Necessary Lies

A well-crafted history arranges space and time into a set, frames a proscenium for our viewing, and knows when to raise the curtain and when to let it fall. It crafts order out of chaos; it conjures up beginnings, middles and ends where none exist, boxing up time, processing it and rendering it digestible. History may not bunk, but it is not necessarily truth, either. Based on a methodology is evidentiary argumentation, history has a logic all its own. Intellectual integrity and acumen holds great value for scholars.  On the other hand, history’s relationship with meaning is less secure. That tension, between History as a discipline and history as people understand it, is one of the core challenge of teaching history at the college level. It is difficult for students, too, as the distinction requires a judgement of genre, critical thinking, and meta-level analysis to recognize which intellectual tools to use and why.

The Great War stands as an incomprehensible disaster, a global conflict of epic proportions that set the table for the modern, and post-modern world. We can readily cite the chain of events that led to its beginning, but knowing about the assassination of the Archduke is not really all that helpful in understanding the war. Causality at a superficial level rejects deeper consequentialism.  The Great War defies comprehension and time, usually of benefit to gain perspective, has not been a useful ally.

Peter Englund calls his recent book The Beauty and the Sorrow: an intimate history of the First World War a work of “anti-history, an attempt to deconstruct this utterly epoch-making event into its smallest, most basic component – the individual, and his or her experience.” It is an amazingly powerful book, situated at the very intersection of History and history. It serves up the incomprehensible and gives the reader a tremendously powerful lens with which to try to build a picture of the incomprehensible nature of the war.

Englund weaves together a narrative from the journals and letters of twenty people who experienced some aspect of the conflict first hand. They include a British infantryman, the American-born wife of a Polish aristocrat, a French soldier, a Belgian air force pilot, an Australian driver in the Serbian army, a Russian engineer, and an Italian army alpine trooper. These correspondents struggle, triumph, fail and comment on the mundane and the transcendent around the world. Their observations make it clear that they, too, were wrestling with that which could not be understood, only experienced.

Personal histories are often not the most effective way to convey History. They can become trite, banal, or superficially interesting without really digging into the challenges that good histories serve up. They often rely on readers identifying with a character, or emotional appeals. The Beauty and the Sorrow has more than enough emotion for one volume. Englund’s characters are just that, too – individuals with strengths, weaknesses, flaws and assets. They are, above all, rendered as real people. That makes their intimate histories all the more powerful and moving.

I look forward to teaching this book and seeing how it affects students thinking about World War I and, in a larger manner, about how people make sense of history.

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