Friday, August 29, 2014

Reading about the Great War

By Jeff Burns

June 28, 2014 marked the centennial of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event that started World War I. Over the next month or so, the greater and lesser powers of Europe found themselves dragged into what was known at the time as the Great War, or optimistically the War to End All Wars.  Eventually the United States too was dragged in.  Much is being written about the legacies of the war.  In the short term, a generation of Europeans was lost through death, injury, and displacement and the effects of the war and peace that followed would of course lead directly to World War II a quarter century later.  The spirit of nationalism that was one of the causes of the war led to colonial independence movements throughout Africa and Asia.  Even now, we see the geopolitical effects of the war.  Here are just a few books I recommend on the subject.

            Journalist Tim Butcher’s new book, The Trigger:  Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War traces the life of Gavril Princip, the nineteen year old who assassinated the Archduke.  I wrote about Butcher’s last book, Blood River, his book following Stanley’s expedition on the Congo River to find Livingstone in an earlier blog. The Trigger  follows a similar template.  Butcher travels to rural Bosnia to begin the story of Princip, a boy from a poor subsistence farming family  whose descendants still live in the tiny village, much as they have for generations and follows his path from there to Sarajevo, then Belgrade, then back to Sarajevo for the fateful act.  Butcher is a great storyteller and a consummate old-school journalist, and it comes through in his work.  First, he immerses himself in research and then he talks to people and faithfully tells their stories.  However, the book is not just about the assassination.  Butcher himself was a war correspondent who covered the Balkans in the 1990s.  He manages to weave the story of the assassination into the intricate fabric of the Balkans, a region shaped by hundreds of years of conflict.  It’s a fascinating read.

Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History is a great book if you’re looking for a more thorough history of the Balkans and the ethnic and religious conflicts that culminated in the wars and genocides of the 1990s.
 If you’re looking for the classic history of the war, the must-read is Barbara Tuchman’s  The Guns of August.  Tuchman re-creates the first month of the war, and all the steps and machinations leading to the conflict.  This was required reading for a college history course for me, but it was not a chore.  Tuchman is an excellent writer who told an exciting, suspenseful story that happened to be true.
Personally, I’m not a huge military history buff, so my interest in war history is mostly interest in causes and effects.  Another classic about the causes of the war is Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie.  Dreadnought is specifically about the naval arms race between Britain and Germany, part of the militaristic fervor that propelled Europe into war, but the book is not a dry naval  history – pun intended.  When I read this book, I learned so much about the European military leaders and royals whose drive to achieve military superiority, in this case by building the greatest battleship, was a major factor leading to the war.
           Turning to fiction, I have a couple of recommendations.  All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the greatest war novels ever written.  In fact it is very much an anti-war novel written by German war veteran Erich Maria Remarque.  The reader experiences the build up to the war, the horrors of the war itself, and their effect on the men involved, through the eyes of its protagonist, Paul Baumer and his comrades.   The book was unique for its time, not a jingoistic, super-patriotic glorification of war, but a realistic portrayal.  In fact, it was one of the first books banned in Nazi Germany because of its anti-war message.  It’s one of my favorite classic novels.
            In an earlier blog, I wrote about Ken Follett’s historic epics, The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End about medieval England and the Century Trilogy.  Book One of the Century Trilogy is The Fall of Giants,  and it follows five families (British, German, Russian, and American as they experience the war , the Russian Revolution, and the British women’s suffrage movement.  And when I say epic, I mean epic.  It’s a huge book, but I was thoroughly engaged from the beginning and finished it very quickly.  As one would expect from Follett, it’s full of historical detail, and is an education in itself about the effects of the war on all segments of society.

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