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Posted on Jun 11, 2014 in Books and Movies

The Great War for Peace – Book Review

The Great War for Peace – Book Review

By Hans Johnson

the-great-war-for-peaceThe Great War For Peace.  William Mulligan. Yale University Press.  456 pages, 15 b/w illustrations, cloth.  $35.00

The Great War for Peace is an ambitious undertaking by William Mulligan, a lecturer in modern history at University College Dublin.   He rejects the mainstream view that the First World War was simply a slaughter that led to the Second World War and gave us fascism and communism along the way.  Mulligan then argues that The First World War, along with a number of other early 20th century wars, was critical in creating a new world order focused on peace.  For him, this peace was more than an end to hostilities, it was also a new future in which people, organizations, and states related to one another in new and expansive ways.  And while he admits that those efforts often did fail, with the League of Nations being a case in point, they did serve as a template for future peace efforts.

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The second half of his thesis takes up the vast majority of The Great War For Peace.    Mulligan defines the First World War as expansively as he does peace.  Chronologically, he takes in wars as early as the Italo-Ottoman War of 1911-12 and a number of conflicts of the early 1920s.    Geographically, he takes in the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the Chinese Revolution of 1911.   Mulligan discusses at length a number of figures and organizations who advocated for a more peaceful world, but by his own admission were usually not critical political or social decision-makers.   His generous coverage of conflicts, personalities, and negotiations before and after the Great War is terrific.  Having thoroughly explained his generous definitions, Mulligan concludes that peace was at the heart of the First World War and was what gave the conflict meaning.

The Great War For Peace makes the argument that peace was part of the First World War’s legacy, but Mulligan further makes the case that peace was at its heart.   This is over-ambitious and Mulligan fails to convince.  The peace advocates are too minor in character, the organizations too much on the periphery, and the events too remote both geographically and chronologically.

If we are to change our view of the legacy of the First World War, it is just as necessary to show why the traditional view is incorrect or should be de-emphasized as it is to make a strong case for the new interpretation.  But Mulligan only very briefly discusses the traditional interpretation of the First World War’s legacy in his introduction.     It is more of an explanation than an argument and is too brief to convince.   Mulligan should have made a better case by devoting more of his book to it.

The Great War for Peace is certainly not an introductory work on the First World War.   He does cover the war as a narrative for his thesis.  The footnotes are extensive as is the research that must have gone into this book.  The coverage of the minor wars before and after the Great War is extensive, and this was one of the book’s strongest points.  Concise, reliable information on such conflicts is difficult to come by.  Those wishing to expand their knowledge in these areas will enjoy The Great War for Peace.  Those who are looking for a strong case for the role of peace as part of the legacy of the First World War will also enjoy this book.

Others will find Mulligan’s thesis simply too ambitious.  He does not prove either half of his thesis, especially his rejection of the traditional view of the First World War.   Even a talented historian such as Mulligan needs more than a few pages to convince his audience that the conventional wisdom of the First World War is wrong.  Peace was the desire of many during the War and in its aftermath they attempted to create a new world order to promote and preserve peace.  That much The Great War for Peace demonstrates, but so do other works.

Hans Johnson is a freelance writer living in Southwest Florida.

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