top of page

Book Review:
Weighty tome offers new viewpoint 
on the murky causes of WWI 

Pandora's Box: A History of the First World War

By Jorn Leonard, 2018

Jorn Leonard is a German historian. His book, Pandora's Box: A History of the First World War is over a thousand pages; it's literally weighty.  I decided to read the first the first 180 pages or so to find out what a highly acclaimed German historian had to say regarding the causes of World War I, which to this day are difficult to fathom. Millions of words regarding the run-up to and deeper causes of the war have been written by large numbers of historians with diverse, conflicting perspectives, yet the truth remains elusive, seemingly just out of reach. In 1914, there was no grandiose maniac such as Hitler with clear cut intent to conquer Europe, much less Russia, the Middle East, Africa, etc., though once the war began German leaders put into operation a plan to conquer France and, by implication, continental Europe. Yet, Russia's refusal to allow Austria-Hungary to punish Serbia for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand ( in which Serbia was complicit ) was as instrumental in bringing about war as Germany's desire to dominate Europe. Russia had been humiliated by Japan in 1905, a defeat that almost brought down the Czarist government, and further embarrassed by the recent war in Bosnia. Furthermore, French leaders were determined to never again be humiliated in a military conflict with Germany as had occurred in 1870.  Britain maintained a posture of uncertainty and putative neutrality almost to the very beginning of the war in early August 1914. When push came to shove, every European country, and Russia, was deeply afraid of being left isolated, without allies, surrounded by or facing several powerful enemies. Every country's leaders felt threatened by its enemies. Every country, even Germany (which came close to winning the war in August 1914), believed it was fighting a defensive war. 


Unfortunately, Leonard does not solve this puzzle, if indeed a conflict with so many plausible causes (so causally "overdetermined" if you will) is viewed as a puzzle. Perhaps the origins of a war I view as a puzzle others might view as a conflagration waiting to happen, given that Europe in the early 1900's was a tinderbox of national hostilities and resentments.  Leonard repeats several times that the war was not inevitable, and that it could have been avoided until the last few days of July 1914 when countries began mobilizing for war;( in 1914, mobilizing for war was virtually a declaration of war).  Similar or worse crises had been surmounted by European countries several times during preceding decades; and an actual war had been fought in Bosnia in 1911 without the conflict leading to a general conflagration. The decisions of military and political leaders were responsible for starting the war; political leaders could have - and almost did - act differently. Jorn's book is not an outstanding account of the origins of an unnecessary, seemingly optional war in which no country except (perhaps) Austria-Hungary and Serbia had mortal stakes. Nevertheless, Leonard's book becomes terrific, extraordinarily good and revealing, regarding the progress of the war, both in the various theatres of combat and on the multiple home fronts. Leonard has much to say about why the war did not end in a political settlement in 1915, or early 1916, after the human costs of the war became apparent; and after the likelihood of a military breakthrough by either side had been demonstrated to be an unlikely long shot at best on both the Eastern and Western fronts.  


Leonard has much to say regarding the patriotic outpouring of support for the war on both sides in August 1914. Nationalistic sentiment overwhelmed and paralyzed socialist ideals; socialist parties in every country signed on to the war; and socialist leaders in pretty much every country believed public support for their proposed internal reforms was greatly strengthened by their support for the war. Workers of the world did not unite to stop the war in 1914-15, quite the opposite. Furthermore, World War I led to the dissolution or dismemberment of three multinational empires, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman empire.  Once countries had lost hundreds of thousands, or millions of soldiers, in the trenches (mostly due to artillery and machine guns), patriots in every country ( including scholars, novelists, poets and artists) articulated rationales for winning the war at all costs,  which (in retrospect) appear to be an effort to justify appalling human sacrifices these countries had already experienced.  Military leaders in all countries tenaciously resisted acknowledging that defensive positions were consistently more effective on the Western front than an offensive fighting spirit, as theorists of war believed. Every country developed catastrophic plans for a "breakthrough," i.e., to transform trench warfare into a war of movement and position. The scale of killing around the world was (and remains) mind boggling. On one day, July 1,1916, British forces at the Somme suffered more than 59,000 casualties i.e., dead, wounded or missing men; and about 20,000 deaths!  Hundreds of thousands of French and German soldiers were killed or wounded during a few months of the battle of Verdun in 1916 for little if any territorial gains. 


