One of the most violent conflicts in the history of civilization, World War I has been strangely forgotten in American culture. It has become a ghostly war fought in a haze of memory, often seen merely as a distant preamble to World War II. In The Long Shadow critically-acclaimed historian David Reynolds seeks to broaden our vision by assessing the impact of the Great War across the twentieth century. He shows how events in that turbulent century—particularly World War II, the Cold War, and the collapse of Communism—shaped and reshaped attitudes to 1914–18.
By exploring big themes such as democracy and empire, nationalism and capitalism, as well as art and poetry, The Long Shadow is stunningly broad in its historical perspective. Reynolds throws light on the vast expanse of the last century and explains why 1914–18 is a conflict that America is still struggling to comprehend. Forging connections between people, places, and ideas, The Long Shadow ventures across the traditional subcultures of historical scholarship to offer a rich and layered examination not only of politics, diplomacy, and security but also of economics, art, and literature. The result is a magisterial reinterpretation of the place of the Great War in modern history.
©2014, 2013 David Reynolds (P)2014 Audible Inc.
There is a lot of good stuff in this book, but I think the author strains for contemporary relevance a bit too much sometimes. He's good when he sticks to the conventional way of doing this kind of book -- the impact of the war on the interwar era and on WWII, as well as how the war has been remembered, in academic and popular histories, in high and popular culture, and in monuments and commemoration. The focus is largely but not totally on Britain, and other countries (US, Germany, France, Australia, NZ) are brought in largely to do some good compare and contrast with Britain.
However, when he tries to carry forward into our times, it's a bit strained. It's hard to see how WW I is really related to the euro, the Scottish referendum and a lot of other stuff he talks about. Sometimes it works though -- he says that in looking at Chamberlain at Munich, it wasn't just fear of another round of trench warfare, it was also bombing of Britain, which many people worried would be much more devastating that it turned out to be. He mentions nuclear bombs and the Cuban Missile crisis as analogy to make the fear more real to a contemporary audience, and more understandable to those who view Munich as merely shorthand for revolting and foolish cowardice in the face of evil.
The reader does an OK job. He's a Brit and pronounces things correctly, but tries to do the accents and fails miserably. The best he does is a sort of a (probably unintentional) comedy Irishman, but his Aussie and New Zealanders are so unrecognizable as to not even be funny.
Now for some pettiness on my part that you can ignore, if you like. I think he is grossly unfair to US policymakers on the decision to drop the Bomb on Japan, and in fact dishonestly so, since his expertise means that he surely knows all the facts. Second, he unloads on Niall Ferguson as tendentious in his popular history on WW I; I heartily agree, but Reynolds probably shouldn't be casting the first stone here. Also he really lets Paul Fussell have it for the Great War and Modern Memory. But I think that is shooting fish in a barrel; it's obvious the book is lit crit and not history, and that it rehearses a point of view that was cliche in Britain, but was new to the US. I suspect Reynolds is a bit annoyed that (1) Fussell sold more books that Reynolds ever will (2) the book was overpraised by US reviewers who were literary people and not historians, and therefore not aware that Fussell was going over old ground and not very rigorously at that (true but not Fussell's fault.) To me, Fussell's work is interesting as a genre of its own: lit crit tacitly informed by the author's own WW II combat experience.
David Reynolds' history of the consequences of WWI is great in, for instance, its emphasis on reminding us not to look at the Interwar era anachronistically as its contemporaries considered it the Postwar era (until WWII came along, obviously) and he similarly cautions against interpreting WWI in the light of WWII.
However, I was increasingly frustrated by his implicit view of the U.K. as the "standard model" against which deviations were judged (and typically viewed as failings). This made Reynolds' narrative into something that ended up resembling an updated version of the British tradition of the Whig interpretation of history where Britain is the model of proper, modern, liberal, democratic civilisation and every other society or state is evaluated based on how well it conforms to this British ideal (stereo)type.
Sure, Reynolds state upfront that his main focus is Britain and to a lesser extent the US, but even so, it ought to be possible to write such a book without veering off into this Whig'ish view of history.
This perspective and the complete lack of self consciousness about it and its provenance is why I end up giving only 3 stars to a book that I'd otherwise would easily give 4 and perhaps even 5 stars.
I have nothing against the narrator, however, as the narrative flowed well and was easy on the ears as well as being clear and unproblematic to follow.
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