It was in reading Sebastian Faulks’ Snow Country at the weekend that first heard of the Brusilov Offensive. The protagonist of the story talks of the First World War conflict on the Eastern Front that had cost one million lives. A Internet search revealed that the three month long battle in Galicia had drawn in 1.7 million soldiers from the Russian Empire and 1,060,000 from the Central Powers, the majority of them from the Empire of Austria-Hungary.
The offensive was a major omission from the history I learned. Having studied European history from the French Revolution until the Second World War both for GCE A Level and at undergraduate level, it should surely have appeared somewhere in the books we read? Of course, it would have been impossible to have considered every battle, but the conflict that was the Brusilov Offensive was every bit as bloody as Verdun and the Somme on the Western Front.
Was there a conscious editing out of history the losses suffered by the Russians and the Austrians? Was there a deliberate attitude of presenting the War as being chiefly about the British and French on one side and the Germans on the other?
It was not just the Russians and the Austrians who seemed to have been regarded as minor players in our history course. Apart from mention of Gallipoli, there was hardly any reference to the Ottoman Empire, certainly not to the conflicts that developed in Middle East, the consequences of which, a century later, still reverberate through global politics. As for Italy and its battles against Austria-Hungary. few of us would even have been aware that Italy was an ally.
Perhaps our problem lay in viewing the First World War through the lens of the post-1945 settlement in Europe. Austria-Hungary had been fractured into numerous parts, with the Iron Curtain running through their midst. Italy had been an enemy whose men were lukewarm about the conflict and which had been knocked out of the Second World War in 1943. By the 1970s, Russia was an enemy whose sacrifices had been forgotten, instead it was the Soviet menace that had sent tanks into Budapest in 1956 and into Prague in 1968, and which in our time threatened the world with a nuclear conflagration.
Perhaps a proper appreciation of the full picture of a historical period is only possible when that period ceases to have implications in the present time. Perhaps in another century’s time, the history of 1916 will include the Brusilov Offensive alongside Verdun and the Somme