100 Years Later…

Author:  Adam Hochschild

To end all wars cover (183x275)Human history may have never witnessed a more rapid and horrific conflagration than what would come to be called World War I.  In just a matter of weeks in the dark summer of 1914, formerly quiet and peacefully coexisting European countries were at each other’s throats for reasons that to this day remain difficult to comprehend.  For four long and bloody years, purportedly rational young men traveled from all over the world to kill each other on three continents.  In the end, more than 16 million people would die and the world would never be the same.  But what if someone had been successful at stopping this seemingly inexorable descent into madness?  Standard histories rarely touch on the topic, but there were many who devoted considerable energies to do just that, often risking life and limb in the process.  In To End All Wars, award-winning history writer Adam Hochschild tells the stories of some of these frequently ignored pacifists, who displayed a different kind of bravery entirely.

Looking at the war from primarily a British perspective, the author explores the complicated lives of men and women on both sides of war:  the patriotic hawks, like John French, Alfred Milner and Rudyard Kipling, who were more than thrilled to take on the barbarous Germans and show them a thing or two about English bravery; and the reluctant doves, like suffragette Charlotte Despard, socialist James Keir Hardie and feminist Sylvia Pankhurst, who were convinced that nothing good could come of all the carnage.  Hochschild manages to maintain control of this formidable cast of characters, creating a riveting and powerful saga in the process.

Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst

Much of the opposition to the war was fueled by building social and political changes which affected people’s view of the conflict.  Many activists in the struggle for women’s suffrage, worldwide socialism and colonial independence in India and elsewhere found common cause in the opposition to the war, asking why people should give their lives to support a system that so ruthlessly subjugates women, workers and people with more fully pigmented skin?  However, not all opposition was based on such concrete logic and was based on the age old belief that killing people is wrong.  Authors like Bertrand Russell frequently wrote eloquently against the war and in support of “conscientious objectors”, finally serving six months in prison for his opposition to US entry into the war.

He wasn’t the only one to be punished for his views.  Hochschild goes into great detail describing how war opponents suffered abuse, ridicule, unemployment, impoverishment, incarceration, assassination and even execution for their views.  His description of the final days of 24 year-old Joseph “Willie” Stones, one of hundreds of men who were executed for “cowardice”, is one of the most moving parts of the book.


Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell

Despite the formidable and potentially overwhelming topic, Hochschild writes with rare skill.  Adeptly bringing detailed, multi-faceted and charismatic characters to life, he manages to pull a vast amount of information together into a wonderfully readable story.  It’s the kind of writing that makes me want to quickly add his other works to the top of my “To Read Soon” list.

Regrettably, humankind’s tendency to wage war has not diminished over the past 100 years.  There seems to be a tendency to look back on the insanity of World War I – and its sequel, World War II – and pretend that we have learned something from such disasters.  But to this day, many of the same foolish foreign policy mistakes continue to be made by the powers that be and the wars keep coming.  For this reason, an eloquent and thoughtful book like To End All Wars serves a dual purpose:  it provides a thoroughly entertaining look at a fascinating time in history; and it presents a cautionary tale, lest our seemingly limitless supply of hubris gets the best of us and the world’s “superpowers” descend into madness once again.  Highly recommended.

— D. Driftless

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