93 of 96 people found the following review helpful
on May 30, 2001
Often, non-military historians dismiss wars as "boring" and state the real "history" is what happens before or after the conflict. In Dreadnaught, Robert Massie thoroughly analyzes the decades before the Great War to illustrate how the war occurred. While the underlying theme is the naval arms race between Britain and Germany, Massie covers the royal family relationships across the continent, geo-political ambitions of the several European powers, the build up of armies, and the economic situation. Each of these elements contributed to the coming of war.
Dreadnaught is perhaps the most detailed account presently available in a single volume, and it is worth the time to read this fine book. From clshes in eastern Europe to north Africa that were precursors to global conflict, to the heads of state involved to the military leaders, this book covers the entire historical landscape that puts World War I in proper perspective.
Massie's work should remain the standard in its field for years to come. Though it is long, the reader will yearn for more when finished.
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2000
Dreadnought is a very big book about a very big subject, the origins of World War I. The consequences of which were, needless to say, complicated and diverse for the road to the great war can never really be exactly determined. For example, a plausible argument may be made that the seeds of WWI were laid when the Roman Empire ended some 1,500 years ago.
(The origins of World War II, in contrast, are somewhat less complicated- the Treaty of Versailles being the predominate cause of the greatest war mankind has ever fought.)
Author Robert Massie tries, and generally succeeds, in telling us about the events and personalities that precipitated the conflict. The isolationism of Great Britain, the rise of Imperial Germany, the ins and outs of pre-war British politics, etc. The heart of the book is Massie's description of the Dreadnought program- the brainchild of Admiral Jack Fisher -which was an attempt to build a battleship that would revolutionize naval combat and keep England safe from invasion. Instead, the Dreadnought kicked off an arms race between England and Germany that contributed mightily to WWI.
Massie is, to say the least, a through historian. Everything is in here that could have played even the slightest role in bringing about the conflict. One senses that there is indeed too much information here. How important really was the political dispute over Imperial Preference, a proposal which would have given tariff preferences to British colonies over other imports, to the causing of the First World War? It is a fascinating tale, perhaps worthy of its own book, but hardly of great consequence here.
However, one cannot fault Massies thoroughness or prose, for Dreadnought is a readable book that is probably the definitive work on the cause of the First World War. Outstanding. A book that any student of history can be very enthusiastic about.
30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2004
Robert Massey's DREADNOUGHT is less a history of the building of the first true battleship or even a history limited to the naval arms race between Germany and Great Britain in the years prior to World War I than it is a comprehensive and expansive political and personal history of the men, policies, and treaty entanglements of Europe over the last half of the 19th century and up until the breakout of total war in 1914. The scope of this book is impressive and its particular strength is in the detailed personal narratives concerning the men who shaped the history of Europe and the world at this time.
The most compelling of these narratives and the most interesting exposition of personality must be the storyline concerning the Kaiser, William II. Alternatively child-like in his petulance and his longing on approval from his family (that being the English royal family) and regal in the assertion of his imperial prerogative and in his capricious vanity, William is flawed, but ultimately likable.
This volume is powered by dozens of other richly textured character studies on both the English and German sides from Otto von Bismarck and Queen Victoria to Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz and Winston Churchill.
Personally, I am a fan of naval history (or more generally, the history of technologies and warfare) as well as a fan of general history. For the naval buffs, I would recommend the sequel to this volume: CASTLES OF STEEL, over this work. However, for general history, you won't find anything better than DREADNOUGHT.
Jeremy W. Forstadt
39 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on March 15, 2003
This is one of finest works of non-fiction ever written! Anyone who would like a fundamental understanding of pre-World War I Europe and the political intrigue that went along with it, should read this fine work. One empire was firmly entrenched on the world stage, one nation wanted an empire and two other empires were crumbling. It is long but there is never a dull moment. Massie clearly lays out in fine detail, the naval arms between Great Britain and Germany. His research alone must have been quite an undertaking. The author also described in a very understandble way, the technological innovations that made these new battleships state of the art. But most importantly, he lays out his argument, that fundamentally Kaiser Wilhelm is responsible for World War I. This becomes clearer near the end of the book when Massie describes the final days of peace and how those events spun out of control. Those pages alone make the book worth reading. I disagree with a previous reviewer that the book was Anglo-centric. I think the Germans and the Brits come off as they really were. The Prussians were very belligerent. A united Germany was still a young "upstart" nation. Germany was a nation of immense cultural and technological richness, but a nation that always has seemed to make bad choices. The Kaiser had we would call today "an attitude" or a chip on his shoulder. I also had very little knowledge of the pre-war Balkans. Especailly enlightening was learning of the Balkan War of 1912. Massie has created a masterpiece that any student of history should read.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on October 9, 2002
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War examines the first arms race of the twentieth century, that of the modern battleship. Robert Massie lays out the development of the Dreadnought-class battleship and its implications, beginning with Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne and ending with the declaration of World War I. The focus is on the monarchies and constitutional governments, and the book closes with the sequence of declarations of general European war in the summer of 1914.
