Literature on the First World War Sigmund’s Worries

Books about the First World War
Books about the First World War | Photo (detail): © normanposselt.com

2014 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the First World War. If you want to read about the Great War, you will hardly be able to keep from being inundated by the offerings. Among the many new books in this anniversary year, newly re-issued standard works consort with publications of the last two years.

One hundred years after the First World War. A large stack of books worth reading on the subject could be assembled without much effort. Advanced students with plenty of time will want to read the books by the Berlin historian Herfried Münkler and the Australian Prussia specialist Christopher Clark. Their outstanding works (Der Große Krieg [i.e., The Great War] and The Sleepwalkers) are certain to give the reader new insights but are, each with its almost 1,000 pages, real challenges. There are, however, alternatives.

Europe between colds and high diplomacy

A much easier, and also more winged, access to the subject is provided by the non-fiction work 1913 by Florian Illies, which already appeared in 2012. The journalist and art expert Illies, who became known through his generational portrait Generation Golf (i.e., Generation X), traces the mood of the great minds of Europe on the eve of the First World War. Very privately, almost intimately, the reader witnesses how Franz Kafka wrestled with his shyness and what worries plagued Sigmund Freud throughout the year. Rilke had the flu and the European high nobility oscillated between romantic and diplomatic entanglements. Stalin and Hitler, who were only later to shape the destiny of the world, also appear on the scene. Despite all intimacy, Illies maintains an ironic distance to his main characters. The book ends in the year the war began, leaving the reader almost amused, though with a dark foreboding.

A scholarly, though likewise entertaining book, is August 1914 by the American historian Barbara Tuchman, who died in 1989. Tuchman describes down to the smallest detail the euphoric entry of the great European powers into the war. It becomes plain how precisely the war was planned – but also that it was based on military and political miscalculations and mistakes. For August 1914 Tuchman received international recognition and won the Pulitzer Prize. Though her methodological approach of narrative history was already less than innovative when the first edition appeared in 1962, the brilliantly researched and masterfully written work is still regarded as a classic.

Views of the war from Vienna and Kabakon

Between New Year’s Eve 1913, with which Illies’s book ends, and August 1914 lie seven months. Exactly this period is taken up by Schöne Tage. 1914 (i.e., Pleasant Days) by Gerhard Jelinek, who, like Illies, keeps a kind of diary about the events from New Year’s Day to the outbreak of the war. But Jelinek’s focuses more on Viennese society, which provides interesting insights into the sinking Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The writing style of the full-time TV journalist, however, is less light-footed than that of Illies.

Readers of the novel Imperium by Christian Kracht will be able to look beyond the European continent. Kracht acquaints the reader with the Nuremberg apprentice August Engelhardt, who desires to lead a nature-loving life in the German South Sea colony of German New Guinea. In 1902 Engelhardt settled on the island Kabakon, which today belongs to Papua New Guinea, lived henceforth as a nudist and nourished himself exclusively on coconuts. The First World War erupts even into this world, in the form of a small troop of Australian soldiers. Outsider and colonial history collide with each other in the novel, told in the style of an adventure story. Not always easy to read, but highly recommended.