#Reviewing Pandora’s Box

Pandora’s Box: A History of the First World War. Jörn Leonhard. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.

This is a big, BIG book. Various reviewers describe it as “monumental,” “substantial,” “comprehensive,” “deep.” It’s all that and more; it’s what some might call a doorstop book—big, heavy (just under five pounds, actually), and dense. The text runs 907 pages; endnotes run 60; the bibliography, 72; and the index a somewhat attenuated 32. As a practicing scholar myself, I’m gobsmacked by the sheer volume of the volume. 

The book is so massive because Leonhard has set himself a massive task. He begins by asking the question: What was the First World War? Briefly he responds, as have so many others since 1918, that it was the demarcation between the twentieth century and all that had come before. But as he shows in his first two chapters describing nineteenth-century legacies and the immediate antecedents to August 1914, and later in chapters entitled “Outcomes,” “Memories,” and “Burdens,” the war “cannot be explained solely with reference to the nineteenth century, with the latter reduced to a mere prehistory; nor can the war be reduced to its twentieth-century consequences, unfolding as a result of the global upheaval of 1914-1918. Rather, the two centuries are intertwined in the history of the conflict.”[1]

Leonhard sets out not simply to write a history of events, but to help his reader understand the greater meaning of the war for the participants (who included virtually everyone in the world to one extent or another) and to us in the twenty-first century. And to arrive at that understanding he identifies a collection of leitmotifs that provided the living reality for the people of the time: realities of social condition, class, economics, demographics, relationship to local culture as well as to state and nation for example, but also of aspirations, possibilities, experiences, expectations, and people’s (ruling elite, bourgeoisie, working class) general knowledge of both the world and the local neighborhood. Pandora’s Box is unique in being a close study of all of these key contexts with clear maps to how they created the new world of the World War.

He doesn’t attempt to provide a single theory of what started the war, or whether the war was avoidable or inevitable (although he does reject the idea advanced by Barbara Tuchman and Christopher Clark, among others, that the great powers sleepwalked their way to war). In fact, says Leonhard, decision-makers were over sensitized to so many planned and unplanned scenarios that they imploded when various escalations reached their tipping points, and events overwhelmed the players. In addition, all the planning and preparation was for wars that had been fought earlier. The political and military elite had “no historical point of reference, no previous war that might have served as a warning or a measure against which to weigh the consequences.”[2]

He examines the late nineteenth and early twentieth century histories of the main participants to see what their reality was telling them about the world, and about how they could best cope with an increasingly complex and, in some part of their lives, threatening existence. He examines the way life was lived and the expectations of ordinary people in a variety of political, social, and cultural environments: from the liberal democracies of England and France to the state centered but still democratic Germany to the multinational, only partially governable empires of the Ottomans, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. He discusses the increasingly popular identification with nationhood, based not on the ostensible governing body in Constantinople or Vienna, but on language and religion, shared experience, ethnicity. He talks about the effects of a new internationalism, aided and abetted by the rapid spread of information through new more efficient networks, and how that internationalism collided with the vestigial nationalism of the nineteenth century. And he explains the increasingly powerful and far-reaching role of the state and the military in most societies of the time. He is not the first to examine these disparate but interconnected issues, but he is the first to examine them together, in detail, and to show how equally important they all were in the context of August, 1914.

