Adam Hochschild: Hearing People’s Own Voices

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World War I stands as one of history’s most senseless spasms of carnage, defying rational explanation. In a riveting, suspenseful narrative with haunting echoes for our own time, Adam Hochschild brings it to life as never before. He focuses on the long-ignored moral drama of the war’s critics, alongside its generals and heroes. Thrown in jail for their opposition to the war were Britain’s leading investigative journalist, a future winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and an editor who, behind bars, published a newspaper for his fellow inmates on toilet paper. These critics were sometimes intimately connected to their enemy hawks: one of Britain’s most prominent women pacifist campaigners had a brother who was commander in chief on the Western Front. Two well-known sisters split so bitterly over the war that they ended up publishing newspapers that attacked each other. 

Today, hundreds of military cemeteries spread across the fields of northern France and Belgium contain the bodies of millions of men who died in the “war to end all wars.” Can we ever avoid repeating history?

 

A Conversation with Author Adam Hochschild

Q: In the past you’ve written mostly about issues of human rights and social justice, but now a book about the First World War—why?

A: I’ve long been obsessed and fascinated by the war, for it remade our world for the worse in almost every conceivable way. In addition to killing approximately 20 million soldiers and civilians, the war also ignited the Russian Revolution, sowed the anger that allowed Hitler to seize power, and permanently darkened our outlook on human nature and human self-destructiveness. But also I’ve always seen the war as a time when men and women faced a moral challenge as great as that faced by those who lived, say, in the time of slavery. Tens of thousands of people were wise enough to foresee, in 1914, the likely bloodshed that a war among the world’s major industrial powers would cause—and, courageously, they refused to take part.

Q: What are you trying to do in To End All Wars that makes it different from other books about the First World War?

A: Most books about any war, including this one, tell the story as a conflict between two sides. Instead, I’ve tried to tell the story of 1914–1918 as a struggle between those who felt the war was something noble and necessary, and those who felt it was absolute madness.

Q: Were there war resisters on both sides?

A: Yes. But I’ve concentrated on one country, Britain. For various reasons—a major one being that at the war’s outset Britain itself was not attacked—there was a stronger antiwar movement there than anywhere else. More than 20,000 British men of military age refused the draft, and, as a matter of principle, many also refused the non-combatant alternative service offered to conscientious objectors, such as working in war industries or driving ambulances. More than 6,000 of these young men went to prison under very harsh conditions, as did some brave, outspoken critics of the war. This is one of the largest groups of people ever behind bars for political reasons in a Western democracy—and certainly one of the most interesting. Their number included the country’s leading investigative journalist, a future Nobel Prize-winner, more than half a dozen future members of Parliament, and a former editor who would publish a clandestine prison newspaper on sheets of toilet paper.

Q: So the book is just about them?

A: Not only. I am equally intrigued by the people who fought the war, such as the generals who always thought the next battle was going to be the big breakthrough, and kept the cavalry ready to charge through the gap—which never came, of course. So my cast of characters includes both resisters and those who fought. And there are interesting ties between them. Few people know, for instance, that Britain’s commander-in-chief on the Western Front for the first year and a half of combat had a sister who was an ardent, vocal pacifist. Or that the Minister for War had close friends whose son was not only in jail as a resister but was in solitary confinement for refusing to obey prison rules. Two well-known sisters, the suffragettes Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, broke with each other so bitterly over the war that they each edited a newspaper that attacked the other.

Q: Are all of your characters well-known?

A: Not at all. Albert Rochester was a soldier who got into trouble for writing a letter to a newspaper complaining that every British officer had his own private servant. John S. Clarke was an antiwar radical, working underground—who in his youth had made his living as a circus lion-tamer. Emily Hobhouse believed the nations of Europe should be negotiating, not fighting. She evaded British government travel restrictions, went to Berlin in 1916 and talked peace terms with the foreign minister—the sole private citizen in Europe who actually traveled to the other side in search of peace. You couldn’t invent people like this.

Q: What were your sources of information?

A: When I write history, I like to hear people’s own voices, so as much as possible I relied on personal letters, diaries, memoirs and the like. But there was one additional, unexpected, rich trove of material. In 1914–1918, both civilian and military intelligence agents watched the Britain’s antiwar activists intently. They infiltrated spies into peace organizations, sometimes sent in agents provocateurs to try to get pacifists to do things they could be arrested for, and at even the smallest public antiwar meeting, one of Scotland Yard’s dozen shorthand writers would be there taking notes. These agents’ reports, even those of the agents provocateurs bragging about what they accomplished, are in Britain’s National Archives, some of them opened to public view for the first time only in the last few years.

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