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The Guns of August
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on April 28, 2013
The Guns of August may be the single most influential popular history of the origins of the First World War. It has convinced generations of readers that the war stemmed from a series of rivalries, which in turn lead to an uncontrollable escalation of events which ultimately results in an unintended conflict which sweeps up the most of the continent in a war that no one wanted. To the extent that President Kennedy is reported to have stated that this thesis influenced his thinking during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Guns of August takes on an additional level of historical importance which goes far beyond its merit as an interpretation of history. This book didn't just interpret history; it influenced history. It may have even helped to prevent a nuclear war. As such, it is an important book. This is why I've assigned it three stars; the book is historically important.

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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on April 5, 2015
As a daughter of an American soldier who fought against Germany in World War II, I wanted to understand more about the history that shaped my life, and my generation, so profoundly. My Dad never spoke about his experiences until just before he passed away in 2010, when he told me his first hand account of crossing the Sauer River in the dead of winter on the 7th of February, 1945. He was with the engineering corps, sent to build bridges for the troops that followed him. When he described how his buddies drowned in the icy water under heavy fire from the Nazis, I was shocked. "You're a hero," I said. "Not me," he barely whispered, turning away. "The ones who didn't make it across the river that night are the heroes." It was the only time I ever saw my father cry.

It was then I decided to begin putting his life, and mine, into a contextual perspective. The Guns of August seemed a good place to start and I just want to say, with all my heart, that this is a book every human being should read. Tuchman incorporates research masterfully, weaving heart-breaking details of front-line horror with the political maneuvering of leaders of state and their military advisers who found themselves caught up in a series of tragic blunders that led to both the First and Second World Wars.

If anything can bring peace to our world, it's a book like this one.
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on October 16, 2017
Scholars still argue about the significance of the weeks in between the Archduke assassination and the outbreak of general hostilities we now call World War One, but the fact remains this is one of Barbara Tuchman's outstanding works: accessible to the public, and indispensable in understanding the role of strategy and firepower in the war's early days. Great to read: I recommend it highly.
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on October 15, 2017
The meager lecture I heard on this topic back in high school turned out to be wholly inadequate. The killing of the Archduke wasn't the cause of the First War. That was only the excuse to do something the Great Powers had been gleefully planning for decades. And then, when the war didn't end in a few weeks, as anyone who knew anything was sure it it must, this book introduces you to the men who then proceeded to kill millions out of sheer obtuseness. This book is highly engaging, and neither flippant nor shallow.
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on August 28, 2014
There's no need to add my voice to others who have pointed out what an extraordinarily good writer Barbara Tuchman was. But we need to make it clear what this book is about: the drama of command decisions. This is a book about what the generals were saying, writing, thinking and doing during the lead up to the war, and its opening month. To fairly describe its contents, it should have been called, "the Generals of August." Tuchman is almost at pains to avoid describing any actual combat, except to note that the end result was usually an awful lot of dead bodies lying around.

She doesn't cover the opening of the war in the Balkans, nor the initial successes of Russia and Serbia against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, although she does cover in detail the Russian campaign against Germany that ended in the catastrophe of Tannenberg, in which an entire Russian army was encircled and destroyed.

The strength of this book is that Tuchman makes the command decisions understandable in the context of the pre-war planning and attitudes of the Germans and the French. When you understand the psychology and the planning, the execution of the war in the first month begins to make a sort of sense. One very interesting thing about the book that you are unlikely to learn from British sources was that Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force (5 divisions), was an imbecile, a very serious embarrassment to the British nation and its fighting men. The greatest weakness of the book is the lack of detailed descriptions of actual battles. You get the planning, the infighting of the generals before the battles, the orders and why they were issued, but not the battles themselves.

The most unforgivable faux pas is that, after spending about a hundred pages describing the lead-up to the battle of First Marne, where the German tide was stemmed, and the boche began to retreat, she stops short of describing the battle itself. That was it--the book just suddenly ended. She has an "afterword" that briefly summarizes the battle and its consequences, but after all that build-up, I felt completely violated and defrauded that the battle itself was not described in detail. Was this Barbara a lady or a tease? That's why, ultimately, I can't give this five stars, regardless how good the writing.
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on December 3, 2014
Maybe it's a bit unfair, but this book's analysis is not holding well as we get a better and better understanding of the entirety of this catastrophic event. But at the time, WWI was told through the eyes of the French, British, and American victors and their perspective was We Beat Germany and the other skirmishes were sideshows. Tuchman, like many in that era, gives scant recognition to other factors that started the war and little recognition to anything that happened east of Ypres. For example, there are more references to the Fashoda Affair than to Austria-Hungary. One thing that can't be debated is that her writing is terrific and and a breeze to get through.
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on March 10, 2015
Well I only began studying World War I, in an informal way, last year as we approached the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict. I suddenly realized I had a better understanding of the Roman Empire than I did of World War I, which has had an enormous impact on our world that continues today.

