Tag Archives: World War I

Does history repeat itself? A Cambridge University historian’s study of the causes of World War I


A review of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Six little boys tussle in a sandbox, pushing and shoving, sometimes openly, sometimes when none of the others are looking. One of them, a runt, is getting the worst of it, but he’s a vicious little guy and manages to hold his own within his own tiny corner of the sandbox. The biggest boys exert the least effort but command the most space. They all look confident, but secretly they’re terrified of one another, leading them to combine forces in a constantly shifting pattern of partnerships to fend off the others.

This is the image that comes to mind of Europe in the summer of 1914 from reading Christopher Clark’s new inquiry into how the First World War came to be. Naturally, Professor Clark had something much more grown-up in mind when he wrote the book. After all, he is a Fellow at St. Catherine’s College at the University of Cambridge, where he received his Ph.D. in History, and we all know that a Cambridge Don would never indulge in such belittling imagery.

In all fairness, to put the event in proper perspective, “The conflict that began that summer mobilized 65 million troops, claimed three empires [Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian], 20 million military and civilian deaths, and 21 million wounded. The horrors of Europe’s twentieth century were born of this catastrophe.”

With The Sleepwalkers, Clark muscles into the seemingly endless debate about why and how all this came to pass. Not that anybody on the street is talking about this stuff, of course. But among modern European historians these questions pass for excitement, and no wonder: the Great War is generally taken as the climax of the well-ordered Victorian Era that launched the human race with a lurch into the 20th Century. The origins of the cataclysm that upended tens of millions of lives are variously found in Prussian militarism, the colliding interests of European empires, the arms race, the profit motive among arms merchants, and other cross-border phenomena, but Professor Clark apparently will have none of this. He’s a practitioner of that brand of history that finds truth in the quotidian details of human interaction — in short, in the day-to-day decisions of living, breathing human beings tossed together in a crisis that nobody foresaw.

In the first of its three parts, The Sleepwalkers thus explores the political environment, highlighting the major players in each of the contending nations — Serbia, Austro-Hungary, Russia, Germany, France, and England — in the years running up to 1914. Part II takes a broader look at the Continent, discussing the interplay of the leading states in the closing years of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th. In outline, the stable alliances of the late 1880s had given way to a bipolar system by 1907, with the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and (loosely) Italy facing off against the interlocking fortunes of Russia, France, and Great Britain. Clark asserts that “[t]he polarization of Europe’s geopolitical system was a crucial precondition for the war that broke out in 1914.” Then, in Part III, Clark delves deeply into the day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, decisions of the leading players from June 28, when Gavrilo Princip shot to death the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife, until the early days of August, when all the chips had fallen into place and war was declared on all fronts.

In Clark’s view, “1914 is less remote from us — less illegible — now than it was in the 1980s. Since the end of the Cold War, a system of bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers — a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.” Although Clark makes it easy to see history repeating itself in small ways — for example, the genocidal course pursued by Serbia in the 1990s was little different from its behavior in the decades leading up to 1914 — it’s difficult to see the parallels to most of today’s international crises. Surely, Professor Clark wouldn’t pretend that the U.S. invasion of Iraq — one of the seminal events of our times and perhaps the greatest strategic blunder in American history — was anything but the result of hubris and colossal miscalculation on the part of an ideology-driven clique within the U.S. government.

Disagreements aside, however, The Sleepwalkers is an outstanding piece of work.  Professor Clark’s knowledge of the period he writes about is both broad and deep, and he writes with grace and verve that’s highly unusual in academic circles.

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An historical novel set in East Africa early in the 20th Century

A review of Assegai, by Wilbur Smith

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

One of the best ways I’ve found to learn history is through historical fiction. Though I’ve studied African history and read a fair amount of nonfiction about the continent, I may have learned just as much from Assegai, a popular novel set in British East Africa (now Kenya) in the period 1906-1918. (The title means “sword” in the language of the Masai.)

