The Two World Wars That Shaped the 20th Century

By Bernstein, Lewis | Military Review, March/April 2002 | Go to article overview

The Two World Wars That Shaped the 20th Century


Bernstein, Lewis, Military Review


MR Review Essay

The 20th century was shaped by two world wars. The result of World War I was the collapse of the German, Austrian, Turkish, and Russian empires that gave rise to fascism and communism. World War II hastened the end of European colonial empires in Africa and the Far East and brought about the emergence of two super powers-the United States and the Soviet Union.

In The Great World War, 1914-- 1945: Volume 1, Lightning Strikes Twice (HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2001) and The Great World War, 1914-1945: Volume 2, Who Won? Who Lost? The Peoples' Experience (HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2001), editors Peter Liddle, John Bourne, and Ian Whitehead compare the experiences of the various nations in the two conflicts and question the received wisdom commonly associated with them. Volume I concentrates on military affairs. Volume 2 deals with each war's effeet on the societies within the countries involved in the conflict.

The editors remind readers of the wars' similarities despite a tendency of most analysts to emphasize the differences between them. World War I is usually seen as "bad"; it was an avoidable conflict, directed by incompetents, which resulted in mass slaughter in the trenches on the Western Front. Historians see World War II as being a "good" war; it was an unavoidable conflict against monstrous tyrannies directed by relatively competent generals who used high-- tech methods to move across battlefields at relatively small cost. As these volumes remind us, such views are not completely true. Massive atrocities in World War I foreshadowed those in World War II. The 1914-1918 commanders were about as competent as their 1939-1945 successors.

The British Experience

In the 33 comparative essays in Volume 1, Lightning Strikes Twice, the mostly British scholars write about experiences on the frontlines, in leadership, and of occupation. The topics of individual chapters include the following:

* Relations between major coalition warfare partners, such as Britain and France; Britain and the United States; and Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary.

* Comparisons in military and political leadership, in particular that of the principal British generals and England's prime ministers Lloyd George and Winston Churchill as well as German strategist Erich Ludendorff, Japanese General Hideki Tojo, French marshal Ferdinand Foch, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Russian commanders Aleksey Brusilov and Georgi Zhukov.

* The effects of occupation in Belgium, France, and Poland and of genocide in Armenia in 1915 and Romania in 1942.

The Peoples' Experience

Volume 2, Who Won? Who Lost? The Peoples' Experience, has a broader scope than Volume 1. The first part explores the far-ranging implications of total war and how they affected the societies of Canada, South Africa, the United States, India, New Zealand, Russia, Italy, China, Australia, the Balkans, Japan, India, the Arab world, and the African empires of Britain and France. These chapters also detail how the Netherlands and Sweden fared as neutrals. Many of the chapters are sketchy, attempt to cover too much ground, or are drawn too narrowly. However, each chapter contains useful bibliographical references, casts light on unknown aspects of the wars, or indicates areas for future research.

The second part of this volume concentrates on cultural experiences and is narrowly drawn, limning the ways in which British artists, writers, and the entertainment industry responded to the wars. …

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