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
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
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,"
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. …