Leonhard begins his study by examining a number of legacies of the just completed nineteenth century that helped begin the conflagration: emancipation brought on in part by industrialization; broad political participation; pervasive presence of the state; revolutions; nationalism; increasing globalization and the upsets associated with it; the old international order in increasing conflict with new assumptions, particularly in the European land empires (Ottoman, Russian, Austrian-Hungarian); increasing focus on military solutions as armies increased in size and political/social influence; increasing public debate about political and international issues in the press, education, literature, and the arts; and a belief in progress that was contested broadly at the end of the nineteenth century. Specifically, among the most important legacies contributing to the war were the rapidly changing demographics of the unstable Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires including the explosive population growth among the lower classes, movements from rural to urban centers, and a widening and clearly visible gulf between the increasingly wealthy and sinking poor. In addition, he points out that populations increasingly began to identify in us versus them terms: us being those who look like us, speak the same language, belong to the same church, and have similar names; them being everyone else including in many cases political, social, and ethnic Others. Leonhard highlights another important legacy: violence—revolutions, civil wars, colonial and imperial wars—became more common, broader, and more vicious; for those not directly experiencing violence in western Europe, newspaper accounts made it so familiar as to become a common element of turn of the century life. Likewise, the power elite in most countries demanded national security against both internal threats—see the revolutions of 1848—and external aggression; thus, armies grew ever larger and conscription became a way of life in many countries. Supporting the demand for security was the fact that the technology of violence—maxim guns, dreadnoughts, Krupp artillery, magazine rifles—became common because mass production made them so (relatively) cheap. The threat of a military solution to almost any diplomatic issue became routine, but again—ominously, in retrospect—the military solution would look like the solutions of the nineteenth century. The mashup of the nineteenth and twentieth century ways of war is dramatically illustrated by the volume’s cover photograph of a German soldier wearing a gas mask and infantry helmet, mounted on a cavalry horse and carrying a lance. The image is worlds away from British periodical illustrations of the charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman just sixteen years previously.

"The Charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman" by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. (Wikimedia)

At the same, time, the success throughout the nineteenth century in containing wars to virtually political activities made the powers undaunted by great conflict. The Franco-Prussian War resulted in little more than an exchange of territory from vanquished to victor. The French were humiliated, but France remained a fully functioning state. From the point of view of the British, French, Germans, and the smaller northern and western European states, such was the way that wars would and should be fought: between disciplined armies on defined battlefields, with a victor who demanded spoils and a vanquished who paid up. In the nineteenth century Western Europeans perceived wars and the future of wars as what Leonhard calls “cabinet wars,” limited conflicts fought for limited international stakes. However for the last thirty years or so, as Leonhard points out, in Africa and eastern and southern Europe, new wars involved whole populations and the victor drove all of the surviving vanquished, soldier and civilian alike, to some other geographic place in a mad frenzy of ethnic cleansing. Unbeknownst to the northern and western Europeans and their leaders, the future of war would not be the familiar cabinet war that so many politicians thought was developing in 1914, but violent, genocidal peoples’ wars as fought in South Africa and Zululand, the Balkans and the periphery of the Ottoman Empire, in which entire populations invested their blood and treasure to crush some threatening, subhuman other.

It should come as no surprise then, that the machinery of the Great War was started there in southern and eastern Europe. In the Balkans a Serbian assassin, aided and abetted by his terrorist and expansionist government, murdered the crown prince of the neighboring, failing empire of Austria-Hungary, and set up the ultimate confrontation the great powers seemed to be looking for. Although Leonhard examines Serbian ambitions in the context of the lawless Balkans of the first decades of the century, he does not give the sociopathic leadership of 1914 Serbia the credit it deserves for cynically pushing the Austrians to the point of a war that the Serbs were convinced they could win, albeit with the help of the Russians. In fact, in Leonhard’s view, Austria was the villain in this piece, and Serbia the victim.[3]

One of Leonhard’s signal accomplishments is his examination of all of the histories of all of the major and many of the minor participants leading up to the war. He examines the political, social and cultural histories of the various nationalities and polities who participated in the war’s beginning, in addition to the military and economic histories. He examines the newspapers and fiction, and poetry and art, the plays and music halls, looking for cultural attitudes toward the Others who were rapidly being defined by governments through official propaganda, and by thought leaders in academe and the church and writers for increasingly influential magazines and newspapers. He demonstrates how a familiarity with the concept of a major war that would rebalance a world many had been convinced was out of balance made the beginning of the war acceptable, indeed desirable. He makes it clear that because so many entire populations, from the power elite to the working poor, overestimated their own national capabilities and underestimated the apparent enemies’, a war of some kind was almost certain to happen. Further, because military plans in all of the principal countries except, perhaps, for England had been perfecte” and had become the preferred diplomatic option for the elites because, well, they had become so familiar to them, a war of some kind should have been expected. And because the militaries of all of the great powers were so large and had so much firepower, the kind of war to be fought, especially on the western front, was inevitable, although certainly not foreseeable to the planners in Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and across Europe.

