'To End All Wars:' Lessons From the Past -- Why It's So Hard to Stop Wars and Prevent New Ones

Adam Hochschild's new book shines a light on the mass carnage unleashed by Europe's suicidal rush to war in 1914.

Adam Hochschild's extraordinary history of WW1 is in hardcover now. Click here for a copy of "To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918."

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Adam Hochschild has a unique view of history. Traditionally, the story of great wars is told through big-picture sweeps: expanding empires, heroes and villains, and classic battles. Though Hochschild hardly ignores the big moments, his history is not like that -- it includes the parallel narratives of people who, for reasons of principle, fought slavery, colonialism and the insane and unstoppable march to war. There's immense historical detail in Hochschild's books about the notable leaders and events of the day. But one also learns about the people who are normally left out of the historical narrative; people who went against the grain and often toiled in obscurity.

In his newest book, To End All Wars, Hochschild takes readers on an extraordinary, novelesque journey into the unbelievable insanity of World War I and the unfathomable idiocy of the upper-crust British military leaders who orchestrated the slaughter of millions of volunteer soldiers, mostly from the working class (though in contrast to today, the elites of that day sent their own children to die in great numbers as well). He showcases the enormous heroism of those who fought against what they saw as the inevitable disaster of World War I as well as those caught up in the patriotic war fervor. And then there were the contradictions, the splits in families, between brothers and sisters, fathers and sons, who took opposite directions in their response to the madness that overtook Europe in the years leading up to and including 1914.

Hochschild's writing is all about the characters, and he has a keen sense of both individual psychologies and the mass psychology that carried everything and everyone along in its tsunami-like wake. One does not have to be a history buff to appreciate and learn from this book. It is an extraordinary eye-opener, revealing virtually every reason why leaders and countries go to war, why it is so hard to stop them, and why it is equally hard to come to terms with wars even after the disastrous ruin they cause seems so apparent. 

Hochschild can take five to six years to complete his books. King Leopold’s Ghost,which has sold more than half a million copies, portrays the Belgian king's savage colonial exploitation of the African Congo and provides ample evidence of Hochschild's storytelling skills. 

I visited Hochschild in his home in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco to explore some of the lessons of his new book and to get some insight into the process of creating a work of art that is also such a depressing catalogue of human failure and destruction.

Don Hazen: What are the key themes of the book? What are the most important narratives?

Adam Hochschild: I think we’re accustomed to reading about social movements that succeed, and my last book (Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves) for example, was about the triumph over slavery, and there have been great books about the civil rights movement in the United States. In this case, I wanted to see if I could write an equally interesting book about a movement which did not succeed. Because I still feel inspired by them. I still feel, for all their quirks, there was something incredibly noble about the people who resisted this war that remade the world in every conceivable way. We need to remember them, to honor them, we need to see some continuity in what they were doing and what we need to do today. I’ve enjoyed getting to know them.

DH: I guess for me the hardest thing to wrap my head around is the psychology of war: the thrill of the power of control and killing; the feeling of superiority, the collective insanity, the delusion, the overconfidence, the arrogance, many of the worst aspects of humanity. They all seem to be woven into something that becomes unstoppable.

AH: I see that as happening in stages. There’s an initial very visceral, tribal identification with one nation, one people, something to which the overwhelming majority of people seem to be very susceptible. I think especially so at a time like 1914 when people didn’t think of war as being destructive on an industrial scale, because there hadn’t been war in Europe for quite a few decades and the wars that were within countries we know were colonial wars. They were fighting rebels in Africa and Asian colonies, fighting for a conquered territory in Africa. There were not Europeans being slaughtered in large numbers so they didn’t think of that kind of horrible consequence of actual war. And there’s such a tendency that people have to identify with one tribe.

DH: And that tribal identification seems to crush the class identification of working people across country and ethnic lines.

AH: Yes. Of course the great hope of everybody in the socialist movement was that class solidarity would be the stronger emotion, and that didn’t occur in World War I. Not even close. There were small numbers of people on both sides who really believed that, but in the great majority it wasn’t. Although I’m always fascinated by the way it still remains there, and in somebody like Albert Rochester for example, who enlisted in the army but wrote this angry letter to the newspaper when he saw every British officer having a private servant. He was court-martialed.

Can War Be Stopped?

When one tries to imagine ways to stop war or prevent future wars, one comes up against the incredible power of two fundamental elements of war: the extraordinary loyalty of soldiers to each other, and the inability to admit or criticize the colossal disasters in which they participated -- what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Hochschild writes about a fateful battle at Loos in France, led by Douglas Haig, one of the tragically incompetent top British generals, who had grossly miscalculated his strategy. He had two reserve troops march all through the night to arrive late and exhausted to a battle the British had already lost to the Germans. The Brits had had a momentary advantage, but it had long since been reversed. Still, Haig ordered "an advance of the weary, inexperienced troops against hilltop German machine guns, and uncut barbed wire. This was a sight, and slaughter, that German officers observed with amazement." Hochschild continues in the book:

"In this brief spasm of carnage, out of 10,000 British officers and men, more than 8,000 were killed, wounded, or missing. As with many episodes from this war, it is hard for us to see that attack on September 26th, 1915 as any other than a blatant, needless massacre initiated by generals with a near-criminal disregard for the conditions their men faced. Strikingly, however ... few survivors talked of it this way. For them to question the general's judgement would have meant, of course, asking if their fellow soldiers had died in vain. From the need to avoid such questions, are so many myths about wars born."

