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5.0 out of 5 stars An Impressive History Of An Unfolding Disaster, August 23, 2013
This review is from: Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (Hardcover)
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The fact that a century has passed since the tragic summer of 1914 does not limit the fascination with which so many study the outbreak of World War I. It never ceases to intrigue me, and I suspect many others as well, to read about the rising tensions of years before 1914, the Sarajevo assassination which triggered the actual conflict, the missteps and miscalculations that dragged country after country into the fighting, and most of all the first few battles that preceded the long, disastrous stalemate that lasted until 1918, the consequences of which still affect us today. Among the many accounts of the early war Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, published in 1962, still stands head and shoulders above the rest. But now at last it has a near equal companion: Max Hasting's Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War.

The book begins with a Prologue on the Sarajevo assassinations, then recapitulates the diplomatic and military position of the various European powers before tracing the grim descent into conflict. Hastings chooses to begin his chronicle of the real fighting with the Austrian invasion of Serbia, which often gets overlooked in order to focus on the Germans, Russians, French and British. But the movements of the major powers, including the early battles of the Marne and Tannenberg and the bloody engagements at Ypres and Lodz, get plenty of attention, as do the naval maneuverings (including German shelling of British coastal cities and British aerial bombardment of Cuxhaven) and the actions of nations like Italy which remained non-belligerent in 1914. Hastings has little time for the arguments of some modern revisionist historians, arguing that a quick German victory would not just have led to a Common Market 50 years early (as Niall Ferguson and others have maintained) but would instead have been disastrous, not just for the Allies but for the world. Similarly, Hastings dismisses arguments that stories of German atrocities were exagerrated and argues that they really did occur, but puts them in context by pointing out that mistreatment of subject or colonized peoples was practiced by many nations. His caustic descriptions, like the Austrian generals who were better waltzers than fighters, are as amusing as they are perceptive.

Max Hastings is a journalist and editor as well as a military historian. He writes clearly and lucidly and has the ability to make the most confusing of battlefield maneuvers understandable to civilians. He is able to give insight into the characters of such disparate characters as Sir Edward Grey, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Tsar Nicholas II, Conrad von Hotzendorf, or General Ferdinand Foch with a few well chosen anecdotes and vignettes. I also appreciated his ability to describe small, seemingly unimportant moments that give color and vitality to his account: mobilization orders being announced in the German city of Freiburg by a trumpeteer, for example, or the way a Russian village elder explained to confused peasants that they had to leave their fields because the Father Tsar needed their help, and especially his many quotes from letters and diaries from newly enlisted soldiers (including some disguised women!) and their loved ones. The segments dealing with civilians coping with the conflict were interesting as well, but not surprisingly the most affecting sections dealt with the killed, wounded, and imprisoned soldiers and their sufferings. The book ends in December 1914 with a description of some of the unofficial "Christmas truces" and with the dawning recognition that the war was going to be a long drawn out affair, fought mainly in trenches with no hope of rapid movement for years to come. It's an appropriately somber finish for this excellent history, which will receive pride of place next to Tuchman in my bookcase.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 25, 2013 11:11:42 AM PDT
Loved Tuckman's, Guns of
August, as well! Nice review and comparison.

Posted on Aug 25, 2013 9:04:04 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 25, 2013 9:06:21 PM PDT
You must have gotten an advance copy as it is not scheduled to be published until September 24, 2013. I guess I'll have to settle for "The Sleepwalkers" for now.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 26, 2013 3:08:49 AM PDT
Right, I got an uncorrected proof copy through the Amazon Vine program. But I'm going to buy a full copy as soon as it's available so I'll have the pictures, maps, etc.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 1, 2013 4:48:30 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 1, 2013 8:53:27 AM PDT
rick peuser says:
John, my only question about is about sources, original sources. Does Hastings make use of the plethora of archives and or manuscripts available or does he base his book on secondary sources? I dislike authors of non fiction who do not or refuse to use original records.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 1, 2013 1:42:51 PM PDT
He lists the British National Archives, Imperial War Museum, Austrian State Archives, Serbian and Slovenian National Archives as resources he used, and his notes are quite thorough.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 1, 2013 3:48:13 PM PDT
rick peuser says:
Good to know. Thank you for checking.


Posted on Sep 8, 2013 8:22:10 PM PDT
brad says:
I'll be looking forward to the peanut gallery chiming in with more more critical reviews once this is released....I like Hastings but his books tend to be more narrative than insight. Between John Keegan's "First World War" which masterfully describes the *military* history of WW1, and "Sleepwalkers", which is an impressive recounting of the circumstances leading to the war...I'm not sure if I need yet-another book. I'll keep looking back at these reviews after release

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2014 8:48:59 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 23, 2014 8:52:37 AM PDT
Stanley says:
I guess I'll have to represent the peanut gallery. Really I'm surprised that after 100 years there are still folks who blame Germany for the war. Even 50 years ago when I was an undergraduate that idea had pretty much been put to bed. And, as frosting on the cake, Hastings still seems to buy the British propaganda about German war crimes, a claim even the Brits no longer put forth.

In truth, the Brits planned for a war with Germany as early as 1905 and one of the proponents was non-other than Churchill, a man who later admitted that although this war is ruining thousands of lives every day I still love it. (No quotation marks here because I'm paraphrasing.) Hastings' work is somewhat similar to Margaret MacMillan's work to exonerate a long dead relative. You know what, we will always have court historians and apologists even after 100 years. I thought that time might let us all be able to admit the truth. I am sorely disappointed. I prefer Niall Ferguson and John Mosier, suggest everyone take a look.
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John D. Cofield

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