Like a drunken man who stumbles headlong into a filthy ditch, thus did the nations of Europe fall swiftly into the deadly morass of World War I. The horrific bloodletting of America's Civil War -- called the first modern war -- should have given Europeans an inkling of just how terrible increasingly mechanized methods of killing could be. Indeed one Polish banker named I. S. Bloch predicted late in the 19th century that "war between the great industrial powers is nothing more than mutual suicide ... the guns direct thick iron rain ... the earth is reddened with blood ... there will be increased slaughter ... increased slaughter on so terrible a scale. ... Everybody will be entrenched in the next war." By 1914 such dire forebodings were either forgotten or carelessly cast aside. Before the war's end, 30 countries, representing every continent, had entered the madness. As many as 10 million combatants were killed, wounded or died from disease. And as guns fell silent, nature itself seemed to join the orgy of death as the flu epidemic ravaged the earth, killing as many as 100 million people.
Author Peter Englund has brought the chaos and horror of that unprecedented time into vivid focus in his sweeping work, "The Beauty and the Sorrow." A historian and permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature, Englund has also been a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Iraq. His experience of war no doubt contributes to the electrified prose that pervades this extraordinary volume. His narrative evokes the lives of 20 common individuals in a kaleidoscope of shifting experiences and perspectives. They encountered the brutality on murderous battlefields or in other quarters removed from exploding shells and rataplan of machineguns. Englund makes deft use of their letters and journals and brings the reader into the midst of the terror and tedium, anticipation and disappointment, physical and psychic exhaustion so profligately rendered by the bloody conflict.
A wife and mother, Laura de Turczynowicz is an American married to a Polish aristocrat. "Laura has never understood this war, let alone welcomed it. She is one of the many people for whom what has happened is like a natural catastrophe, a dark and ultimately incomprehensible tragedy that has suddenly swept down on them from nowhere." In August 1914, a Russian invasion of nearby East Prussia brings the war home to Laura. She is asked to help with the many wounded and is immediately immersed in the gruesome gore and stench that is the product of battle.
Laura speaks German, so she is asked to check on some wounded German prisoners. One is a dazed and frightened young man "rocking violently backwards and forwards the whole time, simultaneously praying and asking for water." He asks if she will write to his wife. Englund quotes Laura: "He told me he had been a bookkeeper, that he was twenty-six years old, and had a wife and children, a little house of his own, had never harmed anyone in his life, took no interest in anything outside his work and his family, until with three hours' notice he was ordered to join his regiment, and leave it all. 'The great lords have quarreled, and we must pay for it with our blood, our wives and children.'" Soon the young man is dead. Laura's own husband took arms with the Russian forces. Eventually she flees to America with her children. "She could not know it at the time but she would never return to Poland and she would never see her husband, Stanislaw, again."
Many from all sides thought the war would be a brief and glorious affair. The music and parades that enthralled the young -- enthused by their uniforms, guns, delirious approbation, and promise of adventure and victory -- soon melted away in the ravenous jaws of a most monstrous and protracted war. "Colossal energies have been released and seem to be dragging everyone with them. ... What has been swept away in this flood tide of high emotion is the question why they are at war."
One who is not exhilarated by the bellicosity is French civil servant Michael Corday, "a socialist, a litterateur and a friend of peace." Shattered by the convulsion of war, Corday reflects: "Every thought and event caused by the outbreak of war came as a bitter and mortal blow struck against the great conviction that was in my heart: the concept of permanent progress, of movement towards ever greater happiness. I had never believed that something like this could happen. It meant that my faith simply crumbled. The outbreak of war marked my awakening from a dream I had nourished ever since I started thinking."
In Englund's gripping work one encounters the intrepid British infantryman Alfred Pollard and selfless aid worker Sarah Macnaughtan. There is Harvey Cushing, a physician from Boston, who performs surgeries on head wounds and observes the phenomenon of shellshock. And there is insatiable adventurer Rafael de Nogales of Venezuela, who could not persuade the Allies to accept his services, then winds up in the Ottoman army. Here, too, are Belgian air force fighter pilot Willy Coppens and Kresten Andresen, a Danish soldier in the German army along with others who comprise the very human story of this agonizing war.
The book concludes with a brief recollection by a German soldier distraught and angered over his nation's defeat. In the course of his mounting resentment and seething fury this soldier states: "I decided to become a politician." His name was Adolf Hitler.