DH: Can you talk more about the psychology of the soldier in war?

AH: As I said, there’s an initial tribal nationalization people feel at the beginning. Then of course once the war begins and you’re swept up in it, you feel this tremendous solidarity with the other people who are fighting alongside you. To me what was very revealing was the case of Siegfried Sassoon, who in the middle of the war, when he was back in England, wounded, he verbalized to the editor saying this war shouldn’t be fought. It’s not worth fighting. The antiwar movement was delighted and it was published in the newspaper and other people picked it up. The British army very cleverly didn’t court-martial him, but sent him off to a psychiatric hospital. Three months later he went back to the front, although he believed then and for the rest of his life that this war was not worth fighting for. He actually devoted much of the rest of his life writing about it. That feeling of comradeship (not deserting) overcomes any kind of rational confirmation about what are we fighting for.

Then I think there’s another powerful level where once people start to die -- your friends in your army unit, your brother, father, husband, loved ones from home -- you want very much to believe that that death was not in vain. It’s hard enough to accept somebody’s death, even harder to accept somebody’s death of a young man in his twenties, and harder still if you feel he died for a worthless cause. So it’s powerful to think he didn’t die in vain.

DH:One quote that struck me, vis-à-vis the mobilization for the war, was what one observer called “the greatest enthusiasm for a war ever seen" -- 2.5 million enlistees from England alone in the first year and a half. I know the media didn’t report much accurate information about the war, but how was the propaganda machine able to achieve that recruitment success?

AH: I think there was power of that patriotic momentum to start with. And now, of course, other factors are needed. If all the other people on their street or in your place of work enlist and you don’t, then you look like hell. Very few people can resist that kind of thing.

DH:Early in the book you describe the horrors of how British soldiers conducted the Boer war in South Africa: internment camps, starvation of civilians, etc. They got frustrated by the fact that there was resistance. Then you describe Germany entering Belgium at the beginning of that war, the same vicious and bloodthirsty things happen: “How can these Belgians resist us?” And as a result they burned barns with people inside, destroyed towns, had a scorched-earth approach. And then the Russians did the same thing. It’s like no one acts any differently in war, everyone is incredibly cruel once you go into a war.

AH: Once somebody is shooting at you, then you shoot back. No one has ever actually been able to prove that there were civilian Belgians shooting at the Germans, but the Germans said they were, so they were very nasty. I think much of what we do is conditioned by following orders in that kind of situation. Especially when you’re in an army where the penalty for disobeying an order can be death. And then when you see everybody around you doing the same thing it gets quite comfortable.

DH:Another quote that really struck me was Bertrand Russell calling war “the state of violent collective excitement.” I’m a little stuck on this because I’ve never experienced this in my lifetime in the U.S. and growing up, when it came time for a war, I was never attracted to military life.

AH: Well, we didn’t experience it here in the same way and I’m curious to think why. I think perhaps, because Vietnam was so far away, although the government justified the escalation of the pursuit of the Vietnam war and the millions of deaths of Vietnamese it resulted from and many Americans, it was always justified in terms of the domino theory. I think the American public never emotionally adopted the domino theory. It’s too far away, the other end of the world. Plus the war escalated very slowly, there had been nothing like Pearl Harbor where the United States was actually attacked. So I think we didn’t experience that.

DH:One of the things that struck me over and over again is how those leaders who were engaged in the military were always itching for the next war. They were empty without it. Is that a constant theme no matter which society, that the military people are always angling? Of course, in British society the military were always the elites as well.

AH:I think it was more so then than it is now. Because certainly then in the military lifetime of those generals who went to war in 1914, the time they had been in the service -- the British, French and Germans -- the only wars they’d known of were the colonial wars. There were not still people alive still in the army who had been in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. The only war they’d known was the colonial war, which produced glory and promotion. It guaranteed victory, and guaranteed low European casualties.

For the Russians the motivation was a little bit different. They hadn’t had colonial wars but they had been humiliatingly beaten by the Japanese, Orientals, 10 years previous. So they were sort of eager to prove they can fight as well as any Europeans.

Today I think it’s a little bit different, and the curious thing to me is even though we are engaged in two horrible, and I think unnecessary, wars right now in Iraq and Afghanistan, those individual career army officers you may have met don’t strike me as harboring for a fight in the way that people prior to 1914 were. Once they’re engaged they want to stay in and finish the job, but I think they have learned that victories are not guaranteed. And then you have somebody like Colin Powell, who was very cautious about going to war. Of course he went along with it when the people around him wanted it. I think you can make a case that, with some exceptions, it’s been the civilians who have been more aggressive.

DH:You pointed out that Kaiser Wilhelm, King George of England and the tsar of Russia were all first cousins, their wives were also related, and they knew each other socially, even vactioned together. Those social links clearly weren't sufficient to prevent the war?