Interestingly, the book does so from a biographical perspective. Virtually every word is focused on giving the reader a clear picture of the personalities involved, from the Queen herself to Kaiser Wilhelm (referred to unfailingly as William in the book), from Cecil Rhodes to Prince Bismarck. This makes the book somewhat more readable, but leaves the reader with the impression that the arms race (and thus the War) is entirely due to individual personalities. Very little time or attention is given to broader social developments, reducing the citizenry of each nation to little more than observers, often even less given the secrecy behind many of the developments.
Kaiser Wilhelm is especially closely considered, making it clear that, at least in part, his own inferiority complex and vacillation between Anglophilia and Anglophobia led to Germany's near-inexorable march towards war. At times, he desired nothing more than the acceptance and respect of his grandmother and uncle (Victoria and Edward VII); at others, he would repudiate any possible tempering influence they might have had. After Bismarck, one chancellor after another rotated through the government, serving at the Emperor's pleasure (due to Bismarck's design in the constitution). Still, the volatile Emperor was occasionally easily manipulated by experienced politicians without realizing it. In most cases, this maintained peace and allowed the danger of war to pass.
Particular attention is also given to Admiral Jacky Fisher, whose reforms in the British Navy at the close of its heyday are still seen in modern navies all over the world. During the great sail-to-steam conversion, it was his focus on gunnery and simulation of wartime situations that kept his Navy at the top of the game. Realizing the importance of speed in naval operations, he continued to push for steam vessels even when this was still controversial. The development of the modern battleship is due in large part to his driving force, constantly seeking to defend his island nation.
Dreadnought does a fine job of illustrating the developments, both military and political, that led to the declaration of one of the most important wars of the last century, little-discussed though it may be. While Dreadnought spends practically no time on the war itself, gaining familiarity with this era of history leads to a sense of sadness at the loss of the world's innocence nearly one hundred years ago.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on May 14, 2003
At over 1,000 oversize pages, this book is not for everyone. But if you enjoy biography (especially) and the history of sea power, politics and the Great War (here, its long run-up), this book is for you. If Carlyle was right that history is the "essence of innumerable biographies," Massie has caught the essence grandly with his sweeping Dreadnought. The title is misleading: one expects a dry tome about the British Dreadnought class. The massive turbine-powered war ships were to dominate navies until World War II, making coal irrelevant, and are expounded along with British naval politics and history, at length. But here Massie uses the Dreadnought as metaphor -- of sea power, arms race and ineluctable Armageddon.
German and British players brilliantly counterpoise. Here is Emperor William II, grandson to Victoria, a man who walked with "the stiff stride of a Prussian officer; if he laughs, he will laugh with absolute abandonment...small, handsome, with clear blue eyes...a brushy upturned mustache... and withered left arm". Here is Edward VII, the Kaiser's Uncle Bertie, "tum tum" in his circle (but never to his face), the son of Victoria and the sainted Albert. It was the wonderfully bizarre Jacky Fisher, father of the Dreadnought, "greatest Admiral since Nelson" who had the King's ear. Massie implicitly raises questions of whether French entente would have happened if Bertie had not so insisted on his regular visits to Paris and Biarritz or if the Dreadnoughts, had they not Edward's exuberant approval, would have impelled the deadly race.
The "lesser" characters in this drama serve their turns well. The "Blood and Iron" Chancellor Bismarck, a massive but dwindling figure, is deposed by the Kaiser, who disastrously takes the reins of the foreign ministry ("I am the foreign policy of Germany...May your government never forget that..." to Edward). The slippery Chancellor von Bulow who with the fork-bearded von Tirpitz, authors the Weltmacht (world power) policy. Lord Salisbury, three times Prime Minister, 6 feet 4, with his "huge head and slitted eyes," the author of the discarded dream of "Splendid Isolation", telling the German ambassador in 1888, "Nous sommes des poissons" (we are fish). After the crest of victory in the brutal Boer War, the ancient Queen finally dead, "so little - and so light" is gently lifted by the new King and the Kaiser into her coffin. Fisher does his job as First Sea Lord, surprisingly, under successive Liberal governments, including that of the brilliant, adulterous Asquith and the indispensable Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty: "for consider these ships (the superdreadnoughts)...so easily lost to sight on the surface of the waters....On them, as we conceived, floated the might, majesty, dominion and power of the British Empire." Each character and his role in the drama is brilliantly realized by Massie's incise mini-biographies.
