Skip to content

Adam Hochschild on World War I and the Role of the Historian: An Interview by Stephen Jackson

Published: August 13, 2014

Adam_Hochschild.jpgRenowned author Adam Hochschild’s most recent work To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) presented a heartbreaking tale of the mass slaughter of the First World War and a sympathetic portrayal of those who opposed the conflict. In this Q&A, he gives his thoughts on the book and offers his perspective on the role of the publicly engaged historian. 
 

Stephen Jackson: What was it about the subject that inspired you to write it, and what would you argue was your most important contribution to the historical discussion on the First World War?

Adam Hochschild: I’ve always been deeply fascinated by those who resisted the First World War, ever since I read a biography of Bertrand Russell as a teenager, and then later Sheila Rowbotham’s work on Alice Wheeldon. To have had the courage to speak out so boldly when there was such jingoism in the air deeply impressed me. I also found a very strong echo in those times of something I had been deeply involved in: the movement against the Vietnam War here in the United States. Then, too, a war divided members of families from each other; hence I was intrigued to see the divided families of Britain in 19141918, and used that as a narrative structure for my book. In the Vietnam era, too, we had an epidemic of government spying on citizens—when much later, using the Freedom of Information Act, I was able to get the records of surveillance on me by the FBI, CIA and military intelligence, they amounted to more than 100 pages and I was a very small fish in that movement. Hence it fascinated me to read the government surveillance records from Scotland Yard and military intelligence on the UK dissenters of 19141918. I felt I was seeing at work the same mindset as that of the FBI agents who reported on me.

I’m by no means the first person to write about those brave British dissenters. I certainly hope my book, and those of others, helps put them in the foreground as we remember the war. Paradoxically, most people today would agree that the First World War remade the world for the worse in almost every conceivable way, yet all our traditional ways of remembering it parades, monuments, museums, military cemeteries celebrate those who fought and not those who refused to fight.

Stephen Jackson: In the years since the publication of the work, what sort of feedback from the scholarly community and the general public did you receive? How do you think that contemporary events, especially a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, shaped the response to your work?

Adam Hochschild: I’ve always believed that you can write for a general audience and at the same time meet the highest scholarly standards for accuracy and the documenting of sources. This book got good reviews and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; at the same time many university history departments have been kind to me. I was writer-in-residence at the history department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst this past spring and will be doing a speaking tour of some half dozen campuses in the US and Europe this fall, talking about the war.

I’ve also heard from several descendants of people mentioned in the book one of the great pleasures of writing history, I’ve found. And sometimes, unexpectedly, I’ve heard from other people as well who are connected to this patch of history. After the book came out, an American mining company official whom I’d met a few years before in a godforsaken village in eastern Congo, wrote me that in 1917 his grandfather, a conscientious objector, had been hanged in effigy in his home town in Iowa.

And yes, I think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show what tragic mistakes one can make by not studying history more closely. How similar the illusion of President George W. Bush when he landed on that aircraft carrier in 2003 in front of the sign “Mission Accomplished” to the illusion of Kaiser Wilhelm II when he told his troops in August, 1914: “You will be home before the leaves fall from the trees.” 

Stephen Jackson: This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. What do you think is or should be the place of conscientious objectors and leftist anti-war activists in the public memory of World War I?

Adam Hochschild: None of these people were perfect, but on the central issue of their time, they were essentially right, and should be honored. Harry Patch, the last British veteran of the war to die 5 years ago, at 111 said it best: the war “was not worth it. It was not worth one life, let alone all the millions.” 

Stephen Jackson: How can scholars teaching undergraduate or graduate courses in British History or Modern European History incorporate non-traditional themes such as anti-war activism into lessons on the Great War?

Adam Hochschild: There are rich primary sources: the writings and speeches of outspoken war opponents, like Bertrand Russell and E.D. Morel in Britain, or Jane Addams and Eugene V. Debs in the United States. Periodicals that these anti-war movements published. Letters and memoirs by war resisters who went to prison, not just in the U.S. and Britain, but in other countries as well. I hope someone is thinking of pulling a collection of material like this together into a reader! And there are fine secondary sources as well. That list could be a long one, but I’ll just mention Jo Vellacott’s Bertrand Russell and the Pacifists in the First World War, a careful, well-written book I learned a lot from. 

Stephen Jackson: The 19th century German historian Leopold von Ranke famously said historians can “merely tell how it really was,” and should not judge the past nor attempt to give moral guidance for the present.  To End All Wars, and your work more generally, compellingly does just that. How would you describe your underlying philosophy for writing history? What role do you think that the historian — as an historian — should play in engaging in contemporary political and ethical discussions?

Adam Hochschild: Well, I’m certain in favor of telling it how it was and with the highest possible standards of accuracy. In real life, seldom are one’s heroes totally heroic or one’s villains totally villainous. In To End All Wars, for instance, the fiery pacifist Charlotte Despard had a kind of knee-jerk far-left reaction to everything that would have made her difficult to talk to, although I agree with her about the war. But her brother, Field Marshal Sir John French, though he exemplified the worst type of unthinking generalship in the field, seems to have been a warm-hearted person of great charm whom it would have been delightful to spend an evening with. One should enjoy such paradoxes and not try to deny them.

But beyond that, I think sometimes an historian can provide something that’s relevant to contemporary political discussions without having to hit people over the head with it. In my book, for example, I don’t talk about the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. But whenever I give a talk about the First World War, the first question anybody asks is: do you see an analogy? 

Comments

Leave a Reply



(Your email will not be publicly displayed.)


Captcha Code

Click the image to see another captcha.