The First World War: Battle of the books

The centenary of the outbreak of hostilities has mobilised both historians and publishers.

The Underworld: Taking cover in a Tube Station during a London air raid (1918) by Walter Bayes

Some Desperate Glory
Max Egremont

Egremont has done the seemingly impossible; not only has he found a new way of looking at Brooke, Owen, Sassoon et al but he has brought them to life. His book deals with 11 poets in the years they fought. Brooke was dead by 1915, while Edward Thomas didn’t start (and end) his war until 1917. These writers were not the homogeneous group they seem in retrospect but experienced and wrote about the war in all its different phases. This is Egremont’s simple but telling aperçu and he illustrates it with an evocative selection of their verse.
Picador, 304pp, £20

Englanders and Huns
James Hawes

The enmity between Britain and Germany that burst out so bloodily in 1914 had a 50-year backstory, argues James Hawes. His book chronicles the shifting attitudes of each country towards the other as Germany rose from a minor, almost comical central European power to become a threat to Britain that needed to be countered in the colonies and through an arms race. As Hawes shows to lively effect, the bickering was enthusiastically played out and intensified in the popular press of both nations.
Simon & Schuster, 448pp, £20

No Man’s Land: Writings from a World at War
Edited by Pete Ayrton

This handsome anthology of prose fiction emphasises the global nature of the war, with new translations of Croatian, Catalan, Italian, French and Hungarian texts, together with excerpts from classics such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. We hear from ambulance drivers, Indian soldiers, children playing “Armenians and Turks” and Czech soldiers lambasting the Austrian emperor (“A chap at the pub told us . . . he is breastfed three times a day”). The first passage, taken from Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu, exemplifies the hard-won irony that runs through the collection. Patients at a sanatorium receive the news that war has been declared. “Perhaps it is the war to end all wars,” says one. “An end to war! Can that be?” replies another. “The world’s affliction is incurable.”
Serpent’s Tail, 572pp, £25

1914: the Year the World Ended
Paul Ham

This broad-sweeping narrative history is intended to refute Christopher Clark’s watershed study of the year 1914, The Sleepwalkers. There was, the Australian historian Paul Ham writes, nothing sleepy about the outbreak of catastrophic hostilities: “A few powerful, old aristocratic men brought war on the world behind closed doors.” He sets out to prove that Europe’s leaders knew what they were doing and to explain why they went ahead anyway. Ham treats with scorn these men’s later claims that they were powerless to stop events that had taken on a tragic momentum of their own.
Doubleday, 736pp, £25

The Fateful Year: England 1914
Mark Bostridge

In his New Year message, the archbishop of York warned that 1914 might well prove a “very fateful year”. The government was bracing itself for civil war in Ireland, yet more strike action in England and an increasingly militant campaign for women’s suffrage. Meanwhile, trendy youths were learning the tango, a dance the Vatican feared as an “assassination of family and social life”. Mark Bostridge’s lively, sometimes surprising, social history of 1914 is told through a series of short stories, from the grisly murder of a schoolboy in north London and Prime Minister Asquith’s romantic woes to the first staging of Pygmalion and the contagion of spy fever that spread through the country.
Viking, 432pp, £25

The Great War and Modern Memory
Paul Fussell

A canonical piece of war criticism, the cultural historian Paul Fussell’s book – originally published in 1975 – seeks to identify the swerve in literary sensibilities that emerged from the shock of the First World War. Fussell argues for the emergence of “modern memory” in 1914 – a commonly felt assault on the European psyche, detectable in the poetry and memoirs of Blunden, Graves, Owen and Sassoon. Though struck through with generalisations and even inaccuracies his analysis of the themes and motifs of the era as they appeared between 1914 and 1918 (and shortly afterwards) remains highly influential.
Folio Society, 464pp, £44.95

World War I Love Stories
Gill Paul

This collection of sketches of 14 real-life romances demonstrates how the war enabled some love affairs yet destroyed others. In a nod to the inspiration for A Farewell to Arms, the book charts how Ernest Hemingway fell for the nurse tending his war wounds at a Milan hospital in 1918. The most affecting tale is that of an English captain on the run in occupied France who falls for a local beauty. The couple’s doomed affair ends, however, when the French belle’s neighbours betray him to the Germans. Ephemera including photos, letters, journal entries and maps vivify the stories.
Ivy Press, 192pp, £14.99

The Oxford Illustrated History of the First Word War
Edited by Hew Strachan

Professor Strachan’s primer includes chapters from 25 of the most distinguished historians of the conflict. Tackling subjects such as the origins of the war and manoeuvre warfare, it also discusses economic mobilisation, the role of propaganda and the rise of socialism. This new edition contains significant new material on the Central Powers’ strategy, the role of women in the war, mutinies and military morale. It is an essential introduction for all students of the First World War; the many photos included will also make it appeal to a general audience.
Oxford University Press, 400pp, £25

Outside Verdun
Arnold Zweig

This new translation by Fiona Rintoul of a German novel first published in 1935 presents the events at Verdun (in which Germany attempted to “bleed France white” by attacking its strongest point, resulting in more than 600,000 casualties) with grim clarity. Based on Zweig’s experiences as a Jewish private, it invests the German forces with the ills at large in society: class prejudice, anti-Semitism, incompetence. It is a thoughtful, sturdy novel and a response to the nationalistic fiction that sprang up after the war: it was subsequently burned by the Nazis. Zweig later fled to Palestine, returning in 1948 to become an MP.
Freight Books, 432pp, £12.99

Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War
Jerry White

The war, writes Jerry White, a historian of London, changed the capital profoundly. It became a mechanised hub: a hospital for wounded soldiers and an entrepôt for fresh ones, a munitions factory and a target for German Zeppelin raids. The effects were by no means all negative. The war also brought London full employment and improved public health and transformed the prospects for women. This is a rich social history and White is as adept with individual characters as he is with the statistics of munitions production or the rise in prostitutes walking the city’s streets.
Bodley Head, 368pp, £25

Secret Warriors
Taylor Downing

The war was not fought in the trenches alone. Scientists, Taylor Downing contends, played a crucial, if underacknowledged, role in Britain’s victory and their efforts enhanced our understanding of medicine, psychology, intelligence-gathering and aviation. Downing’s fascinating study of these pioneering men – and a few women – is as much about class as about science. Today, in an era of mass surveillance, it is amusing to think that army officers and government officials were reluctant to use aerial photography or cryptography to spy on the enemy as it seemed “ungentlemanly”.
Little, Brown, 448pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496