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[personal profile] krpalmer
With the melancholy centenary of the beginning of World War I approaching, along with watching a documentary series on the provincial educational channel I've been taking note of books about it. Finding one in the library I remembered seeing a review of in my newspaper's book supplement, I signed Max Hastings's "Catastrophe" out. (I've also managed to notice it already in paperback in the bookstore, so either I'd remembered the review for longer than I'd thought or perhaps the review was for a later American edition.) It covers just the first year of the war, but this does make for more detail than a general history while extending further than Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August" (which I've found a copy of at a library book sale), which dates back to from just before the fifty-year anniversary (when Hastings was helping interview veterans for a BBC series on the war). It also expands on books that just focus on the chain of events leading up to the beginning of fighting, one of which I read not that long ago only to get the impression that while the cover offered an interpretation of "blame should be spread around" the book itself might come across as suggesting Austria-Hungary and by extension Germany were all but blameless, which still opens up the question of "appropriate response" and may even bring to mind some much more modern rhetoric that may not have worked out.

This book may specifically address the one I read earlier through a quote near the end, "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." Hastings also touches on a different recent debate in the literature by insisting as the book opens and closes that a German victory would have been worse than the alternative and Britain in particular would not have found staying out of the war better, but in the close-up, soldiers'-eyes-view of the opening months the book presents it might still be possible to see the whole thing as intensely unfortunate. The book does seem to point ahead every so often to the later years of the war, but its conclusion does leave me wondering if Hastings will get around to follow-up volumes. Nevertheless, what he did write was interesting to read.

February 2019

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