Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy (Book Review)

David Stevenson's Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy may be the best coverage of the First World War ever written. This terse, detail filled tome covers, in incredible detail, the political, financial, logistical, and strategic decisions and challenges faced by all of the belligerents.

When I was in middle school, our coverage of World War I started with a class exercise. We broke into groups, were given a written description of our groups’ thoughts (basically- ‘You have an agreement with so and so group to fight a war if they join one, but here’s why you might not want to’), and a group was told that one of their leaders was assassinated. Soon, the entire class was at war. The goal was to show that politicians weren’t so much in control of this war- events just spiraled out of their control, and the result was a conflict resulting in millions of deaths and effects which are still felt today.

Cataclysm challenges that view- it shows, in great detail that politicians deliberately made choices to both initiate the war, and continue it despite appalling casualties. Most importantly, it presents this case in an unbiased fashion as possible- you won’t find much in the way of assigning blame to one country or group in here.

The book is broken into four major parts, and I feel it’s probably handy to at least mention them for and understanding of this book’s value.

In Part One, Outbreak, Stevenson examines the causes of the war- from the decisions taken by politicians after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife to the various diplomatic factors faced by Germany and Austria prior to this event, to the tensions caused by the Balkan Wars, to a bunch of other things. I feel this is probably one of the strongest sections of the book- the causes of World War I are one of the most studied topics in history because there are SO MANY factors that went into it. This book does a fantastic job covering them all. The central theme is, of course, that World War I was a controlled event- the politicians from BOTH sides knew (at least partially) what their actions would cause, and chose them anyway. The first part ends with coverage of the initial attacks in the first year, and the difficulties faced on the Eastern and Western fronts- including why the front lines didn’t advance on West for 4 years, and the ones in the East didn’t move very far to start. It also describes why the Germans chose to keep their fleets at port, instead of going out to attack the various British troopships when they were vulnerable (since the British fleets at Scapa Flow probably couldn’t have arrived in time). The desire to not risk the fleet, keeping it as a ‘political instrument’ would of course present the Germans with problems later- Stevenson shows us early on the decisions made by the Central Powers that ended up hurting them.

Part Two, Escalation, nominally covers the middle of the war- from spring of 1915 to spring of 1917. As we know, there were several major battles during this period- Verdun, Somme, and Cambrai, for instance are all well known. Despite this, the advancements of defensive warfare meant that no advances were made, so in the long run, there isn’t a lot of historical interest that happened (‘escalation and stalemate, both sides applying rising levels of violence yet failing to terminate the impasse’ according to the book). However, instead of boring the reader with page after page of inaction, Stevenson chooses to examine the issues that kept the war going as well as examining, by country, the various issues facing them, from manpower shortages, to morale, to economics, and into new logistical, tactical, and technological advances. He does a great job blending the information in- although the information is fairly terse at times, the information is presented in a way that shows, at each step, how it influenced the course of the war. One thing to note about this section is that coverage of the war is only briefly chronological- much of the section is devoted to discussions about the various topics and how they influenced later parts of the war- not so much when they happened during it.

Also covered in this section are the war aims of the various countries. The people of a country won’t support a war without knowing why they’re fighting, after all. Some of the works towards finding a peace (or in the case of Germany, trying to use peace feelers as a way to split their enemies) are covered here.

Part Three, Outcome, covers the Russian Revolution, the American entrance into the war, the final push of the Central Powers and the collapse of their armies, and their eventual ceasefire and surrender. The causes, progress, and results of the Russian Revolution, are perfectly blended into Stevenson’s coverage of World War I, and the same great amount of detail is put into it as the war itself.

The reasons behind the American involvement in the war, from the various political reasons to the Zimmerman Telegram are covered, but once in the war, the actual fighting the Americans were involved with was very briefly stated, although their presence was ‘indispensable’ to the Allies’ victory.

Also, the various tactical/operational improvements are discussed, especially prior to the Central Powers’ 1918 offensive, which met with early success but eventually drained the German manpower too much to allow them to continue the offensives, or even effectively defend themselves during the renewed Allied attacks. Also discussed is the role of Ludendorff’s mental breakdown in the eventual fall of Germany.

The final part of the book is titled Legacy. Given the grand scope of the war, and its influence to later world history, it’s an apt title. A few different issues are discussed here. First, the Treaty of Versailles, reparations, and the League of Nations are all briefly discussed. The eventual bitterness towards the treaty certainly contributed to the rise of nationalist groups in Germany after the war, so you couldn’t talk about World War I without discussing them. Much of this section, however, is concerned with covering the breakdown of the cohesion of the Allied powers, their reasons for their laxity in enforcing the treaty, and indeed the eventual rise of the Third Reich (although Stevenson makes a point to show that the events of the 1930s and later were not inevitable, but they were more difficult to defuse because of earlier choices). One of the primary reasons mentioned for the breakdown of peace is the lack of American or Russian involvement in post-war security.

I would recommend this book for anyone interested in World War I- unless you’re only interest is in the individual battles occurring during the war. Although the book covers the overall strategic decisions made by the powers fighting, comparatively little is written about individual battles. The Battle of Verdun gets about 3 pages of coverage, and some battles (for instance, the Second Battle of the Marne) get only passing mention. There are plenty of resources for readers interested in that. Cataclysm contains a 21 page bibliography- I’m almost certain you could find a perfect book for any topic you’d want listed in there.

If you’re interested in the politics behind war, and the various processes a country has to undertake to keep a war running, as well as the strategy and flow of World War I, I don’t think you’ll find a better book than Cataclysm. My only warning is that this is NOT an easy read- it’s going to take you a month to get through this, but it’s well worth it.