Why are we still haunted by WWI?

Sandra Martin of the Globe and Mail asked this question of Margaret MacMillan in Saturday’s newspaper. MacMillan is the author of the widely praised and very successful book Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. She will soon release a new book, The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. This writer knows more about WWI than most and her answer is compelling.

Because we still don’t know what to make of it. We’re still horrified by the loss, by the sense that it may have all been a mistake, by the sheer waste, and by what happened afterward. Nothing much was settled, it helped to brutalize European society, to breed ideologies like fascism and Bolshevism, to prepare the way for the horrors that came in the 1920s and 1930s and the Second World War. It’s also a war that created the modern world. It had its greatest impact on Europe, of course, but it shaped Canada and Australia, helped to speed the rise of the United States to superpower status and redrew the map of much of the world. It was a watershed that remains one of the greatest historical puzzles.

No wonder WWI fascinates so many.
I’d encourage you to read the rest of the article where Margaret MacMillan discusses more about WWI, the Cold War and events in Syria from the perspective of someone who is: “interested in the balance between big currents in history – the economies, the ideologies, social structures and so on – and the decisions that people have to make. At the heart of all these great decisions to go to war and human beings who have to say, ‘Yes, let’s do it,’ or ‘No, we won’t do it.’ “

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7 Responses

  1. Those involved in wars usually say nothing, those alive now look back and talk and discuss. Here we are in the UK with 100 years since 1914, the start of WW1 coming up next year, a chance to pause and remember. Tribes and people are still fighting each other around the world as they have done since man came out of the sea. BAC are about to have the first test flight of an intelligent drone aircraft soon. The science fiction of the Terminator films appears to be coming. I was quite taken with a TV historian standing on some Aztec ruins saying they could still be here long after mankind has destroyed itself. Better get our books all written and published! – Alexander.

  2. It was such a brutal and senseless war. But it has inspired some incredible literature: Pat Barker’s trilogy, Birdsong, All Quiet on the Western Front. Just more evidence that we’re still grappling with what it all meant.

  3. What an interesting article, thanks for bringing it forward.
    WWI has long fascinated me, partly because it was probably the most destructive war ever fought to date, and one of the most seemingly pointless. I get the impression that no leader on any side really wanted this war, but it just…happened. And then when it did, it was fought in such a bafflingly clumsy fashion that caused an almost unimaginable scale of brutality. And, of course, one sees great dynasties in Russia, Austria, and Germany swept away like so much dust…
    It is in its way, one of the great historical mysteries.

    1. I like that notion of ‘mystery’ Undine. Margaret MacMillan has just (or is just about to) released a new non-fiction book about the lead up to WWI. It’s called The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. I’m putting it on my TBR list.

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