Friday, December 26, 2014

On "Total War and Social Change" edited by Arthur Marwick ***

I wanted to read a book that went into theories of total war as part of the preparation for reading best-sellers from the World War II era, and this is the one that I ended up choosing--rather haphazardly. As such, it was not perhaps as theoretical as I was hoping. Marwick uses his edited collection to try to prove points that he's made in other books of his own: that total war doesn't change social structures but rather speeds up or intensifies changes in social structures that are already in process. For the most part, each of the essays help to support Marwick's point in some manner.

None of the essays focus on the United States, the focus of my reading list, but then arguably the United States did not engage in total war, at least if one is to consider the destruction rendered on the society at home. But I tend to think of total war not only in those terms but in terms that involve the community's entirety of resources. In that sense, the image that has often been presented to me of World War II in the United States is that the country was entirely mobilized, even if actual fighting on its shores was close to nill--whole industries were still turned over to the war effort. In this book, the focus is rather World War I France, Britain, and Germany and World War II USSR, Germany, France, and Britain.

The very first essay in this book, however, ironically, seems mostly to try to debunk Marwick's general thesis. There, the author argues that contrary to popular belief, World War I did not greatly change women's roles in France; if anything, it re-emphasized women's domestic roles, and any work pushed on women outside the home was a temporal abnormality of the war. (If any changes came about, he notes, it was simply in morality, as women, free to move about, became less prone to stay faithful to their husbands and families.)

Alistair Reid, writing of World War I Britain, does quite the opposite, restating essentially in his thesis what Marwick has denoted as the social consequence of total war--that World War I sped up social changes in Britain that were already in the process of becoming. That said, he too sees little permanent change to women's roles in the workforce. Rather, he states that the war increased the power of the lower classes and helped to equalize wages. However, in a seeming contrast to his overall point, the Great Depression following the war reversed all these gains.

The article on Germany in World War I shows how heavy industry became much more important at the cost of small business owners. In addition, farmers became better off because of food shortages. Changes in economic structure (including the loss of farming income following the war) contributed to the rise of the Nazis.

For the USSR, World War II helped to solidify Stalin's and the communists' grip on power while failing to transform the society in real terms. In other words, the USSR became more totalitarian. (Interestingly, there was an increase in the number of party members but the politically powerful members remained those who had come to age during the revolutionary times rather than later.)

In perhaps the most interesting essay to me, Mark Roseman shows how the Nazis in World War II Germany did their utmost to keep the civilian population from feeling the effects of war--and largely succeeded until fairly late in the war. This was in large respect because the Nazis did not feel that they had a sufficient grip on power to ask for greater sacrifice from the German people. (It kind of reminded me of how the United States fought its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--borrowing the money rather than raising taxes and generally paying little comparative attention to these events in the popular culture. Our lives go on as normal.) Many of the social changes wrought by the Nazis--namely the weakening of class identities--actually lived into and set up the democratic government that was to follow (and in fact many of the powerbrokers were former Weimar Republic and Nazi officials).

World War II in France ultimately merely accentuated changes already taking place, placing the state more centrally in individuals' lives (even if different factions during the war, because of France's defeat, might well have torn it apart). And for British women, World War II did not significantly change their roles at home, but what it did do was lead more older married women into the workforce permanently as part-time lower-paid workers.

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