Saturday, January 04, 2014

What We're Reading: New history of The Great War

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings

Next year is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, commonly known (until World War II) as “The Great War.” It is a cataclysm that, rightly, has come to be viewed as a turning point in human history, a demarcation between an old social and political order and the birth of our modern era. Any point of upheaval and change, of course, is never unrelated to a concatenation of accreting change and historical antecedents, but the Great War was an event that confirmed and made visible--that objectified--so many of the undercurrents that had been for some time but vaguely sensed, and brought certain realities about the world as it now was to popular consciousness. 

Another book on the Great War has been recently published: Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace. These two books complement each other. MacMillan’s book looks at the 20 years or so of European history leading up to the outbreak of war, and Hastings' book examines the major events of the first year of the armed conflict. The focus differs in terms of the time period, and certainly Hastings’ book is more circumscribed, but the major difference that will probably be of interest to anyone thinking of reading one of these books is that the authors have different academic orientations. MacMillan’s book will appeal to readers more interested in social and diplomatic history. Hastings, who is a noted historian of World War II, has written a book that will be enjoyed by readers of military history.  

It would be regrettable however, if readers who find military history a bit recondite and puzzling pass on Catastrophe 1914. Hastings does not write the kind of military history that can often be exasperating to some readers. I am one of those who sometimes gets so lost and confused by accounts of military maneuvers and strategy that I’ve come through the battle with little genuine enlightenment. About the only thing I have learned for certain is that it is never good to leave your flanks exposed, and I’ve never been good at extracting the significance of troop dispositions on the ubiquitous maps that accompany military histories. If those maps are one of the signature features of military history, the map of Galicia in Catastrophe 1914 will give you some sense of Hastings' temperance as a military historian: The graphic simply shows an empty map of Galicia, and the caption below explains that the troop movements were too complicated and various to show.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent
to the Hapsburg throne. His assassination in Sarajevo
on June 28th, 1914 was the casus belli of The Great War.
More importantly, Hastings is not one of those military historians who writes  military history for the sake of second-guessing battle strategies or tactics, or indulges in the speculations of the armchair general. He wants to show us how the unfolding military actions illustrate political, military, or cultural assumptions and traits of character. He demonstrates how identifying those can in turn help us understand why the antagonists became belligerents in the first place. He identifies many of the same troubling issues that MacMillan does in her buildup to the opening of hostilities, but he does this by using the military action as an occasion to cast a glance backwards. Hastings tells us what these actions reveal about the flaws in each individual country’s contingency planning for a European conflict. He illustrates the disconnection between military strategists and the civilians responsible for conducting a nation’s foreign policy, a confusion that seems to have been prevalent to one degree or another in each country, and shows the shared lack of comprehension about what would be the implications of modern technology and how it would change the nature of war (this ignorance resulted in overly optimistic assessments of their offensive strength). He argues that military ambitions often exceeded means, for although fire power was greatly increased by innovations in explosives and artillery, the mobility and communications of huge armies did not keep pace. The advantage shifted to defenders rather than to those who had placed their hopes on quick and decisive offensive operations.

                          Kaiser Wilhelm II                                  A German Soldier

Hastings is merciless in his critique of the incompetence of the military class and command in all countries. He explains how the Germans in 1914 over-reached themselves both strategically and logistically, and how the denouement of their opening offensive against France resulted in the Great War settling into a war of entrenchment, stalemate and massive casualties--its defining characteristics in modern memory.   

Among the most interesting sections of Catastrophe 1914 are: Hastings' account of the initial Austria-Hungary offensive against Serbia; his depiction of the plight of those wounded in combat; his look at how harsh treatment of civilian populations by enemy soldiers and allegations of atrocities were used by each country in national propaganda campaigns; and, in particular, the peculiar nature of the confrontation between the British and German navies. In the conclusion of the book, Hastings lists the simply shocking figures on killed and wounded statistics for each country. One of the most remarkable is that nearly 63 percent of Serbian men between the ages of 15 and 55 were killed in the war.  

British soldiers fighting in the trenches
Hastings has an unambiguous point of view: He is interested in disabusing us of some common misconceptions about the Great War. When war came in July of 1914, he argues, “The only untenable view of the July crisis is that war was the consequence of a series of accidents.” He also qualifies the notion that both leadership and civilians entered the war with optimism and naiveté. While adversaries hoped for a quick victory, few were in fact convinced that the conflict could last but a short while. Discounting the idea that all the participants blundered into war, or were equally responsible for the conflict, he makes a case that Germany was the country most deserving of blame. He wants us to understand that the ideas we have about the absurdity, futility and meaningless slaughter of the war come largely from the fact that the celebrated peace which ensued turned out to be so short-lived, and he notes that the subsequent fame of anti-war poets and writers such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves, literature which has today informed our view of the war, did not reflect a view that was shared by most of their countrymen at the time.

A horse-drawn water cart
There were important issues at stake, Hastings says. The outcome of the war mattered. The world today would have been a very different place if the Triple Alliance had won--the suffering and death of those who in the end triumphed had meaning and purpose. Readers may differ in their assessment of how convincingly Hastings makes this case. For this reader, it is hard to get past the horrendous loss of life. The photographic images of battlefields strewn with the rotting carcasses of horses, the draft animals and cavalry mounts doomed to be cut down by the weapons of modern war--that legion of hapless creatures caught between the murderous enmities of men--were particularly distressing. They leave us with a sense of a catastrophe that was wanton, profligate and obscene, of loss without redemption.

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