Much history taught in public schools is macro-history, with pupils required to remember names, dates, places, important events and of course, important people. That became the fashion likely because of the constraints of time. There is so much students must learn that concentration on the details is left for specialty classes at University. But what is it that really shapes a nation's destiny and forms it's national character? Well, it's the little things that do that and when you study them you can better understand the trajectory of a country's history.
I happen to enjoy the details of history and so was delighted to read Juliet Nicolson's fine social history of Great Britain covering the two years immediately following the end of WWI. Since wars are massively disruptive, their end generally entails massive social and economic changes for both the victor and the vanquished. Most reasonably well-educated Americans know about the economic and social upheavals that took place in Germany, Russia, and to a lesser extent, Austria-Hungary following the First World War. Fewer know much about the effects of the war on Great Britain with many assuming that as the victor, it emerged relatively unscathed except for its battlefield losses.
Well, in The Great Silence, Nicolson puts the lie to that notion. Using anecdote, she shows how the war affected all classes of British society from the humblest servants all the way up to the royal family. And it did change them all. But it wasn't all negative. There were many great advances not just socially, but also in science and in technology which resulted in a more restless, but ultimately a freer and slightly less class-ridden society. One of the most fascinating chapters in my view is how surgeon Howard Gillies reconstructed the faces of men who had been shattered in the war giving many of them back the opportunity to lead productive lives.
The author often alludes to social changes that many at the time thought presaged the breakdown of morality. Women entering the workforce by the millions, a decrease in church membership and attendance, more open sexuality including that of the homosexual variety, an increase in the use of contraception, an increase in drug and alcohol abuse, and a less kowtowing attitude by the lower classes toward the gentry. There was also a more militant attitude among the working classes; in places that attitude was openly and avowedly Marxist.
I personally don't care much about some of the gentry I am introduced to in this book, but yet what they did and what they thought still mattered a great deal in the Great Britain of that time and so had a bearing on the eventual direction of the country. And not just the political direction but the cultural direction as well.
I like the way Nicolson has chosen to bracket the period she covers between the anger and uncertainty that enveloped the country at war's end and the national catharsis occasioned by the burial of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey. Every segment of society was included in that ceremonial event and it brought king and commoner together, if only briefly, in a way which gave the nation closure and allowed it to move forward.
If you enjoy reading about the minutiae that are the building blocks of the Big Picture, then I highly recommend this well-written and fascinating book.