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.