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New Scholarship on World War I, 2000–2014: 1918–19: War's End, Paris Peace Conference & Memory

By Frederic Krome

1918–19: War's End, Paris Peace Conference & Memory

There are many studies about how wars begin; however, how they end receives less scrutiny.  David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918, provides a global perspective to answer the fundamental question of why the war ended in November 1918.  Stevenson juxtaposes broad strokes about such topics as the economic power of the Allies and Central Powers with careful consideration of the actions and impacts of individuals.

Scott Stephenson’s The Final Battle: Soldiers of the Western Front and the German Revolution of 1918 considers the relatively well-known story of November 1918 from the perspective of the German army, which maintained its cohesion despite the collapse of the home front and soldiers’ morale.  By returning home in order and marching in triumph through German cities, the army was able to craft a narrative of the last days of the war that was distinctly at odds with the reality of November 1918, and helped give rise to the “stab in the back” myth.

Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World is an impressive account of the original intent, constraints, and goals of the diplomats who sat down to hammer out a peace treaty in the aftermath of the Great War.  MacMillan uses the Big Three (Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd-George) as a starting point to analyze the agendas of the multitude of individuals who came to Versailles to achieve their largely nationalist aspirations.

One of the most powerful historical truisms about World War I is that soldiers went off to war enthusiastic and came back broken and disillusioned.  As recent research has indicted, the picture of the war’s beginning requires greater nuance, and that also implies that understanding the war’s legacy requires revision.  Janet S. K. Watson in Fighting Different Wars: Experience, Memory, and the First World War in Britain focuses on several comparisons in this revisionist account.  Her first comparison is of the wartime experiences of several families in which brothers and sisters were directly involved in the war (as soldiers and war workers).  During the war, the siblings were dedicated to what they were doing—in other words, the belief that the war was worth fighting remained popular.  Watson’s second comparison focuses on how the same people remembered the war over the next decades.  Not surprisingly, it was during this period that memories of the war transformed, often into bitterness.

Deborah Cohen, The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914-1939, argues that in Germany, it was the Weimar state that provided support for veterans, quickly marginalizing private aid organizations.  When the state could not meet their needs, veterans often turned to radical politics.  Meanwhile, in Britain, the state was marginal to the care of disabled veterans, and while anger against the government was intense, gratitude to civil society organizations helped keep veterans out of radical politics.  This comparative study of the postwar experiences of disabled veterans provides fascinating insight into both government policy and private philanthropy.

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, the United States had to deal with an unprecedented number of disabled veterans, many of whom became, in effect, wards of the state.  Beth Linker’s War’s Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America argues that it was a precedent that the U.S. government did not want to repeat, and therefore created a military/civilian medical-rehabilitation system, based on Progressive ideas, that was designed to rehabilitate disabled veterans as wage-earning members of society.  Linker’s book combines both medical history and gender analysis with the institutional history of the U.S. government, and is therefore an example of how interdisciplinary studies benefit the historiography.

As the study of gender issues during wartime has expanded, the impact of the aftermath of war on women (in particular, war widows) is also receiving scholarly attention.  Erika Kuhlman’s Of Little Comfort: War Widows, Fallen Soldiers, and the Remaking of the Nation after the Great War compares the experience of widows in Germany and the United States.  In each country, widows were symbols of sacrifice and dignity and therefore of the national experience, yet on a practical level, these women struggled to both cope with loss and continue with their lives, perhaps not always comfortable with their assigned roles.

Final Thoughts

The centennial of the outbreak of World War I explains, in part, the number of books being published, as anniversaries often inspire historical reflection.  Yet the hundred-year commemoration goes only part way in explaining the dynamism and volume of recent historical research on World War I.  Over the past decade, old topics have gained new vigor by the discovery of new archival material, as well as by historians asking new questions of old sources.  The introduction of an interdisciplinary focus has also added new energy to the study of the war years, and while old paradigms are shifting, the vigorous pace of historical research challenges many assumptions about the war.  Since public and academic interest in the subject shows little sign of abating, it is likely that interest in the Great War will last well past 2019.

Works Cited