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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.
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
This work both overlaps with, and takes off from, Tuchman's "Guns of August." Hastings acknowledges his indebtedness to her work in a preface, and so he opens the door to the inevitable comparisons. Some of that influence is seen in his mirroring Tuchman's habit of using untranslated French, which continues to tax my long-forgotten high-school knowledge. His work is like "The Guns of August, September, October, November, and December," and so filled in many holes in my understanding of the events of 1914. Like Tuchman, he goes light on the origins of the war and the breakdown of negotiations after the assassination of Ferdinand and gets right into the more exciting fighting, which he describes well, but somehow without Tuchman's gift.
Hastings includes a variety of sources and perspectives from first-hand eyewitnesses (diaries and letters are prominent throughout), which reveal how the war affected everyday people. Hastings does have a gift for using these sources to show that the war's truths were clearly evident to a few who lived them. Yet, his account is somewhat rambling at times, and his broader themes remain lost under the heavy weight of details. I missed the biting, revisionist criticism of "Overlord," or the coldly factual, pared down, but damning journalism of "Das Reich." He puts much of the blame for this war on the Germans, but even that conclusion is weakly argued and fumbled a bit in awkward diction; this is not the Hastings I remember or fell in love with.Read more ›
The military chapters discuss in generalized prose the battles of the French Frontier, Mons, Ypres, Tanneburg and others in the opening months of the sanguinary world conflict. Hastings is good at covering the actions on both the Western and Eastern fronts. Hastings is also adept at succinctly describing the character and leadership of such leaders as: Joffre of France; Molkte of Germany and Sir John French of Great Britain. Sir Max allows us to eavesdrop at high level strategy sessions in the capitals of the belligerent powers from Berlin to Paris to Vienna to London.
The book is over seven hundred small printed pages; includes countless photographs of the period and includes an impressive bibliography and footnotes.
Hastings is a former journalist who writes with the skills of a novelist and the erudition of an expert on World War I.
This book is history writing at its acme. Excellent and well recommended!
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This is a good book, aptly named. "Catastrophe," pretty much sums it up. It describes the conflicting and suicidal forces at work that led to this civilization-changing... Read morePublished 10 days ago by J. Fuzz
Great book about the first four months of WWI. Many details that other historians have overlooked or just ignored. Highly recommended.Published 19 days ago by William H. Haugland III
Very interesting point of view with many popular falsification of history revealed.Published 1 month ago by Amazon Customer
Being a big fan of Max Hastings since reading his "The Korean War" a decade ago, I'm very pleased with this book. Read morePublished 1 month ago by IndyGoBlue
Heard about this book on "The Great War" channel on uTube. Very thorough examination of the start of WW1. Provide greater insight to what and why WW1 happened.Published 2 months ago by R. S. Rehmel
Hastings explains momentous events with an amazing amount of first-accounts. Reabable and memorable. Read morePublished 3 months ago by John F Winslow
An imminently readable and detailed account of the descent into World War 1. Author Hastings traces the path to war, making clear why Germany and Austria-Hungary were primarily to... Read morePublished 3 months ago by Magda Denes