A new world was born: the century that saw the West lose its self-confidence

From the advantage of a hundred years of hindsight, the First World War, or the “Great War” as Anglo-Saxon literature calls it, may seem like a romantic, distant, strange war of a fallen era. Today, we know it was something quite different.

The following is a review of Dr. Mária Schmidt's latest work, Új világ született 1918-1923.

From the advantage of a hundred years of hindsight, the First World War, or the “Great War” as Anglo-Saxon literature calls it, may seem like a romantic, distant, strange war of a fallen era. Black-and-white, crude, silent clips roll before our eyes: people smile and march to the battlefield almost thoughtlessly, hoping to win "quick victories through heroic persistence and valiant deeds”. Today, we know that is not what happened. “The era of impersonal and mechanized killing has emerged.”

Unfortunately, the significance and weight of World War I has not been adequately addressed by Hungarian historical studies. Existing scholarship reflects the same outdated narrative: winners and losers, democracy and dictatorship, the good and the bad, a little assassination, a little gas attack, a little massacre, a little peace, and we’re done.

Mária Schmidt has undertaken a brave endeavor with her new book, providing a different framework for interpretation of the events that took place a hundred years ago and finds a way out of the maze of "war logic". The title sums it up clearly: a new world was born. A terrifying and strange world was born, one that redrew the map of Europe, relocated the centers of the world economy, laid the foundation for the Second and Third (i.e., Cold) World Wars as well as the dictatorships, communists, fascists, Nazis and the short but bloody 20th century. As Schmidt writes: “World War I pushed the old world dramatically into the new world, into a new world that became the century in which the West lost its self-confidence.”

The author presents a clever explanation for how a local war grew into a "European internecine war," something that "no one wanted, but no one cared to avoid". Within moments, she breaks down the false illusions that lingered around the great powers when she writes with ruthless honesty: “The real purpose of the four year-long slaughter was to decide who will be the master of 20th century Europe.” The project was so successful that Europe and the world squirmed between two alternatives until the fall of the Soviet Union: the American dream and the Soviet man. Occasionally, she briefly delineates important moments to help us realize how the democratization of fashion, women's right to vote, and plastic surgery are all by-products of World War I.

Meanwhile, the author is not afraid to provoke the reader and shatter taboos. Those already familiar with her work know not to expect boring, dull explanations and opinions overheated with political correctness. She writes unflinchingly – and rightly so – about the chauvinistic prime minister motivated by revenge (Clemenceau) and the political opportunist (Lloyd George), whose “…talent wasn’t enough for a truce that could last more than a quarter century, which seemed more like a long weekend.” Reading these lines, we squirm a little in our chair because we are not accustomed to such raw and sincere sentences - especially not from a Széchenyi Prize-winning historian.

The League of Nations as the cornerstone of peace, the battle of ideologies, the proclaimed victors, the French and the British, civil movements, civil wars, Germans, Austrians, the various isms all find place in this essay collection and are put on the appropriate shelf in a way that readers may find difficult to stomach.

The author devotes a separate chapter to Hungary. How did we become “objects” and sufferers of a war that was not our war? From the distance of a hundred years, it is clear today that the winners of that period, just as they did then, are now neglecting national sovereignty and borders. In spite of all the challenges, Hungary survived, got back on its feet, and completed its historical mission. In the author’s view, that required considerable achievements from the political elite in the inter-war period.

The thoughts laid out here diverge completely from the traditions of Marxist historiography, as Mária Schmidt sets out to look at Hungarian history from a different perspective, from our own perspective. If we don't know what is ours, our heroes, our past mistakes, then we have no sustenance, no identity and no spiritual heritage. This section of the book will presumably trigger an array of reactions, as it talks clearly about issues that are still challenging today, issues such as the assessment of Miklós Horthy and the "Jewish question".

The essays in these four, separate chapters can also stand on their own. They are extraordinarily strong and read well, which only amplifies the gruesome images featured in the "A new world was born" historical exhibit now on display in the Várkért Bazár. Bringing the essays together, she gives us a set of correlations and puts the events in such a perspective that only few people can do.

In addition, the volume also evokes an emotional response, and that’s why it’s so convincing. Within moments, it takes us from the usual idyll to the mass grave of millions, where temptation and despair are replaced by hope and confidence. As the author writes: “We survived, endured and finally stepped into the 21st century as winners. As winners, since we are free and independent. Again.”