Winter on Schönpflug, 'A World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age'

Daniel Schönpflug
Jay Winter

Daniel Schönpflug. A World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age. Metropolitan Books, 2018. 300 pages. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62779-762-7.

Reviewed by Jay Winter (Yale University) Published on H-Diplo (October, 2019) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version:

Daniel Schönpflug’s A World on Edge is one of the most original contributions to the avalanche of books published during the centenary of the Great War. Its strengths do not arise from new archival findings. Indeed the book rests entirely on published sources. The setting is familiar too. The heart of the story is in Berlin, where the author lives, and its outreach, beyond European artists, intellectuals, and political figures of the period, is limited to iconic Asians—Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh—several African Americans, and one female Cossack. What makes it special is the power of the portraits the author provides and the subtlety of the narrative. At first glance, the book is a kaleidoscope, with multiple lives unfolding in sequence. But by the end of the book, the reader has a sense of tragedy and misery that conventional narratives rarely achieve.

The tragedy is this: as ugly and brutal as were the years 1914-18, the postwar years were even worse. All those lives were lost for nothing. The “dawn” of a new age was the beginning of the civilianization of war, the decentering and fragmentation of violence into a whirlwind that swept through eastern, central, and southern Europe after the Armistice of 11 November and the signing of the peace treaty six months later at Versailles. There was in the years 1918-23 a second “Great War.” The toll it took in lives was about the same as did 1914-18, and its consequences lasted throughout the century. This descent into multidirectional violence made a nonsense of the claim that a new order had been established by the peace settlement. 

In the light of this deepening of social, national, ethnic, and religious hatreds, the naivete of the views of many citizens of the winning side becomes clear. What kind of peace had they won? American activist Moina Michael succeeded in making the poppy a transnational symbol of sacrifice, but she is the only person in the entire book to realize her dream. For everyone else, after 1914, life had a taste as of ashes.

The Berlin assassinations of French minister Matthias Erzberger and Ottoman leader Talaat Pasha show what the losing side faced. And let us recall that these assassins got away with their crimes. Schönpflug does not hesitate to note that Solomon Tehlirian, who assassinated Pasha, lied at his trial about his act not being premeditated, though Tehlirian agrees that shooting Talaat was a justified act of revenge, even of justice. The point is different. It is that in many parts of the world after 1918, violence became not the ultima ratio of political and social life but the prima ratio. In effect, the brutality of war not only continued but mutated into something even more monstrous during the “peace.” In 1919 violence was a domestic reality; street fighting replaced trench fighting, and if anything, hatreds intensified. 

Here was the moment in which Carl Schmitt’s political theology came into being as an illiberal dogma. “The pinnacle of great politics is the moment in which the enemy comes into view in concrete clarity as the enemy,” wrote Carl Schmitt in The Concept of the Political in 1927. The sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception, and the state or exception has become the norm. The legal constraints on violence were either blunted or broken. It may be that 1933 crowned the victory of a party based on these ideas, but their provenance is writ all over this book. It was in 1919-23 that they became distinctive elements in both European and extra-European affairs.

Schönpflug shows well that the civil war in Ireland, the Indian struggle for independence, and the degradation of African Americans in the United States yielded a harvest of violence far from the Weimar Republic. Delicately, he tells the story of the fast until death of Irish activist Terence MacSwiney in a British prison; he shows the struggle of Gandhi against the kind of violence that both attended his early efforts at political mobilization and ultimately led to his assassination; and he lets us know how bitter were the postwar years of black American soldier and hero Henry Johnson. Here are stories that start in the Great War, take a turn in the immediate postwar period, and leave a lingering and acid legacy still present in our own times. US president Barack Obama gave Johnson a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor in 2012, ninety years too late.

By adopting a strategy of moving from life to life, Schönpflug shows the fragmentation of ordinary lives in extraordinary times. He does much more than narrate violence. He brilliantly captures the personalities of those caught up in it. Rudolf Höss, later commandant of Auschwitz, notes “the wildness and doggedness” of post-1918 violence, where the “enemy was everywhere. And wherever there was a confrontation, there was butchery until one side had been completely annihilated” (p. 216). 

More rhetorical forms of violence also capture the mood of this moment. Schönpflug writes about the outrage of Austrian musician Arnold Schönberg’s response to Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky’s anti-Semitism, which while virulent, did not prevent Kandinsky from urging Schönberg to apply for the directorship of the Academy of Music at Weimar. Perhaps Schönberg was unaware of the way Kandinsky had insulted composer Alma Mahler for her “Jew love” for novelist Franz Werfel (p. 221). But Schönberg knew where Kandinsky’s ideas led and said so. Fortunately, Schönberg left Europe before it was too late. 

