January 22, 2012


Peter Englund, The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War, translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves (New York: Knopf, 2011) ("The maimed and torn bodies are a reality in themselves but also a picture of what war does to a man's conceptions and hopes, indeed to the old world as a whole. As much as anything else, the war began as an attempt to preserve Europe exactly as it was, to uphold the status quo, but it is now changing the continent in a more sweeping way than anyone could have imagined in their worst nightmares. An ancient truth is making itself manifest yet again--the truth that sooner or later wars become uncontrollable and counter-productive because men and societies will tend to sacrifice everything in their blind drive to be victorious. That has rarely been more true than it is at present, when those in power, unintentionally and without any plan, have unleashed uniquely uncontrollable forces: extreme nationalism, social revolution, religious hatred. (Not to mention a grotesque level of debt that is undermining the economic health of all the states involved.) . . . Id. at 291-292. From the bookjacket: "In this masterly, highly original narrative history, Peter Englund takes a revelatory new approach to the history of World War I, magnifying its least examine, most stirring component: the experiences of the average man and woman--not only the tragedy and horror but also the absurdity and even, at times, the beauty." "The twenty people from whose journals and letters Englund draws are from Belgium, Denmark, and France; Great Britain, Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire; Italy, Australia, and New Zealand; Russia, Venezuela, and the United States. . ." "A brilliant mosaic of perspective that moves between the home front and the from lines. The Beauty and the Sorrow reconstructs the feelings, impressions, experiences, and shifting spirits of these twenty particular people, allowing them to speak not only for themselves but also for all those who were in some way shaped by the war, but whose voices have been forgotten, rejected, or simply remained unheard.").