Peter Englund on the First World War, EIBF 2012, Review

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Peter Englund, Steven Gale (Chair)

Steven Gale introduced Peter Englund as a best selling historian who had completed his PhD in 1989 and then moved on to become a respected war correspondent in Bosnia and Afghanistan.  He added that he is now the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature - a distinguished man indeed!

Asked why he wrote his book, "The Beauty and the Sorrow" about the First World War, he said that when teaching at university he found several people who asked if there had been a First World War as we always talk about The Second World War!

He said that from his own experience as a historian and a war correspondent there was a dilemma in trying to say who was wrong and who was right; so all that could be done was to tell people what actually happened and this has to be a bird's eye view in his opinion. This was why he had decided to use the accounts of the First War from twenty unknown people.

At the same time with the passage of the years people lose their understanding of events - simply being there does not mean that a person actually understands what happened.   Some things simply fade from living memory.

Steven Gale asked how Englund structured his book; his reply was that he wanted the twenty accounts he took to generally be in the form of a chronology, although some events are interwoven.
Englund said he wanted to give a vivid picture for someone who had never seen a shot fired in anger.

This was difficult as the events of the First World War were so terrible and horrific that it was almost impossible to express the situation in words.   He described how morale went up and down and he did admit that what people write in diaries may not be their true feelings.

Undoubtedly this must have been a difficult book to write as Peter Englund could not have experienced the constant horrors of the trenches and the assaults that came to nothing with all men being killed, however, he obviously had a taste of war from his time in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Event: 19 August