Lit Crit Lite – September 2014

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War 

Reviewed by Seth Weidenaar

Gallup Journey CatastropheThrough a series of throwback articles and other various nostalgia, I realized that World War I began 100 years ago.  What I did not realize was the lack of knowledge and understanding I had about World War I. As a student I certainly must have studied the war, and I remember reading All Quiet on the Western Front.  However, when I thought about my knowledge I knew only the basic facts and theories (some of which are not accurate): It was called the Great War, it was fought in trenches, it was caused by Nationalism – Europe was a powder keg waiting to explode, commanders did not care much for the lives of their soldiers, and so on.  My lack of workable knowledge sent me looking for some information about the War; through some basic research I found Max Hastings’s book Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War.

Hastings lays out his argument in the book’s introduction, but that was not the most interesting part of the introduction.  The most interesting facet of Hastings’s writing is the personal connection he makes with the War’s participants, spectators and victims, which he makes clear to be central to the book in the introduction.   Through many letters, journals, articles and other books of history, Hastings narrates the war through the perceptions of people on all sides of the conflict.   While I started reading this book to find out the history of the conflict, the personal connection was what kept me reading.  Hastings’s reputation, which I did not know before doing a bit of research, is that of a historian who holds his own printed opinions as superior to those of the commanders in the wars.  The attempt to tell the story of the war through those who experienced it seems to be a successful break from this reputation.

The premise of Hastings’s argument takes on three theories of World War I that have been proposed by previous historians.  The first theory is that the war was an accident.  This theory posits that the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo set a chain of allied countries against each other, and no one country can be blamed more than any other.  Europe was a powder keg waiting to explode, I knew this theory – it was one of the few facts I knew.  Hastings is clear that this theory is not correct; he posits that Germany was the strongest country economically and thought it could win a war.  When the German ally Austria started preparing for war, Hastings makes a convincing case that Germany did not do enough to deter Austria from their course.

The second theory is that the outcome of World War I did not matter.  If Germany had won the war they would have put together a unified group of countries that would have disintegrated eventually anyway.  Hastings takes care to point out that both sides acted horribly during the war, but a greater number of horrible acts were committed by the Germans and the Austrians.  Also, Hastings makes a convincing case that a unified Europe under the direction of German and Austrian generals drunk with the powers of victory would not have been a warm, welcoming place.

The final theory is that the soldiers of the war were committed to the whims of stupid, unfeeling generals who constantly made mistakes and did not care for the lives of the soldiers serving under them.  Hastings discusses numerous mistakes; there are many extravagant mistakes to point out, which make for interesting reading: Joffre’s Plan XVII, and Moltke’s Schlieffen Plan to name a few.  Yet amongst these great blunders, Hastings takes care to paint a complete picture of the generals in command of the armies.  While technology allowed armies to kill massive numbers of their opponents, generals were not unmoved by the plights of their armies. Nor did the generals take any great joy in the mass slaughter of their opponents.  And generals generally changed plans when they saw how horribly ill conceived their initial plans were. Most generals who did not were sacked quickly.

As the title suggests, Hastings’s book covers only the first year of World War I. Since World War I was fought to a stalemate remaining nearly unchanged for three years, most of the interesting discussion lies in the start of the war and the fighting up to the digging of trenches.  Mainly the book serves as a vehicle for Hastings to air his counter arguments against the popular theories of the war, but his description of the first year makes engrossing, somewhat disturbing sachet through a very dark year.  The book’s strong narrative push makes the reading of the counter arguments interesting, and the use of first-hand information and accounts makes for a fascinating read. This is something many historical authors cannot achieve.

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