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January 7, 2012

“To End All Wars”

by Anne Paddock
I don’t often read historical books on wars because even after 50 years on this earth, I still don’t really understand the aggression and find the detail on battles and strategic moves boring. But after reading the reviews of “To End All Wars” by Adam Hochschild, I thought the book worthy of reading.

Adam Hochschild is a co-founder of Mother Jones, a professor, journalist and author who I first discovered back in the mid-1980’s when he wrote a book about his relationship with his father, Harold Hochschild (a very successful businessman who ran Amax – one of the largest mining companies in the world – and who was also a very large landowner in the Adirondacks).

At the time, some people thought the book ” Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son” was a scathing criticism of Harold while others saw the story more as a personal journey of understanding and acceptance, for the critics were mostly people who couldn’t reconcile the difference between what they saw as the perfect gentleman, businessman, and conservationist and what Adam saw as the cold, distant, and rigid father who planned every activity with a learning purpose in mind. The book was published in 1986, five years after Harold’s death and is a thoughtful and insightful story of a son coming to terms with his father’s shortcomings as a parent.

Since the publication of his first book, Adam Hochschild has published seven books that address human rights and history with his most recent publication “To End All Wars,” a 377-page story that initially examines the events leading up to the start of what most people refer to as World War I but what is also known as “The Great War” because of the “great” loss of life (estimates range from 10-35 million soldiers and civilians).

Most people think of the assassination of the Archduke of Austria and his wife in Sarajevo in June of 1914 as the spark that started the war but according to the author, the real sparks – worker uprisings and suffrage movements that threatened the upper ruling classes if not sidelined into another cause, Austria-Hungary’s determination to crush Serbia, and Germany’s grand ambitions to dominate Europe – along with rival alliances that obligated countries to come to the aid of those attacked produced a perfect storm for a world war.

To End All Wars” devotes a considerable amount of page space to the major political and military characters who had influence or power in shaping the war. Understanding these players and the context in which they made decisions that cost millions of lives personalizes the reader’s journey of understanding the war.  Once the foundation is laid, the author takes each year from 1914 – 1918 and the major battles that defined those years – Ypres, Yoos, Verdun (pictured below), Jutland, U-Boat Warfare, Somme, and Passchendaele – to describe the horrors of the battlefields, the inequities of who lived and who died, and how the Allied forces eventually prevailed.
When my husband and I spent a week touring these battlefields, I remember being struck by the miles and miles of farmland dotted with cemeteries that were once battlefields.  Farmers would be plowing the fields around fenced off areas where the dead were so numerous that they were often buried where they fell.

Throughout France and Belgium, memorials – Australian, New Zealand, American, British, South African and more – are dotted across the countryside with enlisted soldiers from their respective countries giving tours and answering questions all in honor of their fellow countrymen who lost their lives when they came to the aid of France, Belgium, Britain, and other countries. There were also mounds of wavy earth that looked like ski moguls without the snow among the flat fields:  the mounds were trenches that were left for survivors and visitors to see how this war was fought. 

I learned this brutal 4-year conflict was primarily battles of trench warfare complicated by barbed wire (a simple but effective weapon in this war) which slowed down or stopped forces on the offensive. Later in the war, all sides came to realize that the Calvary was no longer the preferred method of fighting when the opposing side uses machine guns from concrete bunkers to cut down thousands of men in their tracks. Traditional methods of warfare were eventually replaced with tanks (to get across the barbed wire), poisonous gas, planes, better communication equipment, and weapons that could reach longer distances.

In reading the book, I came to understand that World War 1 was clearly a defining moment of the 20th century. The author asks the question:

“Was its horrendous death toll heart-rending but necessary to prevent the German conquest of all of Europe? Or was it senseless, a spasm of brutal carnage that in every conceivable way remade the world for the worse?” 
He answers the question by writing: 
“…the Second World War, which grew so inevitably out of the First, did result in Germany’s overrunning almost all of Europe – and the Nazis carried out an immeasurably more murderous agenda than Kaiser Whilhelm II ever would have.The war that prevented a German conquest of Europe in 1914 virtually guaranteed the one that would begin in 1939.”  

In closing, Adam Hochschild so eloquently ends his book by writing “If we were allowed to magically roll back history to the start of the twentieth century and undo one – and only one – event, is there any doubt that it would be the war that broke out in 1914?”

As I finished the book, I couldn’t help but think that the publication of Adam Hochschild’s first book “Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son” seemed to release the author to move on. At 44 years old, he wrote an intimate story that portrayed his painful journey through child and young adulthood with a father that didn’t know how to love and nurture him and a mother that didn’t know how to protect him. By coming to terms with his family, he was free to soar and write the books that put great historical moments in the hands of readers like myself who otherwise may not have picked up a book about war.

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