Frank Furedi’s sweeping statements

I’m currently nearly half way through Frank Furedi’s new book, First World War – Still no End in Sight, I’m partly impressed by it, and partly annoyed.
It’s a wide-ranging study of how the War disoriented Europe, and indeed the world, in ways that are still having repercussions. Parts are very good, such as the account of the crisis of democracy in the immediate post-war years.
What grates on me, though, is his fondness for the sweeping historical assertion. This is particularly evident in the introduction and first chapter, when he is packing in a lot of background material.
For example, he quotes with approval Francis Fukuyama’s statement that:

‘many European publics simply wanted war because they were fed up with the dullness and lack of community in civilian life.’

Really? I like to imagine Messrs Furedi and Fukuyama approaching a Frenchman who was leaving his weeping family so that he could take up arms to defend his country, which had just been brutally invaded, and telling him cheerfully: ‘Of course, you’re really only doing this because you’re bored.’ The demotic French of the poilu’s reply would, I think, be quite an education.
I’m always sceptical of historians and critics who confidently describe the unconscious motivation even of an individual. I’m even more dubious when they try to explain the behaviour of a whole class or country in such terms. But these two are psychoanalysing a whole continent, and reducing the complexities of Europe-wide nationalist feelings, in all their variety, to mere ennui.
Elsewhere, he simplifies. When working up to a generally intelligent discussion of how the Great War led to a loss of imperial confidence, he claims that:

It is important to recall that, until that point, ‘a belief in the eventual Europeanisation of the world, in the sense of European dominance of the world and global acceptance of Europe’s civilisation as a model’ was a rarely contested assumption of the pre-war age.

Rarely contested? The pre-war age had seen the scandal of King Leopold’s atrocities in the Congo, which had caused much disquiet about the European Imperial venture. In Britain, the Boer War had been bitterly divisive, and anti-Imperial feeling was strong. Going further back, the shock of the Indian Mutiny had been a far greater blow to British Imperial confidence than the Great War would be.
But these sweeping statements, which occasionally make me growl as I’m reading, somewhat to my wife’s discomfort, only partly mar a book which has many good bits. Perhaps I’ll write about some of them later.

2 Comments

  1. Posted February 22, 2014 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    Hi George,
    Far be it from me to defend Francis “End of History” Fukuyama, but I suspect his assertion hinges on how one interprets “publics”. I quite agree that it is absurd to suggest that industrial or agricultural labourers and their families in any of the belligerent nations – even Germany – were thirsting for war in 1914. On the other hand, I think it is reasonable to say that some half-conscious yearning for a big explosion can be detected fairly easily in a lot of “educated” writing and speechifying in the lead-up to 1914. Journalistic extremism, for example, is a marked feature of the period. But I agree with you rather than Fukuyama in that such extremism did not necessarily mean that people “wanted war”. There was a desire for some kind of release in the Zeitgeist, but this desire could be expressed by throwing up one’s clerical job and becoming a poet or a painter as much as by wishing for some international cataclysm. On the other hand, I think your remarks about the Congo and the Boer War serve to strengthen rather than weaken an argument for “flight into war”. British poetry of the period (I don’t know enough about the poetry of other nations) is strongly marked by disquiet over what Binyon called “factious lips” and “sour division”, and the torrent of patriotic versification that followed the war’s outbreak endlessly reiterates the theme that internal divisions are now forgotten as the country unites in the Sacred Cause. But, of course, one can adduce examples and counter-examples forever in this kind of discussion . . .

  2. Posted February 23, 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    You’re doubtless right about Fukuyama’s us of ‘publics’, but the trouble with Furedi is that he elides various types of public – the intellectuals, the ruling classes and the general public – when making his generalisations.
    This is a pity, because his book’s big thesis – about the progress from war between nations, to war between ideologies, to war between cultures – is an interesting one, but he backs it up with any evidence that comes to hand, without much discrimination.


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