“History is not the past. It is the stories we tell about the past. How we tell these stories – triumphantly or self-critically, metaphysically or dialectally – has a lot to do with whether we cut short or advance our evolution as human beings.”
– Grace Lee Boggs, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century
Last night I finished reading To End All Wars; A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, by Adam Hochschild. It’s an excellent read about WWI but with a twist. He doesn’t focus exclusively on battles, generals and the war machine, instead he brings in the complex social fabric (e.g. suffragettes, peace activists, conscientious objectors and socialists) and weaves it within the aristocracy, colonialism, capitalism, nationalism, and militarism of the early 20th century. Focusing on Britain, Hochschild sets the stage by including the Boer War in South Africa and British provocation and atrocities that seemed to be a foreshadowing of what was coming in WWI. He then leads us through four years of national fervor, military blundering and disregard for one’s own men at the Somme and Passchendaele, government propaganda, and the prejudice and ill treatment of those citizens opposed to the war.
Although much of WWI has been forgotten, it was a key turning point in modern history and instead of being the war to end all wars it led to an even greater world war (WWII) some twenty years later. And while it may have been a tipping point for the slow demise of government sanctioned empire and colonialism and the road toward social justice including women’s rights, prison reform, and class reform, there is no denying that it accelerated technological advances in weaponry, rockets, chemical warfare and our current military machine. One of the great and prophetic quotes about science that Hochschild relays is from an unlikely source, Lord Lansdowne, a great landowner, former viceroy of India and secretary of war, “Just as this war has been more dreadful than any war in history, so, we may be sure, would the next war be even more dreadful than this. The prostitution of science for purposes of pure destruction is not likely to stop short.” Nor has it.
The title for the book is appropriate given that it focuses on socialism and peace activism in the time of war as much as the military aspects, and is itself both a plea and a pathway for standing up for peace at all times, especially in times of war. WWI started one hundred years ago and changed forever the face of war. As Grace Lee Boggs states, how we tell the stories of the past, in this case by raising the forgotten voices of those calling for social justice, peace, and world citizenship in the midst of the national fervor and world war is critical for how we address similar inequality, nationalism and class privilege in the 21st century. I hope that someday, we will learn from our past.