Cambridge history Professor David Reynolds has written a kaleidoscopic history of the influence of the Great War on the politics and culture of the twentieth century and early twenty first century. Although he discusses all of the major combatants, his primary focus is on the United Kingdom and Ireland. He goes well beyond the inter-war years that are covered very well by Richard Overy and Zara Steiner, and that is a major contribution. In my view his book is more of an academic history than a popular history and as a result I give it four stars, not five.
Reynolds covers the role of the anti-war poets (e.g. Sassoon, Owen and Blunden) and their impact in fermenting the anti-war sentiment that percolated through British society in the 1920s and 30s. Their views would be revived in America during the anti-war movements of the 1960s.
In economics he discusses the pressure to return to the pre-war gold standard the deflation it wrought on the global economy. But make no mistake he really doesn’t emphasize economics and he leaves out completely the London Economic Conference of 1933. He does cover the British economy well by highlighting the fact that the 1930s were far better for Britain than the 1920s and the adoption of a very aggressive housing policy by the Tory government. The Tory property owning society of the 1930s became the Republican ownership society in the early 2000s.
Most striking to me was the influence of the propaganda exaggerations of the German atrocities in 1914 Belgium anesthetized British and U.S. policy makers and public opinion to the reality of the 1942-45 extermination of European Jewry. Simply put all too many policy makers refused to believe that the holocaust was taking place.
He also discusses the role of Wilsonian idealism in American foreign policy. America’s role in the world is far different in 1945 that it was in 1918. A lesson was learned. The long shadow of the war shows up in George Bush’s democratization program in the middle-east earlier this century. It also shows up as the Wilson-Lenin rivalry of 1918 for global opinion that many believe to be at the origin of the Cold War.
All told Professor Reynolds has taught us that we are truly products of our past and I highly recommend this book to serious students of the history of the 20th century.
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