mention that America's prominence in the world really began after the Europeans basically destroyed each others' economy and reduced their ability to produce.


America being beyond the sea was unaffected by most of the two wars only coming in at the end.


After WWII, it was America that had factories and the ability to produce and sell while Europe was still trying to piece it self together. America loaned money to Europe and sold American goods, so the money and wealth went to America.


Influence does not go to the wise, it goes to the rich. America became wealthy and brandished much influence even though it lacked any real intelligence beyond producing, selling and enjoying.


And this is a factor in today's mess in the Middle East. America messed up in Iran, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, Cuba, Viet Nam, you name it. American stupidity continues to this day with Obama who basically is the successor to Bush, a war criminal in the real sense of the word.


And the American people are too dumb to realize it.

Robert Cameron
Robert Cameron

This story is told in depressing detail by David Fromkin in "A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East" published in 2009. How British and French negotiators in Paris looking out primarily for their own nationalistic interests created a map of the middle East that resulted in 100 years of strife and bloodshed. Margaret McMillan told the story of the disastrous Treaty of Versailles again in 2011 in 

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, which has now been made into a movie. The things that sound interesting about this new book are the perspectives from the art world, Kipling, etc, and other angles perhaps not previously explored.

KENNETH LANE
KENNETH LANE

Another Re-write of history with a decided slant--we do not need.  Wars are fought to steal something from someone else.  End of the sick story--forever!

Steven Marchand
Steven Marchand

I am thunderstruck that the obvious lessons of WWI and the follow on of WWII have not been absorbed beyond intellectual discussion.  In this day and age of access to information one would think that people would be slapping their foreheads and saying to themselves, "Oh, now I get it!" And that that understanding would bring them to the realization that constantly fighting the same battles, with different names, is futile.  What a sad comment on our ability to "get" it.

craig hill
craig hill

War is waaay too profitable for the governments controlled by its profiteers to allow it to be stopped except intermittently, but which is entirely possible once enough major nations replace their piggish pseudo-dueling war parties in government with ones 100% antithetic to the reality war is a solution for anything except mass murder and piratical plundering, and institute international law quarantining individual belligerants within each warring government as international criminals, as if Al Capone had taken over a government and started offensive wars with rival gang-gavernments all over the world---which is exactly what offensive war governments consist of, the most successful band of pirates looting and murdering across other nations as well as their own with total disregard for human rights or the lives of even their patriotic citizens.


The free and anti-warring governments can make it unprofitable for the warring governments to succeed, with barriers, penalties and international arrests where possible, including intercepting flights with warring government leaders inside. Economic penalties internationally imposed on specific individuals can follow, with confiscation of their holdings anywhere on Earth these individuals have them. Large international rewards for those within their warring nations who obstruct their warring governments can be instituted (think "REWARD/ $10 million for the arrest and transfer to the International Anti-War Court of the following war instigators..." an AUTOMATIC response for any leaders in any nation generating a war. Penalties include not recognizing the free flow of commerce issuing internationally from any warring nations, therefore forcing non-warring commerce to literally arrest members of their warring governments or lose their shirts, which they may get back in punitive penalties from their individual warmongering leaders. In this way internaitonal law can turn economic internal forces against the governments at war, as if an army within a belligerant nation taking down its government and imprisoning its leaders as war criminals for resorting to war when war is never the answer for an attack upon them, as the world would gang up on any such government which started it. 


Of course the forces controlling the war governments would use false-flag terrorism to get around this, but any attack would fall under immediate and rapid investigation by the international community to discern whether the attacked country was attacking itself to blame another and so go to war against forces within a second country that actually had nothing to do with it. After all, to let a country that was attacked by itself to get away with it would cost many lives and national fortunes in the international community unless they fingered the traitors within the nation that attacked itself, eventuating in multiple domestic and international trials for their criminal acts. 


EVERY contingency could be carefully plotted in order to impose an end to war as brutally anachronistic, which it would become once an international anti-war community took charge, as it must. Then this era of criminal nations warring on others could end and be seen as the bad old days when rival pirates occupied governments to enrich themselves thru war. Supposed terrorists operating as non-government instigators of war could likewise be immediately surrounded and arrested by the world threatened by such, as a vaccine does to a virus. Such international laws would comprise those vaccines.



Pete Wagner
Pete Wagner

You get history books published reinforcing big lies.  No, the real story behind the WWs is the destruction of national spirit.

J J C.
J J C.

It's obvious that the combatant countries have learned a lot about war and peace in the 100 years since 1914..........really?

Ralph Novy
Ralph Novy

What's a "country"?


Aren't all boundaries/borders artificial?


Just saying.


... as a visitor.


wink


Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

The way the British Empire liked to randomly draw maps has been screwing the human race over for the last 100 years and will probably continue to screw us for another 100 years.


At least when the French drew lines they tried to get linguists and local experts involved.

Robert Owens
Robert Owens

The British created an artificial country with boundaries drawn in the sand that is the current day Iraq.  The country contained three major disparate ethnic groups, Kurds, Sunnis and Shias that were likely never going to present as a united regional power.  We are now witnessing a civil war among these groups that threatens regional and global peace. 

Aaron Knox
Aaron Knox

I presume that he'll go into this in the book. Above is simply a q&a to sell the book.

Martin Zitter
Martin Zitter

@Charles Griffith Yes, it's mostly George Bush's fault.  Breaking Iraq enabled Iran.  Stable tyrants like Mubarak, Saddam and Gaddafi may have offended our delicate sensibilities, but we paid a heavy price all for the current chaos.  A journeyman chess player would have done better. 