At the beginning of the War most people, especially most of the public, expected it to end by Christmas, and all sides—Germans, British, French, Austrians, and Russians—expected to come home victorious. The incubation of the war and the initial celebratory excitement takes up the first 100 pages of Pandora’s Box; the final 800 pages closely describe what happens in those countries, and in Africa, Asia, and the United States, when conflict stretched on and on in endless agony for combatants and civilians alike and the war became in fact a World War.


Throughout his narrative, Leonhard traces a number of themes that characterized various aspects of the war: the real and symbolic importance of time and space; how the upsetting of daily routines changed the fundamental assumptions of societies; how emotion affected perceptions; and how perceptions became realities, and the strength of his narrative is in these themes.

Consider his example of time: In the first year or so, Leonhard observes, time pressures either caused or exacerbated certain key events. Politicians and diplomats felt pushed by time. Messages had to be answered at once. When armies mobilized, they operated on timetables and timetables could not be interrupted. The German governmental elite, perceiving the country’s security to be threatened by a Russia whose economic and military strength continued to increase, projected a tipping point at 1917. Thus, they felt time was against them and they were constrained to act considerably before then (preferably in 1914, or as soon as circumstances allowed). The French felt compelled to act before conscription was ended. The Russians saw the deadlines that the Austrians imposed on the Serbs as timetables that had to be taken advantage of. And of course, coupled with time was an information overload that resulted from what seemed to the participants at the time to be the almost instantaneous nature of private communication and the public press, an overload that frankly did not allow enough time to digest information.

Lack of space, especially space to maneuver, defined the Western Front. Space on the Western Front was reduced to yards, and measured in lives lost per yard gained. By comparison, space in all other theaters of the war, with the notable exception of Gallipoli, was fluid: armies roamed the plains of the east, the deserts of Arabia, the jungles of Africa. As Leonhard points out, that experience elsewhere encouraged the false hope that with just enough men, guns, poison gas, whatever, a breakthrough would be possible and the war would once again be a war of space, that armies could once again move about and tactics and maneuver would again be paramount in military planning. That expectation caused the overwhelming casualties that caused a kind of cultural madness: on all sides the people were furious about the wasted lives and what increasingly appeared to be a pointless war. At the same time, they were convinced that the war could be won and, after all the sacrifice, must be won. Thus, the wasted lives and pointless war would continue. 

Shortages in Germany and Austria caused by the British blockade and exacerbated by official ineptitude in managing food and fuel supplies caused what Leonhard terms the criminalization of civilian society as people turned to the black market. When a culture accepts criminal activity on a daily basis as normal and necessary, Leonhard implies, then other moral verities become endangered and ethical corruption ensues. Among other things, violence became more common, and those who had little felt justified in taking from those who appeared to have much. The universal disaster that all people connected to the war (which, by 1917, meant almost all people on earth to some extent) were experiencing stimulated a search for culprits. In Eastern and Southern Europe refugees were blamed for making the privations of the war worse. Refugees ate our food, said the home culture, used our fuel, took our jobs, carried disease and death. They weren’t us; therefore, they weren’t patriots, and were likely spies, saboteurs, and traitors. In the minds of many, the worst of the refugees were Jews, who were widely perceived to be stateless people. The common wisdom was that there were no Austrian Jews or Russian Jews or Hungarian Jews. Just Jews. Thus, the Jews suffered in ways that only a criminalized society could countenance. And that attitude obviously would continue long after the war was over and a new war arrived.