Many other studies have shown that it was less during the 1914-18 war but in the immediate postwar years that the toxic mixture of anti-Semitism and anti-Bolshevism appeared, but it is to Schönpflug’s credit that he takes an indirect and subtle approach to bringing home to the reader the force of this development.[1]

The novelist in the author provides other splendid moments to savor. The twists and turns of Alma Mahler-Gropius-Werfel’s love life do justice to the humorist Tom Lehrer’s classic musical sketch of her, written in the 1960s. French journalist Louise Weiss’s doomed love affair with Czech nationalist Milan Štefànik is told with skill and wit, including the arrival at Weiss’s door of Štefànik’s other admirer, Italian contessa Giuliana Benzoni, begging for Louise’s help after the man they both loved had died in a plane crash in Bratislava. She lets her rival in, giving misery the company it deserved. The death of the great African American musician James Reese Europe at the hand of a deranged drummer is another moment told with skill and force. An explosive and unstable mix of turbulence and violence is at the heart of lives public and private in this period, perhaps to a greater degree, the author suggests, than in the pre-1914 years. Perhaps.

Who comes out of the story unsinged by the fires lit in this period? Very few of the protagonists. The humanism of Käthe Kollwitz inoculated her against the furies, though her belief that the Sparticists had to be defeated in 1919 brought her in relatively close proximity to those whose acceptance of violence she abhorred. After all, the whirlwind had taken the life of her son Peter five years before, killed in Flanders on military service in October 1914. Perhaps US president Harry Truman was spared from what George Orwell called the moral pollution of these years. Truman survived bankruptcy on his return from the war to the Midwest and began a political career leading to the White House. Alvin S. York, pacifist turned sharpshooter and military hero, was similarly fortunate. He returned to help build roads and schools in rural Tennessee.

But these are the exceptions. The panorama Schönpflug sketches with such attention to human frailties shows a generation living on the edge of a volcano, one that was already emitting toxic gases and which would explode a few short decades later. The form the author has chosen for his narrative is very effective. Only snapshots, arrayed in a handsome book, can capture the discontinuities of the time.

What do these cameos, so elegantly constructed, leave out? One neglected story is hunger. Gandhi fasted; millions starved. Karl Kollwitz’s patients in Prenzlauerberg suffered from all the ailments poverty provoked. Revolutionary leader Soghomon Tehlirian’s nightmares included the murder of his family, but in his portrait, we are told little of his own deprivation and misery. Perhaps the choice of mostly middle-class writers, artists, or public figures precluded a consideration of hunger as a fundamental element of the transition from war to peace. But no one at the time doubted the reality of hunger in revolutionary eastern Europe or in post-Ottoman Turkey and the Middle East or in Russia during the famine of 1921. Or the reality of epidemic disease.

This book is an inspired work of cultural history. It follows a trend in historiography. The bulk of work published between 2014 and 2018 on the First World War deepened a tendency to place cultural history before other kinds of history—military, political, economic history in particular.[2] One source of this hegemonic position is the internet, in which the visual is dominant, and in which first-person voices are privileged. Both are essential parts of the archive out of which cultural history is written. 

Cultural history is popular for other reasons. It enables us to move from the intimate to the political and back to the intimate again. Family history and genealogy are all over the internet, and consequently the history of families and individual lives has come to dominate much of the history of the First World War. When in 2013 the French Bibliothèque Nationale and Archives Nationales made a public appeal for families to come forward with the archives of ancestors who had fought in the Great War, there was a massive public response. Perhaps twenty thousand new archives were made available for research. This democratization of the archives is a positive development, and helps ensure that cultural history will continue to be a salient element in historical publications about the First World War.

While we cannot understand the Great War without cultural history, we also must realize that no one approach can do justice to such a protean moment. We need to explore facets of the war beyond individual portraits and family archives. We need to understand malaria, and hyperinflation, and the closing of the gates to emigration to the United States, all propelled by the war and its aftermath.        

It is always foolish to criticize a book for what it doesn’t do. Perhaps the “new age” of which Schönpflug writes was not so new in London as it was in Berlin. And the urge to restore the glorious past, especially that of robust capitalism, was as much a feature of 1919-23 as the search for modernity. But these are minor criticisms. Here is a novelist-turned-historian’s master work, a delightful and learned paean to a generation that, without asking for it, inherited a polluted world, one with immense possibilities for innovation alongside a seemingly irresistible tendency to violence.  

Jay Winter is the Charles J. Stille Professor of History emeritus at Yale University. He is the author of Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (1995) and edited the Cambridge History of the First World War (2014).


[1]. Paul Hanebrink, A Spectre Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018); Robert Gerwarth, The Vanquished: Why the First World War failed to end (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2016); Gerald Lamprecht, “Juden in Zentraleuropa und die Transformation des Antisemitismus im und nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg,” Jahrbuch für Antisemitismusforschung 24 (2015): 63-88.

[2]. Antoine Prost and Jay Winter, Penser la Grande Guerre, 2nd ed. (Paris: Seuil, 2020).

Citation: Jay Winter. Review of Schönpflug, Daniel, A World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. October, 2019. URL:

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