- A History of the Great War: World War One and the International Crisis of the Early Twentieth Century
Eric Dorn Brose has written a history of the Great War with a subtitle that promises both the more usual European focus as well as an attempt to make this a study of the “world” in World War One. Indeed, a back cover blurb claims that the book is “explicitly global in scope.” As it is this latter element in which readers of this journal will be most explicitly interested, I will focus upon the degree to which the book succeeds at “world history.” Beyond this, I will also commend Brose where he adds to the “European” story, while also pointing out major themes readers will not find. To be fair, if one considers that Hew Strachan’s projected three-volume history of the First World War will run to more than four thousand pages, then one can imagine the amount that cannot be included in a work as epic as Brose’s that nevertheless has only a tenth of the space. Here one finds European soldiers, strategists, and politicians fighting each other with weapons, maps, and words in Europe and sometimes in various locations around the world. There is not a great deal here on non-European soldiers, in Europe or abroad, and civilians, whether on the European home front or non- Europeans in the wider world, receive very little attention at all. This is a solid, safe overview of the First World War, focusing on the classic themes and subjects, with some (at times very) serious nods toward the newer themes and subjects that have now enriched the field.
In the wake of the second and truly global conflict of 1939 –1945, a valid question is, Was the Great War a World War? Or was it simply a European civil war during which sometimes, in some exotic places, Europeans fought each other? For the most part, Brose’s text does little to dispel the latter notion. German cruisers battling British ships off the coasts of South America or East Africa may take us around the world, but in the end the “natives” remain invisible. Cursory mention of Indian or African porters walked to death does little to tell us how the First World War really changed the subcontinent or Africa. Only through analysis of, for example, the social effects of African men leaving villages for many years to fight on the western front, or descriptions of massive market shifts in Latin American economies in order to adjust to a European total war and all that it devoured, can one begin to provide a “world history” of this supposedly “world war.” The moments when Brose successfully makes this a history beyond the bounds of Europe, however, is when he deliberately shatters the markers [End Page 409] 1914 and 1918, elongating the pre- and postconflict story, especially with his remarks concerning the Russo-Japanese War.
In a book that otherwise imperially tells a story in which Europe “happens” to the rest of the world while that world passively looks on and suffers, Brose brilliantly illustrates a Japan that shocked Western observers in 1904–1905 and led, on the one hand, to European powers rethinking their use of technology, from artillery to the machinegun, and, on the other hand, to certain non-European powers (Turkey, Persia, China) modeling themselves militarily and institutionally after Japan. For this luxurious moment in the book, “history” happens outside the West. Again, at the end of the narrative, referencing the impact of increased “new world” agricultural output during the war, which led to massive amounts of cheap imports in the 1920s, preventing the rebirth of European agriculture as a major world player, we again have a moment in which the “global” history of the war really matters. Unfortunately there is little if any of this kind of “world history” during the actual war years.
One reoccurring theme, evident...