The first work I chose was very fortunate: The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan. I can't say enough good things about that but its focus is essentially on how the European powers allowed themselves to become sucked into such a disastrous war. The second was "The Long Shadow" which was supposed to be about the lingering consequences of the war. This one to me, frankly, was simply not of the same quality as the first. Now comes The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, still considered among the classics of the history of the war. This one principally focuses on the very first month of combat, though it does give some of the build-up before actual conflict, and extends a bit into September and the coming of winter. Tuchman's thesis, which she quite eloquently defends, is that the very first month of conflict basically locked Europe into what became years of conflict and extended into other continents. Her prose is extremely good; much better than the average historical writing (though if forced to pick, I think MacMillan's is even a bit better). This remains an excellent piece of history, very well-researched yet remarkably easy to read, almost like a novel instead of the history it really is. One gets a great sense of the key personalities, as much sense as the author can extract about the actual reasoning behind their decisions---some of them disastrous, some brilliant, and others in-between, and a very good portrayal of the jostling politics, especially on the Allied side. If you want to understand WW-I and haven't read this book, then for heaven's sake, read it!
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on May 18, 2015
If you like your histories factual and documented, then Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August" is the book for you. Tuchman details the politics and the miltary planning that brought the world to the war to end all wars, and hundreds of thousands of young men to their deaths.

All the main players are covered: Germany, France, England, and Russia. The main catalyst of the war, the assassination of Austrian archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist, is only briefly mentioned, however a thorough explanation of how that event led all of Europe to take up arms follows. As the title states, this book covers only the first month of World War I, August of 1914 (although a few days in September are mentioned for continuity sake.) I was astonished to find out just how close Germany came to winning the war in that first month, if not for a few missteps and some luck on the Allies part.

All in all, a top notch history of the start to WWI. Barbara Tuchman won a Pulitzer Prize in 1962 for her extraordinary effort writing this novel. I chose this book because I didn't know very much about World War I, especially how it started, but this book surely changed that. I would bet that even the most avid history buff would acquire some additional knowledge from reading this novel. If you are interested in history, especially WWI, then I whole-heartedly recommend "The Guns of August" by Barbara W. Tuchman.
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on July 12, 2015
A first chapter outlines the World War I prewar background situation, focusing initially on the May 1910 funeral of England's Edward VII - which paraded the royalty of Europe, most of which (like Edward) were descendants of Queen Victoria (1819-1901).
Twenty central chapters detail events of the War's first month (August 1914) - the German advance through Belgium almost to Paris, the distraction of the Russian threat, the sea war, and America's "neutrality" (which lasted several more years - almost too long).
The final chapter summarizes the aftermath: "The Battle of the Marne, as everyone knows, ended in a German retreat. ... Afterward, there was no turning back. The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days, out of battles that failed to be decisive. A trap from which there was, and has been, no exit." The final sentence was still true as of the 1962 publication date.
= = =
My only major complaint concerns the maps, which suffer from the reprinting as a paperback - some of them are two pages wide with the middle hidden in the binding; most of them lack contrast and are almost unreadable. For best results, the reader should use supplementary map sources such are available via WIKI.
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on January 7, 2013
This study of the blunders and tragedies that made up the rush to war and the first few weeks of the conflict is masterful.

Tuchman uses primary sources including biographies and letters written by and about the major personalities and events of the time, comparing and contrasting them to beautifully answer the questions: how did this war start, and how close to early victory did the German alliance come?

By narrowly defining her window in time to the events leading up to and the first few weeks after the start of hostilities, Tuchman is able to go into depth about the major events and key players in the drama. She does this with insight and empathy turning what for other authors is a history lesson, into a lesson in human nature and how ego and the inbreeding of the aristocracy were as much responsible for this terrible conflict as the politico-economic forces in play at the time.

If I have one complaint it is that Tuchman takes her empahtic writing technique too far, attributing emotions and inner thoughts to the historical figures she describes which many times stray beyond what she could possibly interpret from the historical sources. She tries to convey not only what what these great figures did, but also what they were thinking and feeling, and this does not come across as credible so long after the fact, and with the paucity of personal sources at her disposal.

This niggle aside, it is easy to see why this study and its author is a prize winner. Highly recommended.
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