The sheer scope of World War I is staggering: More than 65 million soldiers from more than a dozen nations participated in battles from Cameroon to the Palestinian territories to the Balkans and at least 9 million were killed. Despite this, present-day perceptions of the conflict are hazy: Many recall trench warfare, barbed wire, relentless machine gun fire, and little else.
The task of historian David Reynolds in The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century is therefore twofold: introduce and explain one of the most gargantuan conflicts of all time and then make clear why that conflict still matters. At the first task he is masterly and dutiful, briefly versing readers in the economic and political underpinnings of every significant movement of the era.
But it is well that Reynolds takes his time in approaching the heart of the book. Without a firm grounding in the powers and people that clashed in the war, describing the war’s impact on history, culture, and politics would not be possible. And that effect cannot be overstated: The seeds of nearly every major event to follow, from World War II to the cold war to generations and counter-generations of art, music, and economic development, were planted in the Great War and its immediate aftermath.
For starters, as Reynolds writes, the war is one of the keys to understanding the current bloody muddle that defines the Middle East. Rough-and-tumble colonial annexation and amalgamation were the modes of the day, and the appropriation and dissection of the corpse of the Ottoman Empire was handled with such cavalier disregard that it set up generations of mayhem to follow.
Britain’s carving up of Persia, Mandatory Palestine, and Mesopotamia (roughly speaking present-day Iran, greater Israel, and Iraq) during the World War I era was particularly unfeeling, to say the least. As British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour forthrightly declared, “I do not care under what system we keep the oil.” The long-term result was an Iraqi state made up of Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites – three mutually hostile groups – and an Iran that had a mistrust of foreign powers woven into its political DNA.
As compelling as “The Long Shadow” is on the topics of war and colonialism, the book truly (and unexpectedly) takes flight when Reynolds turns his eye toward art and culture. If your knowledge of World War I-related art begins with Otto Dix and ends with Britain’s war poets, Reynolds has a delicious smorgasbord of additional works, movements, and creators for you to ponder – everything from Cubism to war memorials to antiwar theater – each presented with special focus on its impact on the future.
There’s no shame in military history books that stick to the facts, dates, and people involved. But there’s an almost joyful profundity to be found in taking a broader, more thoroughly contextualized approach, one that includes the humanity and philosophy that often get pushed to the margins by war’s shrapnel and concussive blasts.
And today, as great powers circle Ukraine and the Pacific’s disputed islands and potential conflicts loom, “The Long Shadow” may have a particularly apt message for a new generation. In this book Reynolds ably and dramatically depicts the many unforeseen and unimagined consequences of war – not just for the dead and wounded, but also for the living and the yet to be born.
James Norton is a regular Monitor contributor.