Friday, June 12, 2015

Konrad H. Jarausch's "Out of Ashes"

Konrad H. Jarausch is the Lurcy Professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His many books include Reluctant Accomplice: A Wehrmacht Soldier’s Letters from the Eastern Front and After Hitler: Recivilizing Germans, 1945–1995.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century, and reported the following:
The first paragraph of page 99 presents a passage from Wilfred Owen’s moving poem on gas warfare. In powerful words he describes the ugliness of human suffering from the effect of chemical poison on the lungs. The British poet uses this shocking image to warn against the heroic injunction to sacrifice one’s life gladly for the fatherland. Contrasting sharply with patriotic rhetoric, this poem exemplifies the pacifist response of an entire generation that became disenchanted with war.

The second paragraph explores the effects of mechanized warfare that made World War One more deadly than any prior military conflict. As products of modern machine technology, the weapons had become more destructive, triggering a desperate effort of soldiers to hide in trenches. The result of artillery barrages was a moonscape at the battlefront, full of craters, ruined buildings and carcasses of horses. As a result the death toll rose to about 17 million soldiers and civilians, with an equal number of wounded and psychologically traumatized.

The entire page is part of the conclusion of a discussion about the nature of modern warfare that became ever more total and all-consuming. It was a wonder that soldiers could be motivated by patriotic appeals, ties of comradeship and liberal doses of liquor to continue to fight for years, even though the odds of their survival steadily deteriorated when confronted by technological monsters such as battlefield tanks. At the same time industrial warfare also involved the home front far more than ever before, drawing many women into arms factories, and creating propaganda machines to keep up morale.

The thrust of this reflection underlines George F. Kennan’s claim that World War One was “the great seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century.” Devastating many regions and costing untold lives, the fighting broke the back of notions of human progress through the advance of modernity. Drawing in Japan and the US, the world-wide struggle toppled the Russian, Ottoman, Habsburg and German Empires, destroying European hegemony in the process. Finally, it set in motion the struggle between Bolshevik, Democratic and Fascist ideologies of modernity that dominated the rest of the century.
Learn more about Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century at the Princeton University Press website.

Cover story: Out of Ashes.

--Marshal Zeringue