The Great War and the Twentieth Century

By Stephenson, Scott | Military Review, November/December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Great War and the Twentieth Century


Stephenson, Scott, Military Review


THE GREAT WAR AND THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, Jay Winter, Geoffrey Parker, and Mary R. Habeck, eds., Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2000, 356 pages, $30.00.

The advent of the end of the 20th century inspired historians to reflect on and reconsider World War I, which was the one event that most clearly shaped the 20th century. The historical significance of the war is unquestionable, especially if one views World War II as a product of World War I.

With 80-plus years separating us from the cataclysmic events of 1914-- 1918, we might expect scholars to share a high degree of consensus about what happened and why. Yet, ironically, the Great War's effect on modem culture served to undermine such a consensus. As Modris Eksteins explains in the final essay of The Great War and the Twentieth Century, World War I exploded the unifying cultural power of history. No single version of history remains; there are only historians and their distinctive interpretations.

This collection of essays reflects the diverse and somewhat fractured nature of modern historiography. The contributors offer a variety of approaches ranging from Michael Howard's traditional argumentative essay on the meaning of the war to Leonard Smith's postmodernist analysis of soldier experience. The topics vary considerably as well and include cultural analysis by Eksteins, a survey of diplomatic history by Zara Steiner, an analysis of economic mobilization by Gerald Feldman, and a historiographical expose by Holger Herwig.

If the reader is not sufficiently jarred by the collection's diversity of approach and topic, he will be surprised by the occasionally contradictory conclusions the authors reach. Howard, for example, believes the sacrifices the Allies made were justified because victory by a Germany led by military strategist Erich Ludendorff would have meant "Germany and Europe would have been a much nastier place." William C. Fuller argues that a German victory in World War I might have prevented the rise of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Whether one accepts his point or not, Fuller's essay on the Eastern Front is the most directly useful to the student of military history.

Fuller acknowledges the enduring influence of Norman Stone's book, The Eastern Front, 1914-1917 (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. …

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