Adam Hochschild's To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 recounts the swath of horror World War I cut through British culture, British families and every aspect of British life. He weaves together the stories of ordinary and extraordinary people -- grieving relatives, trade unionists, politicians, soldiers, socialists, and imperialists -- to give readers a human-scale sense of the war's enormity.
It's not easy for us to take in the sheer awfulness it all. Every World War I historian I read tries to convey the horror and they all seem daunted. Here's a sample from Hochschild's summary description:
While this madness raged on the continent, in Britain, there remained a (very) few who resisted the war fever. At the war's outset, most people set aside any qualms. Perhaps most surprisingly, socialist trade unionists who had been proclaiming working class solidarity across borders quickly signed up for the national fight as did advocates for "votes for women" who had been throwing rocks at the Prime Minister's residence shortly before.
The prominent Cambridge academic philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell kept a perspective on the nationalist delirium.
For his pains, he and the little band of war resisters with whom he collaborated were subjected first to ostracism, then verbal and physical attack, and finally imprisonment. Anyone who resisted the national impulse to take revenge in the days immediately after 9/11 will recognize this description of the environment they found themselves in:
What's fascinating about Hochschild's account of the role of this eminent man was the extent to which he was willing not just to be a spokesman, but to share the work of building what seems to have been pretty efficient resistance under extremely difficult circumstances.
Of course, the war protesters couldn't stop that war -- or any of our subsequent wars. Though millions of men in the French army staged a brief mutiny and the Russian tzar was overthrown while his army melted away, the war ground on. Hochschild reflects on the resisters' all too minor part in the tapestry he weaves for us:
Yes -- and no. There are suggestive arguments that we live in a world in which war is far less frequent, widespread and legitimate than in the past. We do momentarily see the U.S. empire becoming less willing to endure U.S. casualties and to spend unlimited treasure on world dominance than in the recent past.
Just as World War I set many terrible developments in motion at the beginning of the last century, the British resisters to the "Great War" created a template for future anti-war movements. Adam Hochschild's volume brings both these figures and their antagonists to life.