Saturday, August 1, 2015

Book Review: Cataclysm: World War I As Political Tragedy

Alternative title: A Whole Lot More About World War I than You Ever Wanted to Know. 

This book was, to say the least, a hard slog. It's one of the few times in my life when I've looked up from a book and thought, wow, I really need to take a break and do some light reading -- where did I put that copy of Max Weber's Essays in Economic Sociology? There was just something about the combination of lots and lots of information and the depressing consequences of various players' stupid actions that turned the reading experience into an endurance test. It wasn't the author's fault, other than the fact he does too good a job of piling up the data. David Stevenson can write; the text is crystal clear. So, unfortunately, are the conclusions.

I can remember thinking more or less the same thing every time discussions of World War I came up: how on earth did an assassination in Sarajevo, which was part of the Hapsburg empire, result in Germany, which was NOT part of that empire, deciding to invade Russia and France more or less simultaneously? It made no sense. Well, now I know why they did it -- and it still makes no sense. Let's just say that whenever a country starts to believe it's somehow exceptional or that it has the world's strongest army and the best selection of cool military toys to play with, it's easy to get sucked into believing you can win any war. Turns out, as the Germans found out, that the war you can win easily on paper isn't necessarily the war you're going to end up fighting in the real world.

I am not going to do one of my usual detailed reviews of this book. Take my word for it -- it's packed with data, both political and technical. How many battleships did the Germans have? How many miles of trenches got dug? When did the various countries involved resort to conscription to get the cannon fodder their armies required? Stevenson has all the numbers. How did the civilian populations of the different countries feel about the war? Stevenson gets into the cultural aspects, too. He describes popular culture -- poetry, novels, music -- during and after the conflict. Tons and tons of information, all of which is simultaneously fascinating and mind-numbing.

And depressing, of course. One of the most depressing aspects of reading anything about World War I is how many battles were fought that served no purpose other than to attempt to wear down the other side through attrition. Millions of rounds of ordnance were expended, thousands and thousands of soldiers killed or crippled, and the front lines never budged more than a few yards at a time. It's easy to see why some parts of France and Belgium are still uninhabitable thanks to unexploded World War I ordnance. During one of the battles of Ypres, the British fired over a million artillery shells at the German lines. No doubt the Germans reciprocated. Neither side seemed to have a problem with munitions until the last year or so of the war.

So would I recommend this book to other readers? Yes, if you're seriously interested in military history or World War I. No, if you'd rather not know that history has a nasty habit of repeating itself. The final chapters in Cataclysm are a nice summation of the way WWI laid the groundwork for Hitler's rise to power and World War II.


  1. I'm pretty sure that book is not on my bucket list of books to read, but thanks for the heads up just the same.

  2. Added to my wish list. It is even available as an ebook. Thanks.


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