Last August, in conjunction with the centennial of the start of World War I, I re-read Barbara Tuchman’s classic account of the war’s first days, The Guns of August. Tuchman is a great writer and she tells the story of the war’s first weeks well. One thing she captures particularly well is the way that poor military planning based on fatally flawed assumptions brought on catastrophes that affected all of the combatants.
Unfortunately, Tuchman’s book has some flaws and some critical omissions. Tuchman is a great story-teller, but all too often her desire to tell the story interferes with her account. There are too many sentences like this one, relating to Belgium’s war minister: “Baron de Broqueville, Premier and concurrently War Minister, entered the room as the work concluded, a tall, dark gentleman of elegant grooming whose resolute air was enhanced by an energetic black mustache and expressive black eyes.” Maybe it is just me, but when a war looms, the minister’s grooming, moustache and eyes are hardly relevant. Even if his mustache was — as improbable as it seems – “energetic.”
And whether or not you like the way she tells the tale, the problem is that her rendition is hollow at its core. Although Tuchman dutifully recites Bismarck’s famous quip that “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans” will start the next war, and although she dutifully if tersely recounts how the assassinations of the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, triggered the war, she does not explain why the events in the Balkans threatened war so portentously, as Bismarck predicted, or even why the assassination of an Austrian Archduke would provoke a war that drew all of the major powers into what became at the time the most destructive war that the world had ever seen. Indeed, though she does a great job detailing the flaws of the various combatants’ war plans, she does little to explain why they were preparing for war in the first place and why all of the major powers viewed war as inevitable.
So, after finishing Tuchman’s book, I set out on what has proven to be a year of reading to try to gain a better understanding of what happened and why.
My reading included a host of biographies, including those of Bismarck, Franz Joseph, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nicholas. I also read a number of interesting books about the Franco Prussian War, the last major European war before World War I. I then read several books expressly about the origins of the war, as well as several accounts of the war itself, and then several books about its aftermath. Based on that review, here is my list of the books I found most helpful in trying to understand the war, its origins, and its consequences. Please note that the books on this list do not cover the topic comprehensively; I have listed the books that I found most interesting; I have not attempted to develop a complete World War I curriculum. My purpose in listing these books here is not only to share my observations, but also to encourage others who may have recommendations on this topic to share their suggestions on this site, using the blog’s comment feature. Here are my recommendations.
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914: There are vast numbers of books attempting to explain the origins of World War I, but of the ones I read, this interesting book by Cambridge University history professor Christopher Clark does the best job of explaining how events in the Balkans, and in Serbia in particular, drew the rest of Europe and the world into a devastating conflagration. The first part of the book focuses on the recurring disputes between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. The book then turns to the question of how the polarization of Europe led the major powers to divide into opposing blocks. Clark then reviews the events and decision-making the followed in the days after the July 1914 assassinations in Sarajevo, particularly the calculations, misunderstandings, and decisions that drove the crisis from one stage to the next. As the author puts it, the book aims to show “how the pieces of causality were assembled that, once in place, allowed the war to happen.”
A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire: All too often in books about World War I, the narrative picks up with the assassinations in Sarajevo and then immediate shifts to the Western Front and to troop movements in Germany, France, Belgium and England. In this book, Geoffrey Wawro, a professor at the University of North Texas, focuses on the Eastern Front, and in particular, on the activities of the Austro-Hungarian army. The once-proud army was a reflection of the decrepit empire that it was supposed to protect. Underfunded, lacking in modern technology and arms, and without effective leadership knowledgeable about modern warfare, the army was woefully unprepared for the war it was called to fight. The Austrian army’s role under its alliance with Germany was to protect the Germans’ flank from the advancing Russians while the Germans concentrated on their Western strategy. But at the war’s outset, rather then advancing toward the Russians, the Austrians diverted into a debilitating effort to occupy Serbia. As a result of ineptitude and incompetence that almost defies belief, the Austrian army failed in its Serbian efforts on three successive attempts, succeeding only on the fourth try, after almost a year had elapsed. The poorly planned and executed approach resulted in the needless and pointless deaths of tens of thousands of men on both sides. The Serbian sideshow also meant that the Austrian’s commitment to block the Russians was unfulfilled; the Germans were forced to divert forces from the Western Front to protect their Eastern flanks, which in turn was one of the many factors that led to the horrible stalemate of trench warfare into which the war on the Western Front became mired.
