Neither accusation nor confession


Whether teaching middle school, high school or college, whatever the setting, it is difficult to explain the real reasons for the massive bloodshed in "The Great War." Textbooks and essays about World War I reference the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria- heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary-by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo. But when Princip shot both Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, the reaction back in Austria was actually a far cry from outrage. The esteemed Czech-born historian Zbynûk Zeman asserts that nobody in Vienna seemed to care, and the next day crowds were seen listening to music and sipping wine as if nothing of any importance had happened.

In Sarajevo, by stark contrast, Austrian authorities encouraged mob violence against the Serbs and many Serbian residents were attacked and imprisoned. Estimates of how many Serbs died in custody range from 700 to 2,200. Austria-Hungary authorities, certainly viewing this crisis as an opportunity to end Serbian influence in Bosnia, delivered the "July Ultimatum" that most historians agree was intentionally made unacceptable in order to provoke war. So, in essence, the assassination was used as an excuse for imperialism and, in the words of Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, "for settling accounts with Serbia." No humanitarian narrative here - just a turf battle inflamed by the desire to settle old scores among the players on the European continent: a Sharks and Jets knife fight so large that it killed nine million combatants.

How to teach about World War I, its bottomless misery, and its monstrous impact on Europe in a way most of us can understand? I wish I'd had Jacqueline Winspear's "Maisie Dobbs" series at my disposal when I taught about the war. The books are classified as a "mystery series," but although I do enjoy a good mystery, Winspear's books are more like the best historical fiction. I reread them constantly. Maisie Dobbs, a female "psychologist and investigator" is complex and compelling. Her experiences during the war as a nurse, and afterwards as a physically and emotionally scarred civilian, enhance and expand my understanding of World War I and the psychological and political landscape of Europe between the world wars.

The first book, "Maisie Dobbs," was published a little over a decade ago. Maisie Dobbs, daughter of a London costermonger, is put out to a life in service after her mother dies and her father painfully concludes he cannot raise her properly alone. Maisie becomes a maid in a grand house and sneaks into the library late at night to read her employers' books. Equal parts scrappy and precocious, Maisie has become one of my favorite fictional characters.

Dobbs has a gift for sensing things that elude others, but her abilities do not place her in the realm of science fiction or the supernatural. She is extraordinarily aware of subtleties, but her sensibility is the perfect antidote for a time when thousands of British soldiers and returning nurses were asked by their country to carry on and forget the suffering. They were to be numb to all the horror and inexplicable memories of the multitudes lost over meaningless patches of earth.

Winspear's series addresses the many lasting scars of the war: the grief from countless, truly needless deaths and the anguish of soldiers returning home with such mutilated features that they literally have lost their faces, their very identity. They carry on, despite their hideous scars, believing that the Great War will surely be the end of such impulsive, cavalier ghastliness, only to discover that in their own lifetimes the poppy-covered battlefields of Europe would once again cradle the dead and dying.

And five generations later, are we any better? As we approach the 100th anniversary of the start of the World War I, Jacqueline Winspear is publishing a new novel set during the war, "The Care and Management of Lies." We shake our heads at our Veterans Affairs hospital scandal. Tens of thousands of veterans languish on waiting lists, and VA administrators create fictitious records to hide the long wait times for our injured soldiers. According to Washington Post reporter Katie Zezima, "A tide of disability claims from soldiers who were injured in Iraq and Afghanistan has inundated the VA." Because of medical advances, soldiers now survive injures that would have killed them in previous wars: 52,000 U.S soldiers injured in "The War on Terror" have returned home. They are entitled to more than patriotic flag displays on the Fourth of July. They should be given the greatest, most advanced care a grateful nation can provide.

German World War I veteran Erich Maria Remarque starts his acclaimed, brooding novel "All Quiet on the Western Front" - a book banned by the Nazis as unpatriotic - with a curious explanation: "This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war." Winspear's "Maisie Dobbs" continues this critical work for the Great Generation, the Gen Xers and the Millennials. She translates that time for us, highlighting the perils of our own.

I will be reading Winspear's latest this summer and re-reading her essay "Skylarks above No Man's Land" about walking the war's battlefields, cemeteries and memorials. Her own grandfather was severely wounded during the Battle of Somme in 1916 - an extended campaign that resulted in 1,200,000 casualties. Her books honor his true sacrifice. But they also serve as an invaluable guide helping us decipher a difficult historical period while forcing us to reflect on how we still let our veterans down.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at Read her blog at


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