The Home Front

An important aspect of Leonhard’s study is his careful examination of the attitudes and expectations of the home fronts of the major players. As the killing continued with no apparent end, eternal verities clearly became far less eternal. Living with unfamiliar hardships became less a patriotic duty and more a slog. The key descriptor for the last two years of the war was exhaustion: physical, emotional, economic, spiritual exhaustion. However, even in the false reality created by official propaganda civilians reacted differently, from an increase of popular jingoism to strikes (sometimes inspired by labor union issues, sometimes by native communists in sympathy with the Russian revolution). 

"Lord Kitchener Wants You" from the London Opinion in 1914. (Wikimedia)


Leonhard describes how In Britain and the Empire, the War at home surfaced a number of cultural, social, and political anxieties. In a country historically suspicious of government overreach, the multitude of Boards and Committees charged with everything from conscription to manufacturing ammunition to employing women caused long term anxiety. The Irish revolted in 1916 and a coup was attempted in South Africa. India was in turmoil. All these issues meant that the British were coping with more than just the war; they were confronting a major shift in social assumptions. Still, the image of Kitchener of Khartoum, the hero of the Boer War telling men to do their duty was a powerful one even after his death in 1916. While there was considerable political and social dissatisfaction with how the war was being waged, as a whole the British public supported winning the war (whatever that might look like) rather than working through a third party to negotiate a settlement.

"Courage we shall get them!" A French poster from World War I designed by Jules Abel Faivre. (Original Vintage Movie Posters)


In France, by 1917 the army and the home front were both exhausted. Strikes broke out throughout the country in 1916 and in the army in 1917. Yet the appetite for a negotiated peace never reached very far down in society and despite the strikes, most French people seemed wedded to the concept that èlan and a fighting spirit could finally win out.

Indeed, by 1917 the French parliament sacked the military leadership and demanded victory—and unconditional victory with territorial concessions and reparations to boot. But the cultural cost of the war was considerable: unrestrained prostitution in the streets of Paris, women forced to bring in the harvests, new altercations between church and state. And as an added fillip the country was reeling from racial concerns as black soldiers from the French and British colonies and the United States poured into the country, apparently intent on settling there, expropriating French jobs and French women. 

"Sottoscrivete al prestito." An Italian propaganda poster from World War I. (World War I Propaganda Posters)


Italy, according to Leonhard, entered the war purely to expand its territory, not out of security concerns. In fact, its entry was unpopular enough to have almost caused civil war. The country once again teetered on the edge of chaos after Austrian victories in the Alps forced the ill-led Italian armies back into the lowlands. Only after the Austrian collapse in 1918 did the Italian populace once again support the war, and they did so in part perhaps because many believed the official propaganda that Italy stood between civilization and barbarism; and partly because finally they could see national gains in territory with no apparent sacrifice any longer in blood.


Austro-Hungarian soldiers face off against the multi-headed hydra of the Entente Powers in this World War I propaganda poster. (Reddit)

The disparate societies composing the Austria-Hungary Empire never fully backed all aspects of the war because Austria-Hungary was never a single country, or even a particularly cohesive Empire. Its armies were, for the most part, ineptly led and ineptly trained and depended on German commanders and troops to make them even marginally effective. The Austrians accused the Hungarians of not sending food to Vienna. Some Austrian Poles went over to Russia, others maintained their own formations to wait for Woodrow Wilson to hand them their own country after the war. Likewise, the Czechs and the Slovaks. And through it all the Imperial armies were slaughtered in battles with Russians, Italians, Slavs and various others, except according to Leonhard when led by, and stiffened with, German officers and German troops. The people in the various national cities of the empire—Vienna, Budapest, Prague etc.—became increasingly xenophobic while searching for a treaty to end the war in any way possible. Officially, however, Vienna continued to celebrate the union of Austrian and German troops who would ultimately win the day.

