Empty Trenches

Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?
The Transformation of Modern Europe
James J. Sheehan
Houghton Mifflin, $26, 304 pp.

For historians, debating the causes of wars is a kind of endless intramural sport. Less common are debates over the causes of peace. Now James J. Sheehan, a professor of history at Stanford and former president of the American Historical Association, has written a new thematic history of twentieth-century Europe that is framed around the question of peace. He tries to explain why Europe, a continent long plagued by war, has been at peace since the middle of the twentieth century. This “eclipse of violence,” writes Sheehan, has been “a slow, silent revolution, hidden in plain sight, but...nonetheless a revolution as dramatic as any other in European history.”

It’s difficult to look back through the first half of the twentieth century, with its catalog of genocide and war, and recall that the century began with some enthusiasm for peace. From the end of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Europe had enjoyed a long, unprecedented period of peace. Many people believed that global commerce and historical progress had made war unnecessary and avoidable. Pacifism—the term came into use in 1901—gained adherents worldwide.

All of that was shattered by the outbreak of the Great War. The habit and expectation of war among most European leaders counted for more, finally, than the growing number of Europeans inclined toward peace. Most European soldiers marched off...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

Barry Hillenbrand was a foreign correspondent for Time for thirty-four years, including seven years as the magazine's London bureau chief. Retired, he now lives in Washington, D.C.