Once it became clear in 1916 that a breakthrough to end the war was highly unlikely, military strategists in all countries began to plan how to win a war of attrition, thus the German plan to starve England through submarine warfare. By the end of 1916, soldiers in France, Russia and Austria-Hungary were at the point of rebellion.  According to Leonard, by the end of 1916 soldiers in the trenches no longer fought for patriotic ends, or managed fear by hope of winning the war.  They fought to avoid the accusation of cowardice, and to support their comrades in arms or because of loyalty to the communities where they grew up; and controlled fear through religious belief, temperament, denial, the prospect of home leave, etc.. By the end of the war, patriotism was discredited or actively mocked in all armies, except crucially by those Germans who bought the idea that the war was lost by a "stab in the back" on the home front. 


Leonard has a superb chapter on the experience of war in the trenches. Soldiers at the front lived in constant fear of death or mutilation, and were only safe when deployed out of the killing zone, i.e., artillery range. Many soldiers had an extreme fear of facial wounds that would leave them with a monstrous appearance.  A rumor circulated among British soldiers that soldiers with facial wounds were sent to specialized secret hospitals so that their condition would not become public knowledge, a story Leonard asserts was baseless but which reflected the extreme fear of social ostracism due to facial mutilation and other disabling injuries.  The military response to "shell shock", or PTSD as we refer to symptoms of trauma, was often barbaric. Military leaders were deeply ambivalent (at best) or disapproving of psychic injuries that resulted in uncontrolled vomiting or tremors, loss of the capacity to speak and a wide range of other symptoms such as hypergiliance or flashbacks. Military officers were allowed to engage in experimental treatments such as forcing soldiers with uncontrolled vomiting to eat their own vomit, or striking mute soldiers across the throat with a metal implement to induce an utterance. Victims of "shell shock" were viewed by some fellow soldiers and officers as malingerers or cowards. Fear of social humiliation and shame resulting from inability to emotionally withstand combat conditions compounded the fear of death or mutilation. Naive civilians on the home front often  believed that trench warfare was brutal but potentially heroic hand to hand combat. In reality, trench warfare was mostly waiting to be maimed or killed by random artillery strikes, or sacrificed to the grandiose visions of military commanders in attacks directed at well entrenched machine guns. World War I made a mockery of ideals of military valor and heroism under fire, a reality most soldiers believed their loved ones and friends could never understand.  Toward the end of the war, German leaders believed their armies had the advantage due to the "steadier nerves" of their soldiers. German "shell shock" victims faced dire social consequences both at the front and after return to their families and communities, according to Jorn. 


World War I was such a useless blood letting that (to this day), scholars cannot seem to comprehend the deeper meaning of the conflict. Freud in his usual bold ( and wrong) way, speculated about the human death instinct,  given that no rational calculus could come close to explaining the war's destructiveness and the refusal of political leaders to consider a peace settlement, absent victory.  However, what seems clear a hundred years after the end of the Great War is that it was not instinct, but ideas and ideals that led to war, along with the structure of political alliances in Europe and Russia. These were societies inspired by martial ideals of valor, courage, heroism from past centuries.  From their perspective, the countries engaged in the two alliances did not actively seek war; neither did they seek by all available means to avoid it. France and Russia were motivated in part by the memory of recent humiliating defeats (1905, 1870), and Austrian- Hungarian leaders understood (rightly) that their multinational empire was threatened by incipient powerful nationalisms in the Balkans.  


The most obvious lesson of the war was (and is) that human beings develop social identities which lead them to care deeply about and identify with tribe, nation, family;  but have little or no concern for persons outside these boundaries. In fact, one of the initial advantages of war is to increase social solidarity. As Durkheim pointed out, suicide rates on the home front usually decline during war, especially "total" wars such as World War I.  Nationalism has proven to be a phenomenally powerful force, far more powerful than political ideology, religious beliefs or ethical philosophies. Combine nationalism, martial ideals, an arms race and delusional beliefs about threat and national interest and the blind destructiveness of World War I becomes less puzzling, an expression of both a cultural mindset regarding military glory and of the dynamics of human social identity.  

© Dee Wilson

bottom of page