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire spent most of the war years in turmoil because it had been losing wars in the Balkans for years before 1914. Its armies continued losing battle after battle (with the notable exception of Gallipoli, in which its German-led army turned back a large allied invasion force). The regular reverses led to a search for someone to blame, and that search led to a series of vicious campaigns of ethnic cleansing—eliminating the so-called traitors among us—that included the massacre of millions of Armenians, Kurds, and other non-Turks. Mustafa Kemal led the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 after the Sultan signed what Kemal’s military followers considered a humiliating peace treaty, and Kemal continued his ethnic cleansing. Leonhard’s text touches on this point, but doesn’t consider it in depth.[4] He does, however, neatly and concisely describe the rather thoughtless Anglo-French machinations in the region—among many, the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the Middle East into French and British spheres of influence; the Balfour Declaration for the creation of Israel; the Paris peace treaties that ignored the Kurds—that planted the seed for Middle Eastern woes for the next century and beyond.

German soldier, holding a grenade in one hand and a rifle in the other; in background a barbed wire fence and flames. (World War I Propaganda Posters)


Leonhard describes a Germany which was struggling at home, but which fully expected to win the war some time in 1919, perhaps.

However, as early as 1916, the shine had worn off the idealized vision of the united nation at war, and scapegoats for the military difficulties were being sought out. While the Germans never went on strike, a gap opened up between soldiers and civilians; soldiers home on leave resented bar-room strategists who were convinced the war would be over if only…and the “if only” usually included something about soldiers fighting harder. The Germans increasingly singled out Britain as the great enemy because of the blockade and subsequent hunger. German intellectuals continued to argue the justice of the German cause, and the guilt of the English who complained about poison gas and submarine warfare and the oppression of the Belgians when there was a legitimate argument to explain all that, but no argument for a blockade that starved innocent women and children. But by 1917, a variety of parties responsible for Germany’s struggles had been identified: Jews, war profiteers, pacifists, social democrats, communists, the weak-willed, even soldiers suffering from shell shock, and women with weak nerves. While most of the country expected to win right up until the armistice, Leonhard argues the stab in the back legend was already building in 1917.

The United States

World War I poster advertising American war bonds (World War I Propaganda Posters)

After the beginning of the War, and well before the United States entered on the Entente side, significant social and political disruptions were building. Leonhard argues that early twentieth century America was marked by fundamental divisions which became ever more apparent in an already violent and divided country. Right-wing patriots attacked what they perceived as disloyal elements in society: socialists, pacifists, Germans, Irish, central European immigrants. Naturally, Jews and non-whites were included. According to Leonhard, vigilantes administered rough justice to anyone who looked or sounded different.

The America described by Leonhard is first and foremost racist, and much of his description of America focuses not on manufacturing American, not on cultural and arts America or political America, or the America that filled the ranks of the army in a very short time, but on an America consumed by racist concerns. According to Leonhard, the draft was primarily an instrument wielded in the south by wealthy white landowners who ensured marginal white farmers were drafted leaving black laborers to work their land. When black men boarded trains to work in northern factories, white lawmen and vigilantes intercepted them and sent them back. White gangs attacked those black laborers who made it to Chicago and Detroit and other northern manufacturing centers. Intelligence tests were developed to prove the inferiority of non-whites. Racial unrest was common throughout the army, and riots among black soldiers broke out everywhere. While some progressives saw the war as an entry into a new era of participation in government, social justice, and benevolent government planning, a more common side effect of the war was the elevation of Yahoos who celebrated force, violence, aggressive nationalism, proud ignorance, and vigilantism. Leonhard’s United States in 1914-18 is only slightly more attractive than Russia at the same time.


Russia, of course, came apart in revolution, which Leonhard describes in detail.

