Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History “Blueprint for Armageddon”
The Planet had not seen a major war between all the great powers since the downfall of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. But 99 years later the dam breaks and a Pandora’s Box of violence engulfs the planet.
In between audiobooks and coming off a Spotify binge, I was turned on to Hardcore History. By a comic book. Okay, by the writer’s notes for three pages of a comic book. People talk about going down the rabbit hole. What I’m in, what I’ve been in for most of my life, is more like a warren or a wild burrow. It’s all interconnected, see.
Anyway, the entire six podcast series “Blueprint for Armageddon”, about World War I, was recommended. I have some sparse history, broad enough to comprehend the scope of world affairs and specific enough in areas to have strong opinions. But the Great War was something awful that happened a hundred years ago when my grandparents were barely children. Not as visceral, nor as visually documented as World War II, and not something anyone I knew remembered with clarity. I was, am, ignorant is what I’m saying.
The podcast, this series anyway, is great. It’s like a history lecture by your favorite instructor ever. Drawing on multiple print sources and quoting (with citation) liberally, the listener gets a sense of what the war meant for the governments and generals as well as the common people involved in it. Dan Carlin freely admits that the truth is difficult to ascertain and frequently engages in armchair psychology.
But it’s all in the interest of telling the story well and trying to come to terms with it. And that’s not easy. There was a moment in Part III that broke me:
Christmas in the trenches! It was bitterly cold. We had procured a pine tree, for there were no fir trees to be had. We had decorated the tree with candles and cookies, and had imitated the snow with wadding.
Christmas trees were burning everywhere in the trenches, and at midnight all the trees were lifted on to the parapet with their burning candles, and along the whole line German soldiers began to sing Christmas songs in chorus. “0, thou blissful, 0, thou joyous, mercy bringing Christmas time!” Hundreds of men were singing the song in that fearful wood. Not a shot was fired; the French had ceased firing along the whole line. That night I was with a company that was only five paces away from the enemy. The Christmas candles were burning brightly, and were renewed again and again. For the first time we heard no shots. From everywhere, throughout the forest, one could hear powerful carols come floating over “Peace on earth—”
The French left their trenches and stood on the parapet without any fear. There they stood, quite overpowered by emotion, and all of them with cap in hand. We, too, had issued from our trenches. We exchanged gifts with the French—chocolate, cigarettes, etc. They were all laughing, and so were we; why, we did not know. Then everybody went back to his trench, and incessantly the carol resounded, ever more solemnly, ever more longingly—“O, thou blissful—”
All around silence reigned; even the murdered trees seemed to listen; the charm continued, and one scarcely dared to speak. Why could it not always be as peaceful? We thought and thought, we were as dreamers, and had forgotten everything about us. Suddenly a shot rang out; then another one was fired somewhere. The spell was broken. All rushed to their rifles. A rolling fire. Our Christmas was over.
A German Deserter’s War Experiences: Fighting for the Kaiser in the First World War – Julius Koettgen
Erin says she’s heard the story before. I suppose I reckon I have, too. She heard it on a Christmas album her mother had. The last four sentences were omitted. I didn’t even make it to them. It’s obvious what’s coming. It’s history. Carlin calls it a moment of the individual human spirit shining through, like a beacon in total darkness.
That’s more or less what he’s into. Well, in the context of military history, anyway. The extremes of human experience.
So it’s not a dry recitation of facts. I mean, you get plenty of those. You get descriptions of 300,000 pound war machines and the incalculable dead. You get troop movements and generals’ names. But Carlin doesn’t dwell on those. As above he draws from eyewitness accounts on both sides. He explores the cultural concerns of the world at large. He explains the political intricacies that lead each nation’s entrance into the war.
And he engages in interpretation. As someone with an abiding love for narrative, for complex metafiction, that’s fine. Historians might, they do actually, take issue with some of Hardcore History‘s ambivalence or its conclusions.
However, I think there’s probably pleasure to be found in comparing even one’s own deep knowledge with the version or versions presented; actively engaging the information. For folks like me, with a some history and an interest in learning more but with a too-read pile that could be its own library, Hardcore History is a great resource. You have to start somewhere.
These podcasts, six in all, are not short sharp soundbites. Each is over three hours long. Expect depth and detail. There is some overlap and repetition, like any good narrative. It’s neither distracting nor unwelcome. I imagine I’ll move on to other installments from the series. “Blueprint for Armageddon” episodes are normally $1.99 on iTunes, but it’s currently free.
Recommended for fans of Walter Cronkite, military history, and Neal Stephenson.