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Of Little Comfort

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Of Little Comfort
War Widows, Fallen Soldiers, and the Remaking of the Nation After the Great War. By Erika Kuhlman. (New York University Press, New York: 2012. 225 pages, Illustrations.) ISBN: 978-0-8147-4839-8

Reviewed by Herbert White - May 16, 2012

In the long ranging discourse on World War I, little mention has been given about the plight of the countless widows who suffered not only the loss of their spouse in the Great War, but also, in many cases, the father of their children and the family's primary wage earner. What happened to these women when their husbands died in battle? How were they treated by society? What happened if they remarried? These and many other questions are asked and answered in Erika Kuhlman's seminal study, Of Little Comfort: War Widows, Fallen Soldiers, and the Remaking of the Nation After the Great War. In this book she compares and contrasts the experiences of war widows in both America and Germany, and she examines how their experiences were used as a cultural, concrete expression of their respective nation's victory, or defeat.

Kuhlman is an Associate Professor of History at Idaho State University, and she is also the author of such books as Reconstructing Patriarchy after the Great War: Women, Gender, and Postwar Reconciliation between Nations, Petticoats and White Feathers: Gender Conformity, Race, the Progressive Peace Movement, and the Debate Over War, 1895-1919, and A to Z of Women in World History. In authoring this study she has made use of primary sources in both the U.S. and Germany, and her research is fully documented in the book's extensive endnotes and selected bibliography that will serve as a guide for anyone seeking to delve deeper into this intriguing topic.

The information in this text is organized into five chapters:
  1. An Army of Widows
  2. Trostlose Stunden: German War Widows
  3. The War Widows' Romance: Victory and Loss in the United States
  4. The Transnationalization of Soldiers, Widows, and War Relief
  5. "The Other Trench": Remarriage, Pro-natalism, and the Rebirthing of the Nation
Over the course of this study, Kuhlman illustrates how the mythos of the war widows was used to recreate the various nations after the Great War, and how they were used both as a living memorial to the fallen and as icons of patriotism and nationalism. She also shows how these women were demonized when they did not meet the cultural standards imposed upon them - such as when they did not remain 'true' to their fallen husbands and had the effrontery to remarry. In many cases this meant, among other things, the end of any pensions or public relief that they were receiving in their roles as war widows.

Taking a transnational approach, Kuhlman provides a remarkably in-depth and unique perspective on the war and the postwar years from the viewpoint of the war widows. Thus, making this an important and unique edition to the body of work concerning World War I and its aftermath. This work also provides keen insights into the effect that war had on women during the war and how, once widowed, they seemed to have become viewed as public property through which the nations as a whole could grieve for, and to memorialize, the dead. They were also 'objects' with political uses, and where used to herald one side's victory and to distance the other side from their defeat. Eminently readable, Of Little Comfort is sure to become a standard text in university classes dealing with the Great War and military history, women's studies, and 20th century history. This book will also be of interest to general readers intrigued by the history of the First World War.

Related Reviews:

World War I, by S. L. A. Marshall.
Marshall provides a solid historical overview of the causes, prosecution, and consequences of World War I. Written in an energetic and authoritative style, this book is eminently readable.

World War One: A Short History, by Norman Stone.
This book provides a brief, yet a succinct overview of World War One, as well as its causes and consequences. It is ideal for use as a brief introduction on the subject or as part of a general survey course on World War One, 20th Century World, or European history.

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