Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Two Views of the Great War

Apr 3, 2014


Last week I attended a lecture at the Vancouver Public Library by Margaret MacMillan about her latest book on World War One, The War That Ended Peace. Professor MacMillan gives a very polished performance. She carried a sheaf of papers but as far as I could tell hardly had to consult them as she ran us through a brisk outline of her book, which is about the causes of the war.

Nice to see so many people (300+) giving up a Friday evening to think about history.

Prof. MacMillan did such a good job of summarizing her book that I left the library feeling that I no longer had any need to read it. Instead I went home and cracked open a quite different study of the war: The Beauty and the Sorrow, by the Swedish historian and journalist Peter Englund. Whereas MacMillan writes well about the activities of Kaisers and diplomats, Englund gives us the war from the ground up, as it is experienced by twenty individuals from various countries in various places. Englund calls his approach "anti-history, an attempt to deconstruct this utterly epoch-making event into its smallest, most basic component -- the individual, and his or her experiences." The reader learns very little about the causes of the war, but quite a lot about what it was like for ordinary people to actually live through it.

The two authors seem perfectly complementary and I can't imagine that I'll need to read anything more for a while about the Great War.