Throughout the book, Leonhard provides a host of vignettes, details, little items that may not be particularly well-known but are always interesting, that bring aspects of the war into crystal-clear focus. He retells the adventures of the Emden sailors who managed to leave their ship, cross the Indian Ocean and Arabian Peninsula and report for duty months later in Constantinople. He mentions that 22% of Canadian soldiers were treated for STDs in 1915, and that one common practice for soldiers to make themselves unfit for combat was to infect themselves with STD pathogens. He describes a Paris filled with tourists in 1916, and French seaside resorts booked solid that fall. He tells the story of Claire Ferchaud, who in 1916 claimed that Christ had instructed her to save France, and who momentarily caused a national sensation. He also mentions events that were of intense contemporary weight—zeppelin and Gotha bombing raids on London, a German naval raid on Scarborough, Hartlepool, and Whitby. In addition to anecdotes, Leonhard provides striking illustrations featuring propaganda posters and magazine covers to enhance his text. 

A poster encouraging men to enlist after the 1914 German bombardment. (Mirror)

Woodrow Wilson, the Great Arbiter

In Leonhard’s view Woodrow Wilson was looked upon as the savior of the world by all the participants in the war. Contemporaries were convinced that he would end the fighting, provide an honorable peace, ensure that all people—Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, Finns—had their own country and that German, French, and English colonies in Asia and Africa would be freed. He would assure that people would be fed and clothed. He stood for freedom. Even though he led the US into the war on the side of the entente, spurred by the German return to submarine warfare in January 1917, he was still seen on both sides as a fair arbiter. Leonhard sees Wilson in many ways as one of the lights of the world in 1917-18, and sees his failure to lead a bitterly divided, vindictive, and violent America into a fair peace treaty as one of the tragedies of the war. And not so incidentally, as one of the reasons that the Great War became the the opening act for what would become the twentieth century’s answer to the Thirty Years War. 

Leonhard’s Achievement

There is little to find fault with in Pandora. I do think Leonhard is too easy on the German military over the invasion of Belgium, the introduction of poison gas, and the use of unrestricted submarine warfare. I also think he’s too hard on the United States on the racial divide in 1914, although I suspect I’d feel differently if I were African American. Still, a little more cultural, social, intellectual, even religious balance in the American home front would be fair. He also gives the Turkish explanation for the Armenian genocide without actually showing how horribly inadequate it is. Finally, his battle maps are the hardest to read I’ve ever experienced in a study like this. And his Index is just not particularly useful.

The bibliography, however, is a treasure for a research scholar. It’s as comprehensive a checklist of Great War resources up to about 2014 as anything out there today, and like the narrative, it is an impressive scholarly achievement. And one more thing about that bibliography: its usefulness is compounded because he has mined sources in three languages—German, French, and English. Thus, his study is far more comprehensive in its discussion of national attitudes than virtually all of the recent avalanche of studies on this the centennial of the Great War.

As a final note, the translator rarely gets his due in a review like this, but the work of Patrick Camiller is as impressive as the scholarship of Jörn Leonhard. His English prose is graceful and a delight to read. Since the book was originally published by C. H. Beck of Munich in 2014, it appears that Camiller managed to turn out this gem of translation in at most four years, and probably significantly less than that. Hurrah Mr. Camiller.

Richard Fulton is a retired college administrator and an active Victorian Studies scholar. He has served as president of both the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals and the Victorian Interdisciplinary Studies Association of the Western United States. He is the author of over a hundred articles, book chapters, conference papers, and reviews (and three books) on Victorian subjects; he co-edited Oceania in the Victorian Imagination and The Victorians in the South Pacific (to be released in 2018).

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Header Image: "Wire" by Paul Nash (Wikimedia)


[1] Jörn Leonhard, Pandora’s Box: A History of the First World War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 19.

[2] Ibid., 103.

[3] Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers is actually a more balanced study of the Serbian hand in forcing the war. See Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers, How Europe Went to War in 1914 (New York: Harper Collins, 2013).

[4] For a comprehensive study of the chaos at the end of the war in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere, see Robert Gerwarth, The Vanquished, Why the First World War Failed to End (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2016).