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Understanding the Great War
Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker
Hill and Wang, November 2003
ISBN: 978-0-8090-4643-0, ISBN10: 0-8090-4643-1,
5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches, 288 pages, Notes/Index,
Trade Paperback, $17.00
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Outstanding Academic Title
It is no surprise that almost a century after the catastrophe of the Great War, its terrible history continues to dominate the imagination of the West. As this book shows, in painful and important ways the Great War was the matrix on which all subsequent disasters of the twentieth century were formed. Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker, setting aside the overly familiar scholarly tasks of assigning responsibility for the war, accounting for its battles, and assessing its causes, instead examine three neglected but highly significant aspects of the conflict, each of which changed national and international affairs forever.
First, the war was unprecedented in its physical violence and destruction: Why was this so? What were the effects of tolerating it for four years? Second, not just the soldiers but also the citizens of all the belligerent states seemed motivated and exalted by a vehement nationalistic, racist animus against the enemy: How had this "crusade" mentality evolved? Did it ever dissipate? Third, with its millions of deaths the war created a tidal wave of grief, since tens of millions of people worldwide were bereaved: How could the mourners ever come to terms with the agonizing pain? These elements, all too often overlooked or denied, are the ones we must come to grips with if we are ever going to understand the Great War.
With its original interpretative strength and its wealth of compelling documentary evidence drawn from all sides in the conflict, this innovative work has quickly established itself as a classic in the history of modern warfare.
"This fine book by two of France's eminent historians of World War I undertakes an important task: to understand the Great War. Such an enterprise is especially valuable for Americans, who often focus on World War II to the near exclusion of the first and consequently miss the importance of the latter as the crucible of the twentieth century and of the 1939-1945 war . . . This excellent little book is a 'must' read for those who would understand the nature of World War I and its effect on European society. The book's lucid explication of the complex nature of the war's effect on Europe renders it eminently accessible not only to the academic audience for use in the classroom but also to a general public that sorely needs to understand the significance of the seminal event of the twentieth century for Europe as we embark upon a new millennium."—
John H. Morrow, Jr.,
"Extraordinarily lucid on complex themes . . . A slim, distilled work [that] offers a splendidly readable synoptic introduction to the comparative and interdisciplinary work of [the Historial de la Grande Guerre]. The translation is smooth and, by and large, free of technical misunderstandings."—
"The group of researchers at the Historial of the Great War have, with their immense body of work, fundamentally reordered our approach to and understanding of the First World War. Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker offer in this book the first synthesis of this research [and] open new perspectives . . . [Their work] proposes a profound break with the historiography of the past . . . and their approach allows us to begin to understand Europe's collective suicide in 1914, which was for so long incomprehensible."—
"This work examines three neglected but highly significant aspects of the Great War, each of which changed national and international affairs forever. First, why was the war unprecedented in its physical violence and destruction? What were the effects of tolerating it for four long years? Second, not just the soldiers but also the citizens of all the belligerent states seemed motivated and exalted by a vehement nationalistic, racist animus against the enemy: How had this 'crusade' mentality evolved? Did it ever dissipate? Third, with its millions of deaths the war created a tidal wave of grief. How could the mourners come to terms with the agonizing pain? This book demonstrates how the Great War formed the matrix on which all subsequent disasters of the 20th century were formed."—
"A compelling history . . . There is a mountain of information here, not about the generals or the armies taken as a whole, but the individuals: quotes from letters, fragments, reading of memorials, historical documents, but always returning to the human scale of it."—
The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities
"A passionate work intended to make us reconsider what François Furet called 'one of the most enigmatic events in modern history' . . . Not only an exploration of the past but also a meditation on history, and on those historians who looked at the world of the past through the lens of honesty, in order to give it clarity, sense, and truth."—
"Opens up an often provocative perspective on the Great War . . . Its sometime comparative, anthropological dimension is in itself revolutionary . . . A rich work, grounded both in a concrete understanding of the First World War itself and in a more general consideration of the era of the war."—
La Quinzaine Littéraire
"A pioneering, impassioned book."—
Le Figaro Littéraire
"[A] stimulating analysis of WWI as 'a paradigm case for thinking about what is the very essence of history: the weight of the dead on the living' . . . Of great interest to students of the war, and anthropologically inclined students of war."—
"Directors of the Historial of the Great War in Peronne, France, the authors have written an innovative work concerning some neglected aspects of World War I. Breaking with historiography of the past, the authors take an anthropological approach to the cataclysm that engulfed Europe in 1914 and examine three significant aspects of the war: violence, crusade, and mourning. Never before in the history of warfare had there been so much physical violence. The Great War was also a crusade for all countries involved. Nationalistic and racist attitudes against the enemy are thoroughly discussed. Millions of deaths were caused by the war, creating a collective mourning and personal bereavement for the survivors. Supported by contemporary documentation, this unique work will become a classic study. Recommended for all collections."—
"Over the last 15 years, French scholars have produced a body of research that has fundamentally altered the history of WWI, though much of the work remains largely unknown in the U.S. The authors, directors of the French Museum of the Great War, draw on much of that work and see the war through three transformative, overlapping lenses: violence, crusade and mourning. In a striking contradiction to current U.S. historians' approaches, the authors assert the necessity of battle history—not as a techno-historical end in itself, but as source material for a richly textured analysis of the interrelated effects of violence on soldiers and civilians alike, culminating in a discussion of the way the confinement of military prisoners and the widespread internment of civilians combined to institutionalize a 'concentration-camp phenomenon that would reemerge two decades later in far more sinister contexts.' Further, when the combatants began by defining the war in patriotic terms, as a war of national defense, it became a crusade. Patriotism escalated into a perception of the conflict as between civilization and barbarism, a dichotomy accompanied by crude hatreds and reflexive dehumanization of the enemy, fueled by the experiences of military occupation, and by the myths (or what we might now call 'urban legends') produced by it. The final consequence, the authors argue persuasively, was the development of full-blown eschatologoical expectations—that the war would really prepare the way for God's dominion on earth. The resulting disillusion opened the way for individual and collective mourning as the bereavements caused by war finally sank in. Disillusion, however, also opened the path to even higher levels of violence . . . In the final analysis, the authors suggest, the Great War left a dual legacy—grief and totalitarianism."
About the Author(s)
, of the Jules Verne University of Picardy, and
, of the University of Paris X-Nanterre, both have written extensively on World War I. They are directors of the Historial of the Great War, an international museum and research center at the Château de Péronne, near the Somme.
© 2014 Macmillan