Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Last Veterans of World War I

Richard Rubin’s The Last of the Doughboys is a brilliant and unexpected delight. Interviewing the last surviving American veterans of World War I, all of them of course well beyond a hundred years old, is the kind of idea which would make any nonfiction writer clap his (or her) hand to the forehead and say: “Why didn’t I think of that?” 
His subtitle on the other hand is a little strange for a European to assimilate: “The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War,” is not only cumbersome, but also puzzling. In Britain and Europe, no event is less forgotten than World War I, or “The Great War,” as it was called until 1939. Speaking as somebody who is half English and half Hungarian, World War I still seems to me a familiar and seismic event, as if it had only just ended. My father fought on the side of the Central Powers, as a soldier in the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Army, my maternal grandfather fought in the British Army, on different sides, and both were so traumatized by the experience that they never talked about it. 
The war left its mark on every part of British life, no town too small not to have a war memorial, with a long list of the dead carved in stone, no college, school or public building without a plaque inside the door bearing an endless list of names of those who were killed in Flanders, on the Somme or elsewhere, no poetry more often recited than that of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, and Robert Graves. To this day, I, like many in Britain, still wear a poppy on Nov. 11. 
The war left its mark on history too, erasing empires, replacing Austro-Hungary with a dangerous brood of Eastern European and Balkan mini-nations, carving up the Ottoman Empire into colonies, soon to become statelets, with artificial frontiers containing populations of different ethnic and religious backgrounds who hated each other, and bringing about the birth of Fascism, Communism, and Nazism—for the Second World War, awful as it was, was merely a reprise of the First with some minor switching of smaller powers, and the addition of a war in the Pacific to that in Europe. The years 1914-1918 were, and will perhaps always remain, our mental image of Armageddon: the mud, the trenches, the barbed wire, the squalor, the millions of dead for no good purpose...

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