Legacies from World War I

Why was Ernest Hemingway’s novel “A Farewell to Arms” the big novel about World War I during the years between the two world wars?

Why is “A Farewell to Arms” still an important novel that resonates with the experience of a war now a century past?

Was World War II an inevitable follow-on from World War I? Did the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 set the course towards World War II?

I explored these issues with my historical novel “A Farewell in Paris” which is set in Paris in 1928 and features a second fictional great American novel about the World War that tragically never gets published. Was this the missing insight that the public needed to hear to avoid yet another world war? I also learned in my research some additional information about 1918 and the end of the war that goes somewhat under-appreciated. The inevitability of another war was almost baked in from the beginning.

Why not the American experience for the American novel? One question is why was the American experience of the American Expeditionary Force and its bloody campaign in eastern France in 1918 not the central setting of the great American war novel? The mighty Meuse-Argonne offensive of the AEF was the climatic battle which led to the cracking of Germany’s ability to sustain the war. That was the big fight.

So why is the great American novel of the war about a young American Red Cross driver set in Italy and his love affair is with an English nurse? When the American experience was a military triumph why is the dramatic turning point the young soldier’s eventual desertion from the war and his coming to the famous “separate peace”. So I re-set the story with a brave American infantry officer from the AEF and his affair with a German nurse in the immediate aftermath of the war and with the climatic tragedy unfolding in Berlin. So it is a compare and contrast premise against a larger backdrop of historical irony.

Both the Hemingway novel and my novel end with the same three words.

The universal experience. Hemingway’s setting of his novel in Italy, a secondary theater, made his story universal in a way that no story about the Western Front could have. Hemingway unhooked his story from the specific to the realm of universal which was where the overall public attitude about the war had migrated ten yeas after its end — that the war was some sort of providential disaster visited upon humankind for existential reasons. (You think today’s political elites are being scorned? Look at the 1920s and 30s.)

The lost moment. In my research I went back to find out the moment, if possible, when the chance for avoiding the second world war was lost. I went through the news stories in the New York Times from the beginning of November (the war ended November 11, 1918) to the end of the year. The chance of avoiding a new war was lost almost from the time the guns were stilled and lost in Germany. When Germany was defeated, the Kaiser, his entire government, and the ruling group melted away and a new Social Democratic government came into power immediately. The Social Democrats, who might have led Germany back to a more democratic, constructive, and peaceful future, wound up “carrying the can” for the defeat, the starvation and poverty caused by the continued British blockade of Germany in 1919, and the Paris Peace Treaty of 1919.

So, there is an argument to be made that the peace was already lost before the Peace Treaty was ever signed. The great architect of the victory in World War I, French Marshal Foch, said of the 1919 Paris Peace Treaty that it was just a truce of twenty years in the longer war. This was prophetic as the Second World War began twenty years after the 1919 Peace Treaty.

Hemingway’s novel captures the massive angst of a generation thoroughly disillusioned with the international system and the governing elites of its day. But the consequences played out differently. In the US the country retreated into isolationism as did the British in the UK. The French were left weak and terribly worried about another German war. All the western countries were “pacifistic” to some extent.

Germany was quite different. The Germans were ready for revenge.

And so the next war came.

“A Farewell in Paris” by Paul A. Myers, a novel of historical fiction.

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