Woodrow Wilson: A Biography: In an era that encompassed so many interesting figures, among the most interesting and important is the U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson. The only Ph.D. ever to occupy the White House, Wilson was a former university President who had served only two years as New Jersey’s governor when he was elected to the presidency. Wilson led the U.S. into the war only months after being reelected in a campaign based on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” After the U.S. entered the war, Wilson laid out what he saw as the war’s essential policy goals in his famous Fourteen Points speech, based on free trade, democracy, open agreements, and self-determination. His inspirational words stirred millions around the world, but his ideological and optimistic vision proved difficult to implement. His frustrations at the Paris Conference with the difficulty of implementing his ideas almost certainly caused him to have a stroke, which in turn meant that he was unable to push his League of Nations project through a skeptical Congress. This sympathetic biography by University of Wisconsin history professor John M. Cooper, Jr. shows how Wilson’s command of the written and spoken word made him so influential, and shows how many of Wilson’s ideas continue to inform U.S. policy and action.
Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World: While the peacemakers conferred in Paris in the war’s aftermath, new nations emerged and empires died. The negotiators set out to remake the world, in order to try to ensure that nothing as dreadful as the recently completed war would ever happen again. But due to domestic pressures and events they could not control and conflicting claims they could not reconcile, the negotiators were left with unworkable compromises and unmade decisions. The ramifications of the negotiators’ actions continue to resonate to this very day. University of Toronto professor Margaret McMillan’s interesting account of the Paris conference brings to life the personalities of the conference’s key participants and many of the conference’s key dramas. McMillan does a great job portraying what the participants tried to do, as well as where they succeeded and where they failed.
The Downfall of Money: Germany’s Hyperinflation and the Destruction of the Middle Class: France and England were able to finance their war efforts by raising money from Wall Street. The U.S. financial markets were largely closed to Germany, so the Germans had to finance their war effort by other means. As described in this interesting and well–written book by historian Frederick Taylor, the first step the German government took was to abandon the gold standard, by eliminating the link between the mark and the precious metals that previously undergirded the currency’s value. The government was soon, in effect, printing money to finance the war. Many middle class Germans felt it was their patriotic duty to support the effort and buy the government’s bonds. Germany’s defeat left the government with obligations to its people that it could not honor. With the middle class reeling from losses on their bond holdings, the government, in an effort to buy labor peace and to try to avoid a repeat of the revolution that hit Russia, began to print money in a way that triggered a ruinous inflationary spiral. The result was a debased currency; the pictures of wheelbarrows of cash still resonate. For pensioners, landlords, those on fixed salaries, and creditors, the ensuing hyperinflation was devastating. These events financially wiped out many people and left many in the middle class embittered and receptive to rabble-rousers, including even a former Army corporal whose beer hall exhortations in Munich in 1923 led to the so-called Beer Hall Putsch. The disorder that followed Germany’s financial crisis set the stage for later, tragic events to unfold.
In the course of the war that began in August 1914, 65 million troops were mobilized; there were 20 million military and civilian deaths; and 21 million wounded. It was a man-made calamity beyond anything that had ever occurred before; worse still, as American historian Fritz Stern put it, if it was the first calamity of the 20th century, it was also the calamity from which all other calamities sprang.
It is impossible to travel around Europe without encountering the innumerable memorials to those who perished in the Great War. Every little village in France, England, Germany and elsewhere has monuments to those who gave their lives in the war. It is out of respect for all the men and women who suffered in the war that I have undertaken to try to understand better what happened.
The books I have listed above are my recommendations, based on my efforts to understand what happened. I hope that others will supplement this post with their own suggestions. I also welcome readers’ questions and comments.