By Thomas Weber
As the year draws to a close, we’ve been reflecting on all the wonderful books published in 2011, and in doing so, we’ve also realized there are some classics worth revisiting. The authors and friends of Oxford University Press are proud to present this series of essays, which will appear regularly until the New Year, drawing our attention to books both new and old. Here, Thomas Weber, author of Hitler’s First War, writes about the classic Anne of Green Gables.
Canada’s almost complete absence of the drama, disasters, and revolutions that have been the hallmark of much of European and Asian history makes Canadian history a tough sell. And yet one of the greatest and most successful reads of the last century was a Canadian story, the one of young freckled Anne Shirley, immortalized by Lucy Maud Montgomery in her Anne of Green Gables, published in 1908.
Why have tens of millions of readers from around the globe, most of whom would frown at the thought of having to pick up a book about Canadian history, been attracted to the late nineteenth-century adventures of a pale and talkative young girl in the Canadian backwaters? Why did the wives of my two best friends as well as my wife take their husbands to Prince Edward Island to wander in the footsteps of a fictional orphan girl, as do scores of Japanese tourists every year?
Like J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter books, Montgomery created a world in Anne of Green Gables that is set up so perfectly and in so much loving and vivid detail that any reader of Montgomery’s timeless book quickly finds himself (or herself) transported onto the farmhouse on which Anne grew up, forgetting the small and great worries of life. For young girls – the book’s prime readership – Anne is a kindred spirit with whom they can identify, be it when she cracks a slate over young Gilbert Blythe’s head after he dared to poke fun of her hair, calling her ‘carrots’; or be it when they encounter the innocent beginnings of their love for each other in one of the sequels to Anne of Green Gables. For grown-ups of either sex, Anne’s overblown dramatic demeanor, her spirited and mischievous character, and her ability to get herself into a myriad of scrapes and then overcome them is the source of endless smiles. In short, Anne of Green Gables is the perfect read for the festive period of girls and boys from the ago of 6 to 106.
And once the festive period is over, Montgomery’s masterpiece will provide an inspiration about why the history of Canada – the country in which I spend part of the year – does not need to be boring but indeed sheds light on so much of the history of Western Civilization.
The world of Anne of Green Gables reminds us that British North America, despite of its rejection of the American revolution of 1776, developed into as successful a polity as its neighbour to the south of the 49th parallel. As Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff recently brilliantly proposed in her Liberty’s Exiles, the ‘Spirit of 1783’ – the spirit of the American loyalists, of Britain, and of her Empire, equals ‘The Spirit of 1776’ in generating and inspiring liberty and the rule of law both home and abroad.
Ostensibly, Anne’s world and the ‘Spirit of 1783’ is as far removed from the world that I normally write about, i.e. Hitler’s one, as is humanly possible. Here, to borrow from Bernard Wasserstein’s magnificent history of modern Europe (another great read), the epitome of ‘civilization’, there the heart of ‘barbarism’. Indeed in the eighth of the Anne books, Anne’s two sons go to fight the Germans in the trenches of World War One. Yet as I showed in Hitler’s First War, most of the men of Hitler’s World War One unit had far more in common with the Canadian soldiers whom they encountered across the trenches than they did with Hitler.
Indeed when in late 1916, in the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme, both Canadian troops and Hitler’s regiment and its sister units arrived at the same stretch of the Western Front on the slopes of Vimy Ridge, German soldiers held up a sign from their trenches reading: ‘Welcome Canadians’. Another German sign told the Canadian soldiers: ‘Cut out your damned artillery. We, too, were at the Somme.’ In the run-up to Christmas 1916, many cases occurred in which Canadian and German soldiers waved at each other. As a young Canadian soldier from Toronto, Private Ronald MacKinnon, wrote home in the aftermath of Christmas 1916, even more than two years into the war, German and Canadian servicemen still felt the urge to walk across the no-man’s land that separated them and celebrate Christmas together: ‘Here we are again as the song says. I had quite a good Christmas considering I was in the front line. Christmas eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Christmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars. Christmas was ‘tray bon’ which means very good.’
Why the world of the men of Hitler’s World War One unit was perfectly compatible with the world of Anne of Green Gables, but why nevertheless the sons of Anne went to fight (and in the case of one son to die) against the Germans in the mud of the Western Front and why one generation later Germany went into the abyss, while Canada did not, remain among the toughest questions to answer.
Thomas Weber teaches European and International History at the University of Aberdeen. His award-winning book The Lodz Ghetto Album examined the notorious photographic record of the Polish ghetto. His latest book is Hitler’s First War, which overturns the received wisdom about Hitler and the List Regiment. You can read his previous post for OUPblog here.