AH: They were a curious combination, those three. King George V in England didn’t have much power because Parliament really had the power. Wilhelm did have quite a lot of power and kind of blew hot and cold about the war in 1914, but actually had pretty consistently been an aggressive, assertive sort of guy even though it was clear the war would be against his cousins, people he was related to. He was very militaristic, very enthusiastic in engaging in this naval arms race. He had been in a regiment in his youth and looked upon those days very fondly. He wore military uniforms at all times. And when his friend the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated it urged him to go to war against Serbia.

I think he never expected he would be fighting his cousin, King George in England. He didn’t want it or expect England to come into the war. It was wishful thinking that England wouldn’t come into the war. Tsar Nicholas in Russia was actually the only of the three who was an absolute monarch, he could do whatever he wanted, but was by far personally the most passive of all three of them. He was the one person who was in a position to say he won’t be a part of this and the country would have to obey him, but he didn’t say that. He let himself get swept in.

DH:One of the major subtexts in the book was the struggle for women’s rights. At the center of feminist organizing was the Pankhurst family, whose activities were both fascinating and disturbing. Do you get the sense there’s any other place in history where women are as violent and creative in their tactics?

AH: The Pankhursts really grabbed the headlines. I think it’s another question entirely about whether they were the most influential in gaining British women the right to vote. I think most feminist historians today would say no because of their extremely violent tactics, some of which were quite imaginative. Like cutting “no votes, no golf” into course greens and pouring acids in the letters so that they couldn’t be erased. Some of those were quite ingenious, but other aspects of the violence, blowing up buildings, blowing up mailboxes, seem kind of indiscriminate violence and I think affected many people in the British public the same way. And the number of active supporters they had shrank steadily after they adopted all of these tactics.

That’s probably one of the reasons Emmeline the mother and Christabel the daughter immediately seized the chance to put themselves back in the mainstream with the outbreak of war. They had really marginalized themselves when real violence began in 1911. It wasn’t violence against people but it certainly was preaching destroying property, and it marginalized them and they knew they were marginalized. The chance to suddenly change course and put themselves at the service of the British government was a god-given chance to come back to the mainstream.

And I think Emmeline was a shrewd enough political organizer to realize that this would help gain women the vote, which was the overwhelming goal of hers. She wasn’t as interested in changing the class structure or other sorts of change, just giving women the vote. Unusual combination of what was sort of a conservative aspiration ... she lost interest in socialism; she wasn’t interested in reforming society. She just wanted an in to the society that existed; she didn’t want to change society. The combination of that and these extremely violent acts is a very odd combination. Sylvia was already diverging from the mother, saying the women’s struggle was part of a larger movement. Those who call themselves socialist feminists today very much hail Sylvia.

DH: She and Keir Hardie were really tragic figures in the book. I kind of identified with him and near the end it was tough going.

AH: I found it such a poignant love affair because it was sort of an impossible love to begin with. He was twice her age and he was married with three children. It would be a horrible scandal for him if this were revealed and his political enemies knew about it. It would be a horrible scandal for her if it were revealed because she and her sister and her mother have pledged not to work with a male politician. But I think they truly loved each other in a way that was intimately entwined with their politics. Their love letters, all of which are on microfilm at the Stanford Library, are quite moving because they’re people who cared about each other passionately, physically and would talk about that. At the same time they really cared about the world they were trying to make.

DH:In the book there are a lot of extramarital relationships among a wide array of people. I would have thought that period was conservative, but many of the major characters in the book are partially defined by who they are lovers with, or who they’re attracted to as opposed to what their normal lives were like.

AH: I think it was a time, 100 years ago, when divorce was considered so scandalous it was almost impossible. So marrying somebody was automatically for life. Yet people change, grow, develop political passion. I think of this as sort of two parallel love affairs being Keir Hardie and Sylvia Pankhurst on the radical side and on the other side Alfred Milner and Violet Cecil, who finally married after 20 years. That too was a love affair that was based on passion, a passion for the British Empire. I was just curious and fascinated by that.

DH: Can you say a little bit about the excavation process? How long did it take to create the book and what kind of sources did you use? It’s shocking how seemingly available all of this very revealing information is.

AH: Message to readers: keep diaries, keep your letters. If you can find such a thing as forbidden love today, record it in great detail for the benefit of future historians. The excavation process took a long time. I had always been deeply fascinated by the first World War, the utter senselessness of it and the madness and hell with which it was fought. The generals would order young people to climb out and walk forward with machine gun fire year after year. I had heard a lot about it because I had an uncle who fought in the war so he talked about it some.

Then when I was a teenager I read a biography of Bertrand Russell and was very struck by his courage in resisting and I loved getting to know him better over the course of his book. I think one of the things I can really respect about him was his intellectual honesty because he talked about his strong feelings of the senselessness of the war and at the same time had war within himself over great love for his country. At one point he said, “Love of England is very nearly the strongest emotion I possess and also that I had desires to defeat Germany as much as any retired colonel.” I wondered how he could be honest about that conflict, that feeling, but at the same time do what he did: ceaselessly speak out against the war.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.