A familiar construct for students of European history is what is known as “The Long Nineteenth Century,” a period bookended by the French Revolution and the start of the Great War. The Great War. That is what it used to be called, before it was diminished by its rechristening as World War I, to distinguish it from the even more horrific conflict that was to follow just two decades hence. It is the latter that in retrospect tends to overshadow the former. Some are even tempted to characterize one as simply a continuation of the other, but that is an oversimplification. There was in fact far more than semantics to that designation of “Great War,” and historians are correct to flag it as a definitive turning point, for by the time it was over Europe’s cherished notions of civilization—for better and for worse—lay in ruins, and her soil hosted not only the scars of vast, abandoned trenches, but the bones of millions who once held the myths those notions turned out to be dear in their heads and their hearts.
The war ended with a stopwatch of sorts. The Armistice that went into effect on November 11, 1918 at 11AM Paris time marked the end of hostilities, a synchronized moment of collective European consciousness it is said all who experienced would recall for as long as they lived. Of course, something like 22 million souls—military and civilian—could not share that moment: they were the dead. Nearly three thousand died that very morning, as fighting continued right up to the final moments when the clock ran out.
What happened next? There is a tendency to fast forward because we know how it ends: the imperfect Peace of Versailles, the impotent League of Nations, economic depression, the rise of fascism and Nazism, American isolationism, Hitler invades Poland. In the process, so much is lost. Instead, Daniel Schönpflug artfully slows the pace with his well-written, highly original strain of microhistory, A World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age. The author, an internationally recognized scholar and adjunct professor of history at the Free University of Berlin, blends the careful analytical skills of a historian with a talented pen to turn out one of the finest works in this genre to date.
First, he presses the pause button. That pause—the Armistice—is just a fragment of time, albeit one of great significance. But it is what follows that most concerns Schönpflug, who has a great drama to convey and does so through the voices of an eclectic array of characters from various walks of life across multiple geographies. When the action resumes, alternating and occasionally overlapping vignettes chronicle the postwar years from the unique, often unexpected vantage points of just over two dozen individuals—some very well known, others less so—who were to leave an imprint of larger or smaller consequence upon the changed world they walked upon.
There is Harry S Truman, who regrets that the military glory he aspired to as a boy has eluded him, yet is confident he has acquitted himself well, and cannot wait to return home to marry his sweetheart Bess and—ironically—vows he will never fire another shot as long as he lives. Former pacifist and deeply religious Medal of Honor winner Sergeant Alvin York receives a hero’s welcome Truman could only dream of, but eschews offers of money and fame to return to his backwoods home in Tennessee, where he finds purpose by leveraging his celebrity to bring roads and schools to his community. Another heroic figure is Sergeant Henry Johnson, of the famed 369th Infantry known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” who incurred no less than twenty-one combat injuries fending off the enemy while keeping a fellow soldier from capture, but because of his skin color returns to an America where he remains a second-class citizen who does not receive the Medal of Honor he deserves until its posthumous award by President Barack Obama nearly a century later. James Reese Europe, the regimental band leader of the “Harlem Hellfighters,” who has been credited with introducing jazz to Europe, also returns home to an ugly twist of fate.
And there’s Käthe Kollwitz, an artist who lost a son in the war and finds herself in the uncertain environment of a defeated Germany engulfed in street battles between Reds and reactionaries, both flanks squeezing the center of a nascent democracy struggling to assert itself in the wake of the Kaiser’s abdication. One of the key members of that tenuous center is Matthias Erzberger, perhaps the most hated man in the country, who had the ill luck to be chosen as the official who formally accedes to Germany’s humiliating terms for Armistice, and as a result wears a target on his back for the rest of his life. At the same time, the former Kaiser’s son, Crown Prince Wilhelm von Preussen, is largely a forgotten figure who waits in exile for a call to destiny that never comes. Meanwhile in Paris, Marshal Ferdinand Foch lobbies for Germany to pay an even harsher price, as journalist Louise Weiss charts a new course for women in publishing and longs to be reunited with her lover, Milan Štefánik, an advocate for Czechoslovak sovereignty.
Others championing independence elsewhere include Nguyễn Tất Thành (later Hồ Chí Minh), polishing plates and politics while working as a dishwasher in Paris; Mohandas Gandhi, who barely survives the Spanish flu and now struggles to hold his followers to a regimen of nonviolent resistance in the face of increasingly violent British repression; T.E. Lawrence, increasingly disillusioned by the failure of the victorious allies to live up to promises of Arab self-determination; and, Terence MacSwiney, who is willing to starve himself to death in the cause of Irish nationhood. No such lofty goals motivate assassin Soghomon Tehlirian, a survivor of the Armenian genocide, who only seeks revenge on the Turks; nor future Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, who emerges from the war an eager and merciless recruit for right-wing paramilitary forces.
There are many more voices, including several from the realms of art, literature, and music such as George Grosz, Virginia Woolf, and Arnold Schönberg. The importance of the postwar evolution of the arts is underscored in quotations and illustrations that head up each chapter. Perhaps the most haunting is Paul Nash’s 1918 oil-on-canvas of a scarred landscape entitled—with a hint of either optimism or sarcasm—We Are Making a New World. All the stories the voices convey are derived from their respective letters, diaries, and memoirs; only in the “Epilogue” does the reader learn that some of those accounts are clearly fabricated.
Many of my favorite characters in A World on Edge are ones that I had never heard of before, such as Moina Michael, who was so inspired by the sacrifice of those who perished in the Great War that she singlehandedly led a campaign to memorialize the dead with the poppy as her chosen emblem for the fallen, an enduring symbol to this very day. But I found no story more gripping than that of Marina Yurlova, a fourteen year old Cossack girl who became a child soldier in the Russian army, was so badly wounded she was hospitalized for a year, then entered combat once more during the ensuing civil war and was wounded again, this time by the Bolsheviks. Upon recovery, Yurlova embarked upon a precarious journey on foot through Siberia that lasted a month before she was able to flee Russia for Japan and eventually settle in the United States, where despite her injuries she became a dancer of some distinction.
I am a little embarrassed to admit that I received an advance reader’s edition (ARC) of A World on Edge as part of an early reviewer’s program way back in November 2018, but then let it linger in my to-be-read (TBR) pile until I finally got around to it near the end of June 2020. I loved the book but did not take any notes for later reference. So, by the time I sat down to review it in January 2021, given the size of the cast and the complexity of their stories, I felt there was no way I could do justice to the author and his work without re-reading it—so I did, over just a couple of days! And that is the true beauty of this book: for all its many characters, competing storylines, and what turns out to be multilevel, deeply profound messaging, for something of the grand saga that it is it remains a fast-paced, exciting read. Schönpflug’s technique of employing bit players to recount an epic tale succeeds so masterfully that the reader is hardly aware of what has been happening until the final pages are being turned. This is history, of course, this is indeed nonfiction, but yet the result invites a favorable comparison to great literature, to a collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway, or to a novel by André Brink. If European history is an interest, A World on Edge is not only a recommended read, but a required one.