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14-18 by Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau


Understanding the Great War

by Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau & Annette Becker & translated by Catherine Temerson

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-8090-4642-3
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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.”

And a terrible weight it is: a savage, unprecedented bloodletting that the European nations that participated in it nearly 90 years ago now seem eager to examine and commemorate. Audoin-Rouzeau (History/Univ. of Picardie Jules Verne) and Becker (History/Univ. of Paris X–Nanterre) take an utterly unromantic view of the conflict. There’s no talk of the “war to end all wars” here, but instead a grim, statistically rich account of the price those nations paid for their part in the struggle. This lack of romanticism is important, the authors hint, if only because so much has been written lately of Christmas truces and cross-trench fraternization—more, it seems, than of the combatants’ thorough hatred of each other. “In the context of personal or family memory,” the authors observe, “it is better to be a victim than an agent of suffering and death.” Whether victims or agents, the soldiers who fought in WWI did so out of a keen, nearly racist sense of difference, their enemies having been carefully presented to them as subhuman or otherwise undesirable. (One French sociologist claimed that “the odor of the German race has always produced very unpleasant sensations on the olfactory function of our compatriots in Alsace-Lorraine.”) And those soldiers brought forth a new language for war: for example the German term Verwüstungschlact, for example, “a difficult word to translate, which combines the ideas of ruin, devastation and butchery and that emphasizes the human slaughter involved.” Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker bat around plenty of theory, as French scholars are wont, but they also offer plenty of real-world examples of horror: concentration camps, mass executions, and the culture of bereavement that followed a conflict that left more than three million widows across Europe.

Of great interest to students of the war, and anthropologically inclined students of warfare generally.