As a novel, Assegai is far from perfect. It tells the adventurous tale of a young white African man, just 18 at the outset, who displays his seemingly superhuman prowess as a soldier, a wild game hunter, a fighter pilot, and a lover. To say the least, Leon Courtney is hard to believe, as is his love, the extraordinary young woman whom we first meet as Eva von Wellberg. She is, of course, a paragon of beauty, grace, intelligence, cunning, and athletic ability both in and out of bed. And the two aristocratic Germans who play large roles in the book as antagonists could easily fit nicely into the role of villains in early silent films, twisting moustaches and evil eyes included.

Hyperbolic characterizations aside, though, Assegai opens up a window on a time and place about which I know so little. The author’s portrayal of the Masai people with whom Leon Courtney works, while idealized, projects the pride and dignity of an historically important ethnic community. As the action unfolds in the years before and during the First World War, Assegai throws light on the historical sideshow that was the struggle between German and British colonial forces in that theater so many thousands of miles from the Somme and the Argonne.

Assegai is one of the 13 novels in the saga of the Courtney family, which spans the five hundred years beginning in the 1600s.

Wilbur Smith, with more than 30 historical novels to his credit, is probably one of the world’s best-selling writers. His books loom large on the shelves of bookshops in many parts of the world outside the U.S., but they are less extensively read here , because his subject matter is his beloved native Africa.

Smith’s writing style is full of color and imagery. Hyperbole aside, it’s a pleasure to read.


Filed under Historical Novels, Trade Fiction

World War I: Learning history the hard way

A review of To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, by Adam Hochschild

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In this brilliant study of World War I, Adam Hochschild explores the historical forces at work when the 19th Century so tragically encountered the 20th. In that first truly global conflict, the military traditions of the past collided with the realities of life in an industrial age, with top British commanders stubbornly defending the lance, the sword, and the horse in favor of the machine gun and ordering millions of men to certain death against impenetrable barriers of barbed wire. Meanwhile, the social movements rooted in 19th Century experience grew up quickly in the hothouse of unlimited war, with armchair socialists morphing into ruthless and violent revolutionaries and labor unions fast gaining ground as society at home came under unbearable strain through the deprivations imposed by the war. As Hochschild comments, one of those who came to speak out against the way in its final months “was entirely right to see that the war had irrevocably unleashed  ‘the prostitution of science for the purposes of pure destruction.'” That phrase could serve as an epitaph not just for the First World War but for the 20th Century as a whole.

To End All Wars (an ironic reference to Woodrow Wilson’s hyperbolic phrase) examines the “Great War” principally from the perspective of the leading players among the British. However, unlike so many other portrayals of this much-studied war, Hochschild’s story is not limited to that of the elite who led the war, nor of the front-line soldiers who served as cannon fodder in their millions, nor even of those who supported the war. In the tradition he has established so well in previous books (Bury the Chains, King Leopold’s Ghost), Hochschild explores the lives of the dissidents as well, the courageous few who advocated socialism without boundaries or served as the century’ first conscientious objectors and their sympathizers.

This is a significant book, perhaps Adam Hochschild’s greatest contribution to our understanding of the roots of modern society. In his cover review in today’s New York Times Book Review, Christopher Hitchens calls it a “moving and important book” and marvels over the depth and thoroughness of the research that underlies it. To End All Wars is also beautifully written, paced almost like a thriller and richly endowed with the intimate details of the lives of the all-too-real people who fought for — and against — the war. Read this book, and you will have trouble forgetting Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig — the first British field commander and his successor — whose pigheaded insistence on using yesterday’s tactics led to millions of deaths . . . or Charlotte Despard, the aristocratic radical feminist and socialist who somehow sustained her deep love for her brother, who commanded the British armies . . . or the hapless Wheelden family, loyally hiding out conscientious objectors, only to be jailed for long terms as an object lesson for the opposition . . . or Keir Hardie, the socialist MP, or the Pankhurst family, mother and three daughters, or a dozen others Hochschild lifts out of the obscurity of time to tell this heartbreaking story.

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