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A cultural historian's account of Armistice Day

A Stillness Heard Round the World: The End of the Great War: November 1918, by Stanley Weintraub. New York: Truman Talley Books/E. P. Dutton. 467 pp. Illustrated. $22.50. This rather substantial book appears to have as its subject a mere moment in world history: the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 when, after more than four years of slaughter, World War I finally came to an end. But, of course, its true subject is the hush that fell over a world which had been so ruthlessly buffeted by the hammer blows of total war.

There have been many books about World War I, and perhaps almost as many about the attempts at peacemaking at Versailles, but this book is quite different in its intent and emphasis.

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What it tries to do is at once simple and almost immeasurably difficult: to make the reader feel -- in all its immediacy -- the relief experienced by all sorts of people in all manner of positions and situations, while blending the shock of this relief into the fabric of hindsight which history has since provided us.

To this end, Weintraub quotes widely and exhaustively from the diaries and letters of the famous and the unknown: writers like Edith Wharton and unknown soldiers fortunate enough to have survived the fate of their companions in anonymous tombs.

We hear from scientists like Marie Curie, who discovered radium, and engineers like Marc Bloch. He made airplanes for the French government until Armistice Day and would go on, after another war in which he spent time in a concentration camp, to make the Mirage jets that still play such a large part in the warfare of our own age.

We even encounter the villain of the next war as hero, in the form of Hermann Goering, flying ace. Or villain as victim, in the person of Adolf Hitler, lying gassed and wounded in a military hospital north of Berlin. Thus, we are given a special perspective which permits us to understand what these events meant in their time, while not allowing us to forget what they have meant to subsequent times.

Stanley Weintraub, a cultural historian who has also written biographies of such intriguing iconoclasts as Aubrey Beardsley, George Bernard Shaw, James McNeill Whistler, and T. E. Lawrence, brings to this volume a familiarity with literature and social nuance.

With a deft touch, he leads the reader from German Headquarters at Spa in Belgium, where the Kaiser is forced to abdicate and flee to Holland, through revolutionary Spartan Berlin and the humiliations of the armistice negotiations at Compi`egne, to the victorious capitals of London, Paris, and Washington -- and, of course, to countless other places as well.

His account of the false armistice (which preceded the real one by a few days) is particularly fine. It elicited, in this reader at least, a profound sense of the disappointment that was felt so keenly in the wake of such shattered joy. Weintraub's ability to make readers experience with such intensity the emotions of nearly seven decades ago is reason enough to hail this book as a literary accomplishment, quite apart from its undoubted historical value.

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