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After the Fire The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century
By David Reynolds (Simon & Schuster 519pp £25)
The central tension in this refresh- ingly contrarian book becomes apparent near the start. Discussing Woodrow Wilson’s dictum ‘the world must be made safe for democracy’, pronounced in 1917, Reynolds writes:
The crisis of 1917–18 ignited the Bolshevik revolution in Russia … The backlash against it fuelled Mussolini’s fascist movement, which gained power in Italy in 1922. By the 1930s fascist or right-wing authoritarian regimes, backed by military force, had become the norm across central and eastern Europe, and above all in Germany. Even France became polarised between right and left. In this new age of communism and fascism, of mass politics and political ‘supermen’, the liberal variant of democracy seemed antiquated and irrelevant.
Reynolds recognises that the Great War was, in fact, what it has long been thought to be – a disaster for Europe and the world, which inflicted catastrophic damage on democratic government and liberal values (however imperfectly these were embodied at the time). But he also argues that the image of the Great War as an event of almost apocalyptic magnitude and consequences, which he believes was first shaped by poets and later refracted through the lens of the Second World War, is a cultural construction rather than a well-founded historical assessment. Britain, he maintains, escaped the destabilising conflicts that the war produced in continental Europe and beyond. ‘Bucking the trend, Britain remained a liberal polity, adapting its representative institutions to the era of mass electorates and class politics.’ He goes on to suggest that it may be time that we revised the inherited picture of the First World War. For us – the British – it was hardly the vast upheaval it is commonly represented as having been.
While not contradictory, these two parts of Reynolds’s argument pull in rather different directions. The war may not have shaken Britain to its foundations, but it altered irrevocably the world in which it was enmeshed. Reynolds says as much himself in the book’s last chapter: ‘This was not a world war in the full extent of 1939–45 but its repercussions were global. The war transformed relationships across the British Empire, it reshaped the Middle East, particularly Palestine and Iraq, and shifted the balance of power in Africa and East Asia.’ Even this may be to understate the war’s impact. It also caused financial power to gravitate to the United States – as noted by John Maynard Keynes, when he wrote in a letter to his mother in 1917 of his fear that as a result of the war ‘this country will be mortgaged to America’.
Again, it did not appear to British political and military elites at the time that the country was safe from blowback from the war. In 1918, along with other Western powers (and for a time Japan), Britain became an active participant in the Russian Civil War – a badly mismanaged and possibly futile intervention, but one that reflected a definite sense of vulnerability on the part of the British state. There were also threats closer to home. Ireland figures extensively in the book, and Reynolds is clear about the importance of the war for that country. He cites approvingly the view that ‘the Great War is the single most central experience of twentieth century Ireland’ and speculates that if the British had ended up on the losing side in 1918, the Ulster Protestants ‘might have been reduced to second-class citizens in a united Ireland’. Yet he seems reluctant to accept that the Irish Revolution might be an instance of the fragility of power and authority that was so obvious elsewhere in Europe. While the demand for independence long preceded the Easter Rising of 1916, it was the war that gave Irish nationalism its revolutionary momentum. In at least part of the realm, the British state faced a challenge to its legitimacy,
Literary Review | m a r c h 2 0 1 4 8