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Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 24, 2013
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Amazon Guest Review of “Catastrophe 1914” by Max Hastings
By Scott Anderson
Author of Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Scott Anderson is a veteran war correspondent who has reported from Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Sudan, Bosnia, El Salvador and many other strife-torn countries. A contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, his work has also appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, Harper's and Outside. He is also the author of novels Moonlight Hotel and Triage and of non-fiction books The Man Who Tried to Save the World and The 4 O'Clock Murders, and co-author of War Zones and Inside The League with his brother Jon Lee Anderson.
To truly understand the grim march of twentieth century history, one must start with World War I – and to truly understand that horror show, one must look at its cataclysmic first few months. It was during this time that Europe saw sweeping military offensives, great pitched battles, and such staggering body-counts that the powers turned to the stagnation of trench warfare almost as a matter of national survival. This is the period British historian Max Hastings sets out to examine in Catastrophe, and the result is nothing short of a masterpiece.
The power of this book operates on several levels. Due to the political and military complexity of World War I – as well as, perhaps, a certain nationalistic chauvinism – most histories of it tend to be decidedly local; a reader might learn a great deal about the battle of the Somme, for instance, but virtually nothing about what was occurring at the same time elsewhere. By deftly moving from one battlefront to the other, Hastings is able to create a mosaic of the carnage visited upon Europe in the opening days of the war, and to show how those fronts were interconnected. Certainly no other general World War I history that I’ve read gives the commensurate attention to the slaughters that occurred on the Serbian and Galician battlefronts in 1914 that Hastings provides here.
To accomplish this, he has wisely avoided that tendency so common among military historians - barraging the reader with a blizzard of commanders’ names and regimental designations – that can make reading about combat such an ironically-dull task. Instead, by bringing us the voices of the young men from all sides caught in the maws of these battles, we not only get a visceral sense of what it looked and sounded and smelled like, but an appreciation for the commonality of the horror befalling them. Those wanting a tactical, blow-by-blow account of the Russian disasters at Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes, for example, will have to look elsewhere – Hastings dispenses with these twinned battles in a mere dozen pages – but for everyone else, the description of ordinary Russians slowly dawning to the realization that they are doomed is both wrenching and unforgettable.
Perhaps most remarkable, given his focus on the personal and the small, telling detail, Hastings’ voice also carries the mantle of authority; very early on, the reader realizes the author has done the heavy spadework of examining the myriad political and military controversies of the period, and come to a studied conclusion. Chief among these is the enduring debate over who was most responsible for starting the war, and in recent years a whole spate of revisionist histories have sought to redirect blame toward Britain or France or – most improbably - Russia. While Hastings is ultimately dismissive of these alternate theories (it really was the Germans’ and Austro-Hungarians’ fault), he does so decorously and only after entertaining the revisionisms long enough to show their contradictions. Similarly, the battlefield decisions of Sir John French, the first British field marshal of the war, have been argued over for nearly a century now, but it’s very hard to see what needs to be added to Hastings’ elegant comment that French’s conduct, “in the field was little more egregious than that of his counterparts of the other European armies.”
In contemplating this project, it surely crossed Hastings’ mind that his book would inevitably be judged against another work that covers almost precisely the same time period, Barbara Tuchman’s 1962 classic, The Guns of August. With Catastrophe, that period now has two classics.
After writing almost exclusively about WWII, eminent historian Hastings (Inferno) turns his attention to the outbreak of WWI. Chronicling both the prelude to the war and its initial battles, he concentrates on events occurring between June 28, 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, and December 31, 1914, when soldiers on both sides of the conflict languished in trenches. Drawing on accounts generated from rarified diplomatic circles, seasoned military leaders, and ordinary citizens helplessly caught up in the international catastrophe, he examines the origins and the onset of the Great War in minute and vivid detail. Hastings, unlike many contemporary historians, refuses to indulge in any retrospective hand-wringing, concluding rather firmly that Germany and Austria must accept principal blame for the war and that it is an analytical and an ethical mistake to believe that it did not matter which side won. This compelling reexamination of the commencement of the conflict represents an important contribution to the scholarship of the “war to end all wars.” --Margaret Flanagan
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Top customer reviews
The only thing that annoyed me with "1914" is the overwhelming Anglophilia. Although Hastings is certainly critical of the British effort, for the last 100-150 pages while discussing "the race to the coast" and the Battle of Ypres, he often comments that the French were fighting hard and taking heavy casualties (the French had over 1,000,000 casualties in 1914 alone) but he never goes into detail about any of their fighting. After the Marne, they're simply a sideshow.
I get the same thing with many of the other WW1 documentaries and books. If they're done by the BBC or British historians and you're interested in the French side of things, well... look elsewhere.
This book also takes the reader away from the battlefields to show how the peoples of the nations involved in the war reacted over the 5 months discussed and how perspectives changed over the course of the victories and defeats that each nation dealt with. The author shows us the members of goverment along with their subjects dealing with changes imposed by the war always with the (hopeful) optimism that it will be over soon and all of the sufferring and loss will be justied by the outcome. As the reality of the duration of conflict starts to dawn on them, it is recognized as a battle of endurance for the nations involved.
His concluding chapter is one that I think all those who think they 'know everything' about this period of time should read. With over a century having occurred since the events depicted in this book, there is a tendency for modern readers to think that they could have just stopped. The author looks at this prospect from the view of all of the major combatants as well as giving some foreshadowing of what was to come for the participants in the years both during and after the war. In this last chapter, he shows the governments of the nations involved looking if there is a way to end the fighting, but none of them willing to end it except with an advantage that justifies the cost inflicted. Since this was never going to happen, the fighting will continue.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of Max Hasting's books on World War II. He has lost none of his talent for relating these stories even with a change of wars being considered. Also, I would recommend this any readers of Barbara Tuchman's "Guns Of August". Her book written back in the 1960's was an eye-opening introduction to the same themes that are discussed in this book. This is a 50 year later successor to her book and belongs right beside it in any library of World War I.