Mary B.
Mary B.

@MBG 9 You've written the standard textbook reasons, but could there be more? 

My grandfather fought in WWI. He claimed that schoolteachers also played a part in setting up the "Great War". 

The following excerpt is from France, but Grandfather told us it was similar in all countries, including Germany (not just France). Government leaders wanted children to be ready to fight and kill other Europeans for honor and territory. 

If you'd like some evidence, take a look at this link about the standard French children's textbook pre-World War I: http://murphylibrary.uwlax.edu/digital/jur/2002/eilderts.pdf


"Ernest Lavisse (1842-1922), French historian, member of l’Académie Française, one of the “five learned societies” that make up the Institut de France....

"...In reading his elementary textbook as well as other writings aimed at national education, it seems evident that he aimed to prepare France for revenge against Germany after the Franco-Prussian War. In his book A propos de nos écoles [Concerning our Schools] Lavisse writes that the teacher of the day knew the incertitude of the future and that Europe was coming to arms. He continues by saying that by a discreet call to natural generosity, and to the old temperament of the race, the schoolmaster could drive our soldiers of tomorrow towards the flag with a lively and happy step..." 


National Geographic, maybe this would be a good topic for a future article? Some excerpts from children's histories that teach them to hate and be ready to kill the neighbors? I have seen a few examples from various nations, I think you could find them easily.

Seamus Cameron
Seamus Cameron

@hi ho


Yes, all the world's ills rest firmly on the shoulders of those pitifully stupid Americans. A trite, tired and bigoted remark, and point of view if ever there was one.

Good thing we're so dumb, or we may take offense.

Brick Wahl
Brick Wahl

@Steven Marchand  I wouldn't say they were the same battles, and certainly the course of events that led to the fighting of similar battles, or at least battles between some of the same nations, were not even slightly identical. It was a terror of refighting those same battles that drove, on the German side, a brand new kind of army with a brand new strategy, while on the western side they were so terrified at the prospect they did everything they could to avoid it, a fear that nearly won the war for Germany.

Then again, in the broadest sort of grand strategic thinking, you did wind up with Germany and the former Hapsburg Empire vs France, UK, Russia and the US. Only Italy in Europe switched roles...Allied in WW1. Axis in WW2. And Turkey skipped the whole thing. So in that sense, they were refighting the same battles. It's just that they got there by a dramatically different course. Perhaps geography was the deciding factor on who fought who. France and Germany have been enemies since Roman times. Germany and Slavs since the days of Charlemagne. England had played it's balance of power strategy since the 16th century. And Belgium had been fought over for centuries,... time and time again.

I think one point often missed was how much Germany's aggressive strategy was driven by the lessons of the Thirty Years War, which did damage to Germany on a scale unseen again till what the Germans did to Poland and Belarus. There was a sort of never again feeling deep in the bones of Germans that made the idea of having their country virtually utterly destroyed again--and it was, definitely worth a look on Wikipedia--something to be avoided at all costs. Even though that's what happened....


Brick Wahl
Brick Wahl

@craig hill  Sorry to be harsh, but the idea that war is a profitable enterprise for governments is completely ludicrous.. Best to go back and read your economic history on this subject. There is certainly profiteering by individuals and some companies, but for governments it is overall a disaster almost always.  World War One, in particular, was absolutely catastrophic. The only nations that benefitted in any way were the US and Japan, and we benefitted only because the war ended so quickly, though not quickly enough to avoid an absolutely devastating influenza pandemic that itself was immensely costly. In Europe, every single warring state was crippled or destroyed and few in the ruling classes even avoided economic disaster.  Every single country.  Most were destroyed by 1918. France survived till 1940. Great Britain, by VE day, was in pathetic shape and began the process of giving up its empire because it had absolutely no money to keep it. Same with the fleet. England has never bounced back, though it has adjusted.

And Viet Nam left this country an economic basket case. Our government has never recovered. Wars don't happen because governments can make money off them. They don't. Almost invariably a war is the worse possible course for a country, unless survival is at stake. The days when the Romans would go to war to fill the coffers with loot have been gone since the middle ages.

Brick Wahl
Brick Wahl

@J J C.  Yes they have. Almost all have dramatically smaller armies, and once the Third Reich was destroyed, there has virtually been no war whatsoever between any of the nations of Europe. Japan the same. The lessons of the WW1 in particular have been learned very well.


Brick Wahl
Brick Wahl

@Robert Owens  Well, sometimes these set ups work, and sometimes they don't. There had never been a Kurdish state, before, and Shia and Sunni had been living together under one regime there for centuries. This mutual intolerance is a new thing. Same thing happened in the Balkans. And India, and in much of Africa. It was a twentieth century phenomenon.  One wonders if it's temporary, or will keep going, and how far will it extend, and to what degree. Look at countries splitting up now...Great Britain and Belgium and Spain are on the verge....


Loretta Rietsema
Loretta Rietsema

@Martin Zitter @Charles Griffith The bloodthirsty tyrannies of M, S, and G were the excuse used by our own oil thirsty tyrants who wanted (and want) unfettered access to their oilfields 

Byron Alexander
Byron Alexander

@Brick Wahl @craig hill For war to be profitable it does not have to benefit the many, only the few. If it amounts to a large loss for most citizens then this a an additional benefit for those with funds to exploit the ones having weak finances. I know some that profited from the Iraq conflict and they practically salivate at the prospect of another confrontation. Formerly middle-of-the-road politically they support hawkish Republican politicians now without wanting to bother themselves overmuch about the rights and wrongs.

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