Here in Britain we have a series of short books called [whatever you’re interested in]: A Very Short Introduction. ‘Whatever your’re interested in’ can be more or less anything – the range is vast. And the subject matter has to be reasonably academic – if you’re looking for the latest goss on Nicole Scherzinger, I’m afraid you’ll be out of luck. But if you want to get an overview of, say, Buddhism, Schopenhauer’s philosophy, African history, myth, postmodernism and even the Marquis de Sade, they are immensely useful. The Short Introduction series is published by the Oxford University Press (always a good name to drop) and are written by scholars in their field, who have pared down the subject matter to give the lay reader an overview. And when I say they are available in Britain, they will most certainly also be available abroad, too. You can find out about them here.
I have bought quite a few of the series and have almost read several of them. Most recently, my stepmother decided she didn’t know anything about how World War II - ‘The Great War’ for those who get nostalgic about these matters – came about, and I decided I didn’t, either, so I bought two copies of The First World War: A Very Short Introduction. Both arrived safely and I presented my stepmother with her copy. She is now an expert on everything to do with the subject matter until April 13, 1914. Give her time.
My copy has already found a secure berth on my bookshelves where, if my life were to follow its usual routine, it would remain untouched and unblemished for a number of years. I don’t mean to be an enthusiastic, then lazy, sod, but unfortunately I am. I have a terrible habit of acquiring books I think would be interesting, then not giving them a second glance for any number of years. And even when I do, I all to often get sidetracked. So at the moment I am halfway through Misha Glenny’s McMafia, Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, a volume of short stories by Angus Wilson, The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham and an extremely useful book on teaching yourself to play bass guitar. I suspect, however, that in view of what is now going on and occupying the headline writers throughout the lands, my short introduction to World War I is destined to suffer less benign neglect than all the other books I have acquired (some of which I bought, others, like the book which claimed – rather convincingly, actually, that Jesus was a terrorist – I found knocking around the office).
As I haven’t yet read it, I am still on shaky ground as to how World War I came about, or rather I know an impressively long list of factoids, some of which might even be true. But I think I know that one factor which led to four years of slaughter in a part of the world which until then had regarded itself as reasonably civilised was that various European nations were rather impressed by their own might and weren’t at all averse to a bit of showing. Certainly, there were many other, far more complex, reasons, and when and if I do complete my Very Short Introduction, I shall be able to pontificate on the subject at far greater length at some future date. But loads of what here in the office we call ‘willy waving’ was most certainly a factor.
The point is that none of those involved expected the war they were all so very keen on waging would last more than a few months. You’ll be home by Christmas, all the sad patriotic saps who signed up were assured, rather as a former Labour defence secretary assured a concerned nation that quite probably not a shot would be fired in the operation in Afghanistan. None involved in the enthusiastic declarations of war which were made in the capitals of Europe expected, or even suspected, that it would not be a cakewalk and would, instead, become the long-drawn out slaughter of millions we know from our history books.
I mention that Very Short Introduction, and intend digging out that slim volume sooner rather than later, because I do wonder whether the current noble action by the West to impose a no-fly zone to protect the Libyan rebels is similarly an action which might precipitate the wholly unexpected. I think I mentioned a week or two ago the observation by a friend that 2011 might well turn out to be ‘one of those years such as 1848 and 1914’ and bring about all the changes they did. I don’t for a moment doubt that those involved – Cameron, Obama, Sarkozy, Merkel and various faceless idiots from the EU aren’t fully aware of the dangers. After all, they, too will know their history. It’s just that so much else is going on in the world: the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan, the world economy still recovering from the banking crisis of a few years ago, almost universal unrest throughout the Middle East – Syria is said to have experienced protests over these past few days – and the fact that the difficulties of waging war in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, Iraq are far from over. If I were the kind to resort to cliché, then I might add ‘that it all adds up nicely for the perfect storm’. Oh, and then there’s the continuing hassles the bloody euro is causing, with the Germans understandably getting increasingly irritated that they should be expected to bail out all and sundry in the interest of European brotherhood.
I mention World War I because at the time the various chancelleries around Europe will have considered that they had fully thought through the consequences of what they intended to do. I mean, they didn’t have to go to war after the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, but they doubtlessly decided that it was a good enough excuse to pick sides and start the fighting and to demonstrate what superior nations they had become. I doubt whether many involved even knew where Sarajevo was. But what happened, happened and World War I marked the end of one era and the beginning of another.
There is certainly direct comparison between the origins of World War I and what is now going on in the Middle East, but events do have a habit of getting out of hand. Take Iran, for example, a situation which has loads of potential for spinning out of control. Its own opposition might well be encouraged by the dissent that is being shown in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and, it now seems, Syria and Saudi Arabia so the country, and it all follows the problems the government had a few years agoa. It will also know that throughout history the tried and tested tactic for defusing internal problems is to unite the country against an external enemy. So what better time to launch action against Israel and invite attack by the West? Either the West felt obliged to respond in kind with all the problems that would bring, or it would – implausibly – regard it as wisest to leave well along and risk losing an enormous amount of credibility very fast indeed. I’m not saying that will happen, I’m just saying that it is wisest to expect the unexpected. So it really might well be time to dig out Armageddon: At Very Short Introduction (available I all good bookshops until they are all burned to the ground).
. . .
There are several pieces of music which send a shiver down my spine. Always. On is Aretha Franklin’s version of I Say A Little Prayer. Another is the beginning of of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But it is not always music. The cartoon below does so, too. It happened again when I googled it so that I could post it here. If you are not familiar with it, it refers to the ‘peace treaty’ hammered out by ‘the big four - David Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau, Vittorio Orlando at Versaille in 1919, which was so ineffably punitive for Germany.
The caption has Clemenceau observing: ‘Curious, I thought I heard a child weeping’. If you can’t make it out, on the left of the cartoon is that child, marked ‘1940’. The cartoonist was only out by a year.