The final elegaic and compelling chapters dwell on the pathos between Berlin and London: of a Kaiser gone slightly mad in Berlin, while thousands cheer in London; Asquith bound to France "by honor if not obligation", the tragic Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey to Commons: "Today it is clear that the peace of Europe cannot be preserved." The unpoetic Grey, looking down at dusk at the lamps being lit in St. James's Park, uttered the lines that define what was to come: "The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." This is almost as fine a biography qua history as we have. Read it with Tuchman's Guns of August and your pick of Great War histories.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on November 12, 1999
This book will fool you. At first glance, it appears the book is to be about dreadnoughts and maybe even some of the battles they fought in. But no, it's about, on one hand, the royalty of Europe and how they didn't get along, and, on the other hand, the British parliamentarians, and how they too didn't get along.
The closest the reader gets to getting aboard a ship is when the Kaiser or some other member of a royal family climbs into his royal yacht. Except, every now and then someone would talk about Germany not needing so many dreadnoughts, and Britain complaining about the cost of meeting ship-for-ship such expensive competition.
The book is excellent for several reasons: (1) it is very well written, (2) it holds your interest in an almost spellbinding manner , and (3) it provides a very clear understanding of what Europe was like from about 1890 to about 1910. It was nothing like it is now, neither politically nor boundary-wise. To us now, it was almost like life on a different planet.
To the reader interested in World War I or II, this is essential reading, almost a prerequisite, since the author creates a very clear picture with personalities and events and especially the way of thinking back then, of an antiquated Europe that had as its future, an inevitable bloody path into the modern world.
The World Wars don't make sense unless you understand the root causes that this book narrates.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on December 24, 2002
Folks who would like history to be an impersonal sweep of Great Movements and Significant Trends will doubtless dislike Massie's treatise on the Anglo-German naval arms race and the coming of the Great War. In contrast, for those of us who believe that history has a face (and often a street address) this is a fascinating and highly informative discussion of a critical period in world history. Massie stresses the very personal nature of power politics in pre-war Europe -something that I suspect modern readers (and reviewers)born into an age of "focus groups" and party politics may tend to discount. Before 1918 much of the power in Europe (and by extension the rest of the world) was wielded by a handful of individuals, many of whom were closely related. Victoria's children and grandchildren were alas NOT one big happy family, and Massie shows us how suspected slights and jealousies propelled whole governments towards foolish decisions. The creation of the German High Seas Fleet was largely the product of the Kaiser's feeling that he was being snubbed by his Uncle (Edward VII). Any pretence that this fleet was NOT aimed at contesting Britain in the North Sea is disproved by the decision to emphasize armor and internl compartmentalization within the German capital ships at the cost of cramped quarters and limited fuel storage that made the ships unlivable (and un-navigable) for more than a few days. As Massie shows, Wilhelm's decision to build a massive short-range fleet was opposed by many of his own ministers and ultimately ensured that Britain and Germany would come to blows. It would have been interesting if Massie had chosen to give us more of a "postscript" -what actually happened to this enormous expenditure of capital and energy- rather than ending things with the outbreak of war, but for that one need only look at the many books analyzing the battle of Jutland etc.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on March 18, 2001
I purchased this book for three reasons: my interest in ships, my desire to learn more about WW1, and my enjoyment of Massie's writing style, having read his Peter the Great. The book exceeded expectations and provided me with many insights into the driving dynamics that culminated in World War I.
The book's title is deceiving: it is less about naval affairs than it is about the personalities and events that for 30 years led up to the first world war, of which the navy is only part. Massie delves into the politics, family relationships (even through childhood), national interests, and personal insecurities and ambitions that drove policy in the UK and Europe.
I highly recommend this book for several reasons. First, it provided me with much more insight into the forces that resulted in this war. Before this, the explanations I read did not quite add up (more symptoms than root causality). This book applies a balanced approach to explaining history, incorporating personalities, national interest, culture, economics, and politics into a much clearer picture of the competing forces shaping Europe at that time.
Second, Massie acts as a sort of tour guide through this interesting period of history, pointing out many other interesting historical tangents for further reading (I picked up Winston Churchill's The River War as a result).
Finally, Massie writes his books with a structure similar to that of a novel. It makes this very substantial and well-researched read quite entertaining.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Robert Massie always tells a good story and he does not fail to deliver here. This tells how World War 1 started and the arms race that launched the battle. Despite the title this book does not focus only on the naval buildup and goes into many other factors. Foreign policy in Africa and the Balkans are addressed as well as internal political struggles in Britain. The research is exhaustive and it is very well written. If you are looking for a good account of World War 1 this is the best place to start. Highly recommend.