Daniel Schönpflug, author of A World on Edge, discusses the post-WWI era and how it was filled with possibility.
Daniel Schönpflug is an internationally recognized historian at the Free University in Berlin. He's written numerous docudramas and is a consultant on radio and television programs, and is credited with bringing history to a wider public.
Unknown History: A World on Edge focuses on the years following World War I. What inspired you to write a book about this time period?
Daniel Schönpflug: My fascination with this period comes from the fact that I found the existing literature on the subject very one-sided. Historians write about 1918 in a mode that one could call the "rear-mirror-view" of history. They cannot forget that 1918 is not only the end of the first world war, but also the beginning of those tensions and conflicts that lead to the second. This perspective, in which 1918 looks very dark and gloomy, is quite different from the real experiences of the people of the time, who, of course, did not know what lay before them. Many lived the years after the terrible bloodshed ended, after four empires had crashed, as a huge relief, as an exciting moment in which hopes, dreams, and utopian visions could flourish. My aim in A World on Edge is to make these perceptions and experiences come alive and to put them together in a collage that contains a different vision of 1918—the vision of a pivotal moment, when new political regimes, a new world order, ideas of new man and new woman, of new societies emerged, when modern forms of music, of painting, of architecture sprang up. In one word: when the twentieth century actually started.
UH: What figures played key roles in the post-WWI era? How did you capture their voices and personalities while writing about them?
DS: My book introduces some of the protagonists of the time, such as Gandhi, Virginia Woolf, or Walter Gropius, but also many ordinary people who were just exposed to the fundamental changes that were happening after the end of the war without being able to shape the course of history. Interestingly, both groups have written about their experiences in diaries, letters, and memoirs. Their writings keenly express their hopes, dreams, and visions and gave me access to their experiences, but also to their voices and personalities. All I had to do was to sit and listen to what they had to tell me. I had to be attentive to the small , but often very telling details that they were revealing to me. Like the moment when the French journalist Louise Weiss stands before the rubble of her former family home in Arras, that was destroyed by German bombs, and finds a piece of shrapnel exactly where her cradle had once been. By listening to my protagonists, I also understood how many of these hopes and dreams were shattered facing hard realities. Not all of these visions were positive. The totalitarian ideologies, such as communism and national socialism, were very much part of the utopian moment of 1918. Tragically, they proved to be much stronger than visions of peace, of a league of nations or of equality.
UH: A World on Edge is being praised for its "novelistic" qualities. How do you bring history to life while staying true to its record?
DS: Having read through the vast corpus of available sources, I almost cannot understand how one can write dryly about this passionate moment. The stories I encountered were so strong, so full of life and emotions, that the book almost wrote itself. Just think of the afro-american soldier Henri Johnson from Albany, who entered the army as a doughboy and ended it as a decorated war hero—just to learn after returning home to the US that America was not willing to reward him for his sacrifice. In these kinds of stories everything is there, nothing needs to be invented. The author just has to be willing to engage with them and to transmit them to the reader. Often it is important to quote exactly those passages from the sources, that other historians would leave out: the most personal moments, the expression of emotions, the very point at which a character reveals his or her true nature.
UH: What is something you want readers to take away from your book that they might have not previously considered about the time period, the war, or the figures you highlight?
DS: By looking at the years after 1918 we can learn something about history and about our own time. The moment of 1918 can be newly discovered as a utopian moment in which the world of the 20th century was imagined; and even though most of the dreams of the time did not come immediately true, they stayed alive and often found their realization later on. Just think of the young Ho Chi Minh, who—without the slightest success—tried to get access to the peace negotiations in Versailles. But not even thirty years later, he leads the successful struggle for the independence of Vietnam. Moreover, some of the features of the aftermath of the First World War also seem to apply to our time: insecurity, violence, crises, the rise of extremist regimes. We too seem to be living in the fallout of a utopian moment: of 1989. Maybe we can still avoid the fatal errors of the 1920s and '30s by understanding how fruitful, but also how dangerous these moments can be. And that it takes courage, patience, and wisdom to bring positive visions to life—and to avoid the realization of the negative ones.