A War without Winners PBS Brings the Great War to Painful Life

By Patton, Charlie | The Florida Times Union, November 10, 1996 | Go to article overview

A War without Winners PBS Brings the Great War to Painful Life


Patton, Charlie, The Florida Times Union


It was a war without a great cause, an epic multi-national

temper tantrum that served the interests of no one.

It was also, for the countries that started it, a war without a

winner. It killed 9 million, maimed 21 million more and haunted

the lives of countless others.

Five great European powers plunged recklessly into the abyss;

all suffered terrible consequences:

Revolution swept away Russia's Romanov dynasty, replacing it

with seven decades of Soviet tyranny.

France was bled white, its countryside ravaged, its industrial

base destroyed.

Britain lost the flower of a generation and became a debtor

nation for the first time; it entered an era of decline, its

empire gradually vanishing.

Austria-Hungary ceased to exist, its ancient Hapsburg dynasty

exiled, their empire dismembered.

Germany, its Hohenzollern rulers forced into exile, was left

devastated and vulnerable to the siren song of Adolf Hitler and

the Nazis.

Only the United States, which entered late and missed the worst

of it, emerged better off from the conflict, having established

itself as an international power.

But, for the most part, the war had settled nothing. Instead it

created famine, plague, poverty and undying hatred. Ultimately,

the war to end all wars led only to another, greater war. That

conflagration, World War II, would result in the slaughter of

more than 50 million, making the horror of The Great War seem

bearable by comparison.

Thus it is fitting that throughout The Great War and the

Shaping of the 20th Century , an eight-hour documentary

miniseries that debuts tonight on PBS, there is an air of sorrow

and a tone of eulogy, made almost palpable by Mason Daring's

haunting musical score.

This is a tale not of heroism, but of butchery and folly. As

narrator Salome Jens says in the documentary's opening moments,

"World War I set the violent 20th century in motion."

It was the first war in which gas and chemical weapons were

used, the first war in which aerial bombardment was employed; in

the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians, it introduced genocide

to the 20th century, and it blurred the line between civilian

and soldier. "Everyone became a soldier one way or another,"

Jens says.

Jay Winter, an American professor at Cambridge University who

was creative consultant on this series, uses the term

"mobilization of the imagination" to describe the war's legacy.

By that he means a commitment to total war, a commitment based

on a virulent hatred of the enemy, a hatred that rationalizes

any action. Such a war obeys no rules or codes of conduct and

makes no distinction between combatants and non-combatants. In

other words, the kind of war that swept the world again from

1939 to 1945. The kind of war still found in places like Serbia.

The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century , which airs

in two-hour installments beginning at 9 p.m. on each of the next

four nights, is reminiscent, both for its epic sweep and for its

technique, of the best of Ken Burns.

Vintage film and still photography are mixed with occasional

glimpses of sites as they look today. Jens' narration, written

by, among others, executive producer Blain Baggett and by

Winter, is supplemented by readings from contemporary accounts,

with voices provided by, among others, Ralph Fiennes, Louis

Gossett Jr., Jeremy Irons, Yaphet Kotto, Malcolm McDowell,

Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson. Finally, there is an

impressive collection of expert commentators. …

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