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Savage Wars of Peace | The Nation

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Savage Wars of Peace

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"From this place, and from this day forth begins a new era in the history of the world, and you can all say that you were present at its birth," Goethe claimed to have told a group of Prussian soldiers after they were routed by France's revolutionary forces at Valmy on September 20, 1792, and his pronouncement duly features in David Bell's The First Total War. But Bell does not swoon, as plenty have, at the poet's clairvoyance. Instead he notes calmly that Goethe wrote his account of Valmy decades later and with some borrowing from the testimonials of others. Nevertheless, there was insight in Goethe's histrionics; in 1792 the London Times had reported, "The army marching from Paris exhibits a very motley group. There are almost as many women as men, many without arms, and very little provision." Here was "a people's war," with the new French Republic rising to defend itself any which way it could. Bell's book is an impressively steady, poetically unembellished, evocation of the nativity that awed Goethe.

About the Author

Ruth Scurr
Ruth Scurr teaches history and politics at Cambridge University. She is the author of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the...

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Bell, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins, sees that birth as monstrous: European total war from 1792 to 1815. From the outset he admits that the concept of total war "seems to get blurrier the closer you come to it." It is a concept more conventionally associated with the First or Second World War than with the French Revolution and its aftermath. Gen. Erich Ludendorff directed the German war effort in World War I and published his grim pamphlet Der Totale Krieg in 1935. Eight years later, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda, shrieked infamously at a crowd in the Berlin Sports Palace: "Do you want total war?" Attempts to define total war, in the abstract, in general or removed from context, are inevitably contentious. Bell settles on a reasonable working definition: "a war involving the complete mobilization of a society's resources to achieve the absolute destruction of an enemy, with all distinction erased between combatants and noncombatants." The extremity of this definition makes the full realization of total war improbable, now or in the past. Acknowledging this, Bell defends the concept in broader political and cultural terms, seeking to explain the emergence of new understandings of war behind the cataclysmic intensification of fighting from Valmy to Napoleon's fall in 1815.

He uses the oxymoronic notion of a "culture of war" to capture an aspect of French Revolutionary and Napoleonic studies relatively underexplored, but tantalizingly resonant with contemporary political predicaments on both sides of the Atlantic. He cites historian John Keegan's professional complaint that "not even the beginnings of an attempt have been made by military historians to plot the intellectual landmarks and boundaries of their own field of operations." Bell addresses this deficit by connecting military and cultural history for the period 1792-1815 through the history of ideas. But he is not writing exclusively, or even primarily, for fellow historians. The First Total War is a book for general readers with stomachs strong enough for history's grittier details. The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 raised hopes for decades of lasting peace. Similar hopes attended the French Revolution in 1789. As we struggle to come to terms with our own generation's disappointment, it might prove instructive, if far from comforting, to look back two centuries at shattered hopes not our own. That, at least, is Bell's suggestion in this engaging, ambitious, intelligent book.

Blending the history of ideas with narrative history is not easy, particularly since thinkers and writers are typically far removed from the stage of history, where decisions on war and peace are made. Immanuel Kant, for example, lived almost all his life, as Bell tells us, "within the chill gray walls, streets, and skies of the Baltic Prussian city of Königsberg, where he taught philosophy uneventfully at the university." Bell's solution is largely to segregate thought from action. This is most apparent in an early chapter in which he expounds on Enlightenment theories of war and peace, painstakingly elaborated in the decades of the eighteenth century that led inexorably to revolution. Here the tangles of pacifist thought are patiently but economically and, on occasion, even amusingly, unraveled. François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon, an aristocrat and archbishop, was the author of the bestselling novel Telemachus, a sequel to Homer's Odyssey that "urged Christian pacifism on Christian rulers." First published in 1699, Telemachus went through more than a hundred editions in the next century, but "today, it is exasperatingly difficult to see why," Bell frankly admits. "Many chapters--even Telemachus's despairing search for his father amid the ghosts of Hades--consist of little but large helpings of unadulterated, virtually indigestible virtue, accompanied by verbose sermonizing and much shedding of pious tears."

Another religious aristocrat and proto-pacifist, the Abbé de Saint-Pierre, published A Project for Making Peace Perpetual in Europe in 1713. Bell wryly remarks that Saint-Pierre's book "has the dubious honor of counting among the intellectual antecedents of the United Nations." Then there was the Baron d'Holbach, whose System of Nature ranked third on pre-Revolutionary France's bestseller list (by the historian Robert Darnton's reckoning), while its companion volume, The Social System, "came in at a respectable twenty-nine"; and finally Kant himself in 1784 with his essay "Idea of a Universal Cosmopolitical History." For all the differences in their complex and intricate ideas, Bell argues, all these theorists were united in rejecting the ancien régime understanding of war as an ordinary part of the social order.

It was this old, carefully delineated and stylized approach to combat that total war was destined to supplant by the end of the century. The officers, gentlemen and poets who once packed off to war between May and October with spare pairs of silk stockings in their baggage trains are a crucial foil in Bell's story. While these men were philosophically assailed in the name of progress by the likes of Fénelon, Saint-Pierre, d'Holbach and Kant, their approach to war was nonetheless more civilized, or contained, than the monster ushered onto the world stage after 1789. Bell quotes a typical letter from the pre-Revolutionary war in Corsica: "It was the sort of life that suited me best: musket shots all day long, and supper with my mistress in the evening!" War of any kind is grisly, but Bell insists that historians "need to be able to make distinctions between shades of horror." On his account there is no contest: The bloodshed directed by aristocrats before 1789 pales into insignificance beside the "apocalyptic" bloodbaths that followed.

The thrust of this argument brings Bell up sharply against one of the most intractable questions about the French Revolution: Was it caused by Enlightenment social and political thought? Can its excesses and atrocities be attributed in some subtle yet direct way to the intellectual contributions of Voltaire, Rousseau or the proto-pacifists mentioned above? Bell claims that the arguments for peace that won over Europe's intellectual elite during the eighteenth century were philosophical abstractions, insulated from the practice of war by a metaphorical glass wall, which the Revolution was to shatter. It put ideas into practice, just as Edmund Burke had seen it would. "The mode of civilized war will not be practiced," he predicted in 1791, "nor are the French...entitled to expect it.... The hell-hounds of war, on all sides, will be uncoupled and unmuzzled." Burke was right, but as he conceded, there was no moral high ground left to occupy, only squalid despair amid the horrors of unlimited war.

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