Schönpflug, Daniel. A World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age. New York: Henry Holt and Co. Metropolitan Books, 2018.
Daniel Schönpflug’s book, A World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age (English translation of Comets years. 1918: the world on the rise) begins with an ominous image: an effigy of Kaiser Wilhelm strung up between two New York City streets. With the Great War at an end, the survivors had to learn how to navigate the world it created. Some, like the man represented in effigy, faded into the background, while others used the lessons of protracted war and fractured peace to claim the spotlight.
Abandoning the traditional focus on disarmament, redeployment, and reparations, Schönpflug constructs his history of the post-WWI period using the stories and experiences of people who lived it. He tells the stories of former political figures (Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, Matthias Erzberger) alongside those of rising political stars (Harry S. Truman, Nguyen Tat Thanh), and trades stories of fading revolutionary movements (T.E. Lawrence and the Middle East) with those just beginning to catch flame (Nguyen Tat Thanh in Vietmam, Terence MacSwiney in Ireland). Each point has a counterpoint, but there is also commonality in the lives lived after Armistice. Russian White Army soldier Marina Yurlowa speaks of the same type of battle fatigue expressed by U.S. doughboy Alvin York. Artists Walter Gropius and George Grosz hoped their art would help them make sense of the new world; Gropius found purpose in construction, while Grosz saw only nothingness. The men would become leaders of the Bauhaus and Dadaist artistic movements, respectively.
Schönpflug’s inclusion of women (Virginia Woolf, journalist Louise Weiss, Moina Michael, the aforementioned Marina Yurlowa) was a welcome surprise. He gives their stories share equal space with those of the men, a huge departure from many historical treatments that relegate women’s wartime and post-war experiences to a separate “women’s” chapter. The inclusion of a female soldier is especially heartening as Russian historiography has only recently restored a place for armed women in its history.
The author’s new approaches towards the post-war period does not preclude him from exploring the ways the Treaty of Versailles laid the groundwork for the rise of National Socialism. Schönpflug prefers to stoke a slow burn, showing the reader how individuals can go from elation over the end of armed hostilities to disillusionment over the world the war made. Nations and individuals alike placed their hopes in salvation through Wilsonian diplomacy and the League of Nations. Wilson’s rejection of the League and its resulting failure would lead them to different ideas and different saviors.
Kierkegaard wrote “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Schönpflug’s history reminds us that “forwards” contains multiple directions, and people understand their present in multiple ways. For some, the swinging Kaiser represented the freedom to break free from old traditions, ideas, and constraints. Others found the peace did not live up to its promise and inclined towards despair. All agreed a world begot by violence would not easily shake the lessons of its cradle. Post-war Europe was on the edge of a new world; the next few years would determine whether it remained mired in the ashes or rose like a phoenix.