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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Reflecting 100 years after World War I

Published: October 17, 2014
Section: News

Award-winning journalist and author Adam Hochschild presented a lecture about his research on World War I on Monday, Oct. 13. in Rapaporte Treasure Hall. The event was hosted by the History Department in remembrance of the centennial of the war. Dr. Karen Hansen, the sociology undergraduate advising head and organizer of the event, gave an informal introduction to the speaker, followed by a formal introduction by Dr. Michael Willrich (HIST/LGLS).

Willrich introduced Hochschild, a New York City-born, Harvard-educated American author, journalist and, currently, lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. His importance as a writer, he said, “came of age as an activist and journalism in the ’60s.” Hochschild’s writing took place during Apartheid in South Africa, the Jim Crow era in America and the Vietnam War.

“His articles appeared in the great magazines in the America. His achievement as a historian was recognized in the 2012 American Historical Association’s Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award, a prize awarded to non-academics who have made a significant contribution to the discipline of history,” Willrich said.

Before coming down from the podium, Willrich shared Hochschild’s commentary on writing history.

“If there is a new special technique of writing history, I certainly have not discovered it. All the lessons I try to follow are the ancient ones. Read widely. Try like hell to be accurate. Write in a way that will make your reader want to read,” said Hochschild.

Hochschild first visited the Brandeis campus in 1962, when he met with the student peace group at the time.

“Unfortunately the issue of war and peace is still with us,” he said.

Hochschild stated he had an obsession with war in his childhood, because he knew veterans, including his uncle.

Scorch destruction was relatively new to mainland Europe, and WWI swept away the empire. People had three major reasons to join the war effort. The first was a proposed quick and easy victory.

The second was the belief that the enemy would not attack back. He explained this by looking at the military uniforms of European countries.

The third was a blind faith in the cavalry and its role in industrialized warfare.

“Countries had a weapon they believed would be the key to winning the war. The cavalry was certainly the magic weapon and the elite force,” Hochschild said.

This illusion was quickly destroyed as people faced a difficult reality. He explained, “The barbed wire ended the glorious days of the cavalry forever, not to mention the machine gun.”

Elite people fought in WWI, while previous wars were fought by the lower class. People from the colonies worked as porters, laborers and soldiers. They did this because so many men were killed in their home country. By the end, Britain was drafting 17-year-olds.

Hochschild also discussed war resistance and stated there were people vocally against the war in each country.

“More than 500 Americans refused to fight and they were sent to special camp for resistors,” he said. “Jean Jaurès was a strong opponent of the war … [it was a] crime of patriotic passion.“

It was the first propaganda war, and in the U.K., people were sent to prison. Many of them had refused conscientious objection. Hochschild gave an example of a famous British leading investigative journalist, E.D. Morel. He was imprisoned and served hard labor for six months. ”His time in prison was so hard that he died of heart attack at 51,” Hochschild stated.

Hochschild also described the war’s impact on families. “One of the country’s most prominent peace campaigners was Charlotte Despard, a strong radical on every issue of the day, gone to prison four times for women’s suffrage. She favored independence of colonies,” he explained. Interestingly, her younger brother was commander-of-chief on the Western Front. In 1918, when the British Government faced an Irish revolt, the siblings stopped talking.

Hochschild gave light to another figure who deserves the attention of historians.

“In 1916, Emily Hobhouse crossed borders from England to France to Switzerland to Berlin, Germany. She discussed peace terms, but failed to convert the British government,” he said.

After the lecture, Hochschild opened the floor to a question and answer session.

Answering a question about who was to blame for the war, Hochschild said it was provoked by Germany and Russia, who were eager to join the war. In addition, Russia had a wretched reputation it wanted to redeem after a loss to the Japanese. He said, however, “It did take two to tango,” and did not exempt the French and Allies, admitting they were also at fault too.