Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Two Great War Great Reads

The centennial for the Great War is rapidly approaching. Who will mark the booming of the guns of August? The non-fiction as well as fiction of and about that horrific struggle and aftermath is usually overshadowed by the love affair with the Roaring Twenties, the Turbulent '30s and World War Two. There are gems, and gems that stand firmly with feet in the old world gone by or "The Proud Tower" as Tuchman's book of the pre-war era was named. It was an age of kings and titles, and when Europe had a sense of honor that one hundred years later, looks gone for good. If you have the time, read Under Fire by Henri Barbusse (here and here for free) and The Last Days of Mankind by Karl Kraus.

Barbusse's work of fiction was based on his experiences serving in the French Army. It is gritty, brutal and anti-war in mood. Barbusse looks at the war as a horrific mistake created by old institutions gone mad. This is interesting because it was published in 1916, so that early, the madness point of view had set in. Trench warfare has a way of damaging the myth of gallant warfare. They should have known early when Gallieni used taxi cabs to send troops to tip the balance at the Marne and save France that this would be a different type of war. Even though Barbusse is angry with militarism and the foolish tragedy of it all, he loves France and the fighting elan of his fellow troops. It helps to be part of the side defending one's homeland from invasion.

Kraus' book is actually a play, and not available online. Kraus was a journalist and thinker in Austria. There is no love for the fight, the war, or the leadership in his writing. Considering the entire war a conspiracy between the corrupt leadership of the monarchy, Kraus paints his cast of characters as greedy jerks abusing a dumb mass of individuals. He does not think the war just or Austria good. His view fits well for our time as Americans look at the bipartisan War Party leadership, sending troops wherever and whenever for whatever purpose. Kraus was a monarchist and defender of the old order, but he hunted down corruption and the Jewish dominated press of Vienna. Kraus himself was Jewish, but had renounced his faith and mocked the nascent Zionist movement in Austria at the time. Kraus is an interesting character and quite quotable.

Liberals do not know how to treat or approach Kraus, which is why you may not know him. Barbusse went full Communist, so he is acceptable. Kraus is a different cat, and sometimes the cat scratches you if you pet him too long. Read enough Kraus, and you see his disdain for the masses, the press, cronyism and democracy. That is probably why few discuss him. This work is not widely available, but you can still find it on Amazon; used and expensive. Barbusse's book you can flick through on your e-reader. If looking for a summer read with ahistorical flair, pick up either of these two books. You can read both and compare to men both opposed to war but with totally different points of view.


peterike said...

An interesting WWI novel I read recently was "Through the Wheat," by an American -- Thomas Boyd -- who served as a Marine. You don't get that many fictional accounts from the American point of view. It's a lot like "All Quiet on the Western Front" in tone. The miserable soldier slogging through the war, eventually becoming numb to everything around him.

It really was the war that ended everything. In a lot of ways Hiterlism was the last gasp of someone trying to drag Europe back to its earlier, less decadent, better times pre-WWI, but Hitler let himself get suckered into a war via Churchill's machinations, and then his progressive loss of rationality really doomed the German cause. Had he been smarter and less deluded, Hitler could have conquered Europe economically rather than militarily and grown Germany into a massive powerhouse. His impatience was a major flaw.

The rarely told story about Hitler is that prior to the war he was one of the most successful leaders in modern history. The Germans loved him because he did truly great things for them and turned the nation around in spectacular fashion -- not just economically, but culturally as well with his war on the decadence of the times. But when he flipped the bird at paying anymore WWI reparations and took on the banking oligarchy, he sealed his fate.

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