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The Guns of August Audio, Cassette – Unabridged, 1983
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|Audio, Cassette, Unabridged, 1983||
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Top customer reviews
Tuchman goes into considerable detail for most of the battles fought during that time. We come to know quite well the 6-10 Generals leading the armies of each side. She clearly has her heroes and her disappointments, and she describes them, their strengths, and their weaknesses in detail. She was particularly kind to the Belgians for the efforts and sacrifices both the military and civilians made and suffered to retard the advance of the Germans. She also saluted the French, recognizing that they had the highest losses per capita of the key combatants. She was very critical of Sir John French, first leader of the British Expeditionary Forces, for his frequent reticence to engage in "risky" battles.
Though I rate the book five stars, I encountered a number of disappointments. I wish Tuchman had written more about the circumstances that drew these countries into battle at this particular moment - and no, it was not just the assassination of the Archduke. Consequently, I bought a copy of "The Sleepwalkers" by Clark and will read it next. I recommend against the Guns paperback edition. The reprint of maps is terrible. I know the hardbound is out of print at the moment but if I had it to do over, I would have bought a used copy of it instead. I did buy the DK edition of WWl (coffee table size), with lots of photos and maps - and it provides very good summaries of events subsequent to August 1914 through to the signing of the Treaty; I recommend it highly. I also bought an even larger map book of WWl battles by Neiberg. (All of these books are available from Amazon.) Tuchman used an awful lot of French phrases in side comments, and the meaning in context of many was not clear - this was extremely annoying since I don't parlevous. Bottomline, though more than 50 years old this book is still very good but if you are going to read in depth about the causes, the War, the Treaty, and the Aftermath, you might want to pursue other books. There is just a ton of very excellent stuff out there and much of it has been written since 2000.
Tuchman seems to write as an eyewitness of these world events, having masterfully stitched together a compelling narrative from a litany of public sources, including government documents and newspaper articles. Although comprehensive and remarkably detailed, this is a swift and exciting drama that draws the reader into a cyclone of actions and personalities, resulting in the disparagement of indecisive and remarkably egotistical military and political leaders, the rise to prominence of the daring, and the tragic deaths of millions of innocents, combined with the severe decay of national treasuries, and loss of cultural treasures. Tuchman leaves us with the overpowering message that this war, and likely, war in general, is a horrific waste of life, culture, and resources.
The great big screaming problem is, as a history, from the very day it was published, its basic thesis of war by miscalculation was already untenable on the basis of available scholarship.
The root of the problem is that while Tuchman does provide a brief overview of the historical tensions that provide a background to the war, she spends all of ONE long paragraph discussing what actually transpired between the assassination on June 28 and the July 23 publication of Austro-Hungary's ultimatum to Serbia (i.e. the crossing of the threshold that establishes that a decision for war has been made and opens the door to the further expansion of the conflict). This is a STAGGERING omission. If you're not going to spend any appreciable time looking at the specific actions of the participants during the crisis period, how can one possibly advance a thesis on the war's origin or who was or was not responsible for it's outbreak!
Here we need to cut through some bland nonsense. The war does not break out simply because of a set of longstanding bitter rivalries. Those rivalries were just that... longstanding. They are historically relevant background, but they are ONLY background. Crises came and went in the preceding years without leading to general war. The point is that even in a time of genuine crisis, something more is required to transform a crisis into a war. What is required is a specific set of choices, made by a specific set of decision-makers, occurring within a specific timeline. Tuchman's one paragraph treatment of the crisis period is a completely inadequate examination of what the key actors were actually doing during this critical period.
The irony is that for many people, Tuchman's "Guns of August" tends to be their first introduction to the history of the outbreak of WWI, despite the fact that far more scholarly and thorough works had been available for decades. The Carnegie Endowment translated and published quite a bit during the 1920s. Pierre Renouvin's Immediate Origins of the War became available in English in 1928, followed by Luigi Albertini's landmark 3 volume study, The Origins of the War of 1914 (3 Volume Set) which, by virtue of its extensive primary source documentation remains as valuable a reference as it was on the day of its publication. To these one could add Fritz Fischer's Germany's Aims in the First World War, which was published in German the year before GoA, and the subsequent War of Illusions: German Policies from 1911 to 1914 which came out several years later. All of these works dug into primary source evidence to painstakingly reconstruct the nuts-and-bolts details of the timeline of what went on at the top levels of decision-making. The evidence makes it clear that Tuchman's thesis was all wet. The war was not one of accidental, unintended escalation, nor were all parties more-or-less equally responsible. Decision-makers in Imperial Germany and Austro-Hungary made a specific set of deliberate choices that guaranteed the threshold to war would be crossed. While they may not have expected or intended the world war that they got, they were aware of the risks of escalation, and they very early on chose to accept those risks and opt for a punitive military strike against Serbia in preference to the pursuit of redress by diplomatic means. In contrast, prior to the issuance of Austro-Hungary's ultimatum to the Serbs, no other power took any steps which would have precluded the peaceful resolution of the assassination crisis. These other powers may share some responsibility for their role in background rivalries of the day, but they do not share equal responsibility for transforming an assassination into a war, which then had every possibility of expanding into a world war. Unfortunately, none of this comes out if one relies on Tuchman's one paragraph treatment of everything that happens between the assassination on June 28, and the ultimatum on July 23.
As Tuchman's Guns of August is historical important, I can't recommend that readers ignore it. However, I stress that it is essential to aware of its flaws. I can also recommend some remedies.
If you're not particularly familiar with the crisis period or the cast of characters, a good introductory work to start with is Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? It's well organized and a fairly easy read. The documentation is not great, but Fromkin's book provides an excellent layout of the key players and the crisis timeline. When you get through Fromkin, move on to Albertini or Fischer's works cited above. These are not such easy reads, but they are scholarly, and very heavily documented. You'll need to spend some time with them, but if you invest that time, you'll emerge with a much more detailed understanding of the crisis period. You'll also be far better equipped to assess some of the new books which are coming out in connection with the war's anniversary.
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