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Book Review: Catastrophe 1914

By (October 12, 2013) No Comment

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to Warcatastrophe 1914 cover

by Max Hastings

Knopf, 2013

 

Convinced that a conflagration is inevitable, all the great powers begin amassing their arsenals, determined to be ready when the big day finally dawns. But their preparations themselves become a kind of conflict, with each power egging the others to a greater pitch of excitement. And as these tensions stretch on, the innocent population caught up in them feels first enthusiasm, then resignation, and finally a kind of jaded weariness that can no longer be surprised or diverted.

It’s the popular shorthand for the First World War, but it could just as easily describe the bizarre approach the publishing industry has taken to commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the war’s outbreak in 1914. That anniversary of course falls on the year 2014, but already in 2013 there have been roughly 14,000 books published analyzing every aspect of 1914 – the political machinations, the social underpinnings, the personal side, the assassination that triggered everything – for all the world as though 2013 were the anniversary. At this rate, 2014, the actual anniversary, will see only pricey reprints and glossy picture books – and all because the major publishing houses all had the same idea at the same time: to steal a march on the anniversary by coming out with their 1914 books in 2013.

Thus the latest salvo, Max Hastings’ Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, in which the knighted master military historian joins the general melee, covers the war’s beginning and tries right at the outset to justify its own existence:

Many books about 1914 confine themselves either to describing the political and diplomatic maelstrom from which the armies flooded forth in August, or to providing a military narrative. I have attempted to draw together the strands, to offer readers some answers, at least, to the enormous question: ‘What happened to Europe in 1914?’

For perhaps a majority of Hastings’ readers, those ‘many books’ boil down to two: 1962’s The Guns of August and 1966’s The Proud Tower, both by the great popular historian Barbara Tuchman. Hastings too is a great popular historian, mostly concentrating on the Second World War (although his The Battle for the Falklands is also a notable success, turning an embarrassing fiasco into readable and even sometimes grand stuff), and to his look at WWI, he brings all the signature skills he’s learned in a lifetime of journalism: he knows how to set a scene, he knows when to end a scene, he has immense narrative skill, and he can sniff out a great quote a mile off. His researches have been prodigious, and as far as anybody can actually succeed in drawing together the military and diplomatic strands the make up this subject, he has. In any other publishing season – in a publishing season that had not already seen 14,000 books on this exact same subject – Catastrophe 1914 would look more like the one-volume popular-history masterpiece it is.

As he did in his WWII books, Hastings delights in showing his readers the many human sides of his grand military subject, even if it means temporarily subscribing to some of the most hoary old simplifications of WWI, including the dreaded Attack of the Ingenues:

As the armies brushed and skirmished in these early encounters, many men flaunted their innocence. Pte. Charles Stein of the Belgian Grenadiers saw German shells bursting, and delighted in their perceived beauty – until he saw his own compatriots fleeing in consequence. On the night of the 11th, a frightened sentry in Stein’s unit shot a cow with had grazed too close to his post. A company of German reservists likewise glimpsed shadowy movements in early-morning mist, and opened a heavy fire which killed several cattle and a returning patrol before order was restored. When a dud shell landed near French Capt. Plieux de Diusse, he bend curiously to pick it up until a veteran shouted that he would burn himself – de Diusse had no inkling that projectiles were hot.

He weights his chapters with the foreboding that’s become a staple of this mini-industry, and like most WWI historians before him, he occasionally emphasizes that foreboding with a gentle elbow to his readers’ ribs:

Lt. Djordje Stanojevitch of the Serbian army demanded of American correspondent John Reed, with the furious passion inspired by alcohol: ‘What are these French and English doing? Why do they not beat the Germans? What they need there are a few Serbians to show them how to make war. We Serbians know that al that is needed is the willingness to die – and the war would soon be over …!’ Others, some of them commanders-in-chief, shared the same belief, with dreadful consequences for the youth of Europe.

(‘Dreadful’ is by far Hastings’ favorite adjective this time around; it crops up at least a hundred times in the course of the book, making Catastrophe 1914 the closest we may ever come to a WWI history told by Mary Poppins)

All the staples of the subject are present and accounted for: Franz Ferdinand, ultimatums, lynchpin Serbia, the Marne, Ypres, Christmas ‘truces’, mud, shell shock, trenches. The bumbling of the French and British high commands is never allowed to distract from the wide-eyed heroism of the rank-and-file, the roiling ethnic insanities of the Balkans are pitied but never allowed to parallel the end of the 20th century too closely, and Germany’s unrelenting aggression is strongly but politely deplored. The book’s final chapter exhibits some signs of distraction (perhaps haste?) – not only in the pointed allusion to Christopher Clark’s recent book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (which is, apart from the author’s name, the same book as this one) but in the tell-tale descent into unreadable prose:

Posterity has puzzled endlessly over how the leadership of the world’s greatest powers, mostly composed of men no more stupid or wicked than their modern counterparts, could first have allowed the war to happen, and then continued it for four more years. It seems mistaken to brand the 1914 rulers of Europe, and especially those of Austria and Germany, as sleepwalkers, because that suggests unconsciousness of their own actions. It is more appropriate to call them deniers, who preferred to persist with supremely dangerous policies and strategies rather than accept the consequences of admitting the prospective implausibility, and retrospective failure, of these.

But the main chapters of Catastrophe 1914, the big, muscular bulk of the book, are effortlessly readable, as is all of Hastings’ work. It’s impossible to absolve him of the suspicion of opportunism, but that’s a minor sin in a writer so engaging. Of the 14,000 books to appear in 2013 about 1914, this one is (so far!) the best.