Leonard, Jörn. "Pandora’s Box: A History of the First World War." Translated by Patrick Camiller. Belknap Press: Harvard University, London, 2018. Pages: 1,104.
Dr. Robert Smith
Pandora's Box is the quintessential one volume work on the First World War, the War to End All Wars. Jörn Leonard's work is one that sets a new bar for an all-encompassing history of World War One, despite what seems a pattern to this American historian of his not always so veiled criticisms of the United States. Some word choices are odd such as antipodean, agonal and pentarchy make the book a bit less accessible. Make no mistake about this near door stop of a tome, the book has heft but inside the reader will be delighted to find the real “heft” is in the intellectual realm and the fresh analysis and perspective. The question you might ask is; does it break new ground? Well yes and no at first blush, the way Leonard organizes and synthesizes certain ever-accepted facts into new ways to interpret the war to this reviewer, constitutes new ground.
What sets Leonard's work apart though, is what seems like an obvious thesis, but one to date that has largely been ignored, that WW I was truly an “epochal turning point” (p. 3), because the violence of the War did not simply stop with the November 11th, 1918 Armistice. Instead, the passions and new radical ideologies unleashed by the war, mainly on the left that often provoked a reaction from the right, turned Germany, Poland, Eastern Europe, but primarily Russia, into killing fields of an internal nature. Contrast that with the seemingly carefully regulated and restricted conflicts of the post-Napoleonic era. One could never make the huge juxtaposition, say between the Crimea War and the First World War, as there is no precedent in the time leading up to it, not a single antecedent to easily explain the catastrophe that engulfed Europe. World War One was an outlier among outliers in some ways, this seems to be one of Leonard’s points. What sets World War One apart from all the conflicts that preceded it was the era of low grade warfare that followed it, gripping Europe through much of the 1920’s, and then started anew with the Japanese in China in 1931.
But why did Europe go to war? Leonard makes a more sophisticated argument than it was simply the breakdown of the Congress of Vienna mentality. What now happened, was that something broke down, nearly simultaneously, in the psychological makeup of all the great states that was built upon the concept of an existing European legal order where wars were fought not for ideological purposes, or for dehumanizing the enemy. Instead, this mutually agreed upon order was shattered and overcome by a fear that the old equilibrium was no longer in balance and that someone could now establish hegemony. The result—any ends to achieve victory were good, from shooting droves of civilian in Belgium to burning libraries. Leonard’s thesis seems at first, hard to accept, but when one saw how easily nationalism supplanted Angell’s vision as stated in The Great Illusion, it simply makes sense. Something did indeed breakdown across borders and classes that allowed for the stoic, almost fanaticism, that characterizes the ordeal of World War One.
A criticism that could be leveled at Pandora's Box is if it is evolutionary, if not groundbreaking. Why did Leonard stick to the chronological formula? The answer—it works. Military history lends itself very well to a chronological examination of events, as it is determined in a sense by battles and campaigns fought over time. What Leonard does very well is weave much, much more into the tapestry of the military side, and shows the closer than heretofore considered relationship between the trenches, those abroad, and the Home Front. All of that adds immeasurably to the overall fabric of the book. What it means for the reader is that the story line of World War One stays fresh with so many different themes operating as cross-currents. Yet the author never allows these to get out of hand or swamp the story. For example, while talking about the Battle of Verdun, he notes this was where air power really came of age, and then serves to make a compelling and substantive argument that does not overwhelm the Battle of Verdun. Even better, as almost a throwaway, he mentions a decorated pilot we would come to see much later, Hermann Goering.
Now, if there is any area that Leonard does not fully explore, it might be the failure of the Hinderberg Program, and the like effort in Austro-Hungary. Nevertheless, because Holger H. Herwig has covered the failure of that armament production effort in such loving detail in The First World War, Leonard can be scarcely faulted. Again, it is a matter of some compression to cover so much, and at that he truly succeeds. A technique used successfully by Leonard due to his overwhelming command of his subject. His work on the Ober Ost, the German expansion to the east, begins to echo some of the concepts, and feel, of the Nazi programs in the conquered territories in the East. One does wish that Leonard had added more detail though, to the picture of the young Ukrainian boy on page 258 awaiting execution. Leonard provided no additional information.
The book is well researched and is replete with notes. Pandora’s Box is lavishly illustrated though contained within the pages rather than separate plates. What makes the book useful to the modern student, beyond his sheer brilliance in making World War One come alive, is how he points out those areas that World War One shattered. Turkey. Eastern Europe. The Middle East. Italy. All these areas fared badly in not just World War One, but its aftermath with wounds, and rifts that have never fully healed. His thesis and acidic commentary on the fact that the forces unleashed by World War One continued into the 1920—the Russian Civil War, Finland, almost every Eastern Europe nation and between Turkey and Greece. Moreover the sense of wrongs and guilt apportionment to the losers only made a rematch inevitable.
Leonard’s work does not quite compared to the heavy metal military feel of say Herwig’s magnificent work, The First World War, but for a holistic overview of the war, Leonard is the go-to work. Other than a tendency at times to perhaps overwrite in terms of word choices, this is simply an engrossing book in terms of a military-social-political history. As highly recommended as a work can come, Leonard will hopefully turn his talents to a one volume work of the Third Reich in World War II.