Oxford historian Margaret MacMillan subtly rephrases the usual question about the Great War’s origins, investigating why the long European peace—in place since 1815—failed to hold in the summer of 1914. She suggests that the conflict was not inevitable, assessing Europe on the eve of war as no more rife with tensions and rivalries than it had been for decades. The War That Ended Peace (Random House, $35) erupted on a continent whose 19th-century battles had been mostly brief or at a distance while closer to home, tourism and improved transportation united rather than divided people, as did faith in a bright technological future. But if the 1900 Paris Universal Exhibition pointed to itself as “a symbol of harmony and peace,” the catalog also mentioned that war was “natural to humanity.” MacMillan, whose Paris 1919 so vividly chronicled the war’s aftermath, masterfully charts the two opposing currents in the years leading up to 1914. Her profiles of Europe’s leaders alone make the book worth reading.
Just as a cookie could kill a starving death camp inmate whose system couldn’t handle it, so restoring normality after the insanity of world war was a tricky business. In his global survey of the devastation of 1945, Year Zero (Penguin Press, $29.95), Ian Buruma describes an almost unimaginably complex situation. The old world was in ruins, and this included both the physical infrastructure of cities and industries and the “invisible ruins” of cultures and even of civilization itself. Then there were the millions of displaced persons, the famines, epidemics, and combustible mix of festering bitterness and ready weapons. Buruma, sensitive to the wide sweep of political exigencies as well as to their very real effect on individual lives, starts with his father’s experience as a slave laborer in Germany, then chronicles survival stories of civilians and soldiers from throughout Europe and Asia. Tracking a Liberation Complex, he charts the initial “exultation,” the uses and abuses of fraternization, the complexities of repatriation, and the unwillingness of the formerly powerless—women, colonial subjects—to relinquish new-found independence. The goal, as Buruma shows with great insight and humanity, wasn’t to reassemble pre-war conditions, but to create a world that wouldn’t fall prey to its own destructive tendencies.
Some events leave you at a loss for words. Luckily, images can step in. Some of the most eloquent these days come from the pen and ink of Joe Sacco. After graphically documenting the tensions and fraught conditions of Palestine and Safe Area Gorzade, he’s turned to the Battle of the Somme. Long fascinated by a conflict so extreme that it could be considered the last of its kind—“the war to end all wars”—Sacco chose July 1, 1916 for his subject, “because that is the point where the common man could have no more illusions about the nature of modern warfare.” While Sacco’s editors suggested Matteo Pericoli’s graceful Manhattan Unfurled as a model, Sacco himself looked to the Bayeux Tapestry (which chronicled events leading to the 1066 Battle of Hastings) and adapted medieval art’s nonrealistic proportion and perspective to give his twentieth-century battle scenes a fittingly timeless and surreal tone. But the details of each scene are historically accurate, and Sacco has included six pages of annotations identifying equipment, landmarks, and activities. The Great War (W.W. Norton, $35) is a slip-cased package pairing Sacco’s stunning sixteen-page, twenty-four-foot long stream of battle with an essay by Adam Hochschild, drawn from his award-winning history, To End All Wars.