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'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."

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.

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