Decisions for War, 1914-1917 by Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig is a book that I found to be extremely valuable to my understanding of the coDecisions for War, 1914-1917 by Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig is a book that I found to be extremely valuable to my understanding of the complex and varied reasons for the belligerents in World War I to decide to enter the fray. The topic is one that many authors have set out to cover in their books as there is a lot of interest in why the war occurred. Hamilton and Herwig set out to present their material in a different way from those other books out there that analyze this topic. Whereas many authors look at the socio-political reasons for war, or discuss the entry into war as a progressive slide, the authors here very clearly theorize that World War I was a direct result of careful decision making and deliberate actions toward war by a small group of decision makers within all of the major powers in the war.
Regarding their thesis, I found Hamilton and Herwig well supported their thesis and through their writing achieved what they set out to prove in their work. There was no question as to what their thesis was; they clearly delineated it in the earliest chapters and proceeded to further support it in each subsequent belligerent’s chapter. In the introduction to each country’s chapter, they enumerated the individual factors that related to their thesis, reminding the reader in each chapter of how they would support their goals. For example, one of the most direct statements supporting their thesis of deliberate war actions occurs at the introduction to the “Austria-Hungary” chapter, “Austria-Hungary’s leaders were the first to opt for war, and they did so with plan and foresight…their action was not inadvertent, it was no accident, or, to use the most frequent cliché, this was no ‘slide into war.’ In short, the timing and the pace of the July Crisis were set in Vienna” (pg 47). They remained focused on their point throughout the work and at no point did I lose sight of their main idea, which has occurred in others non-fiction books I have read. As much as supporting their own thesis, Hamilton and Herwig also chipped away at the thesis of other authors who wrote on the same topic and provided reasoning as to why these other interpretations left a lot of holes in the story of the origins of World War I. As I have not read very widely on this subject I appreciated the introduction of other theories behind the decisions to go to war as this helped to round out my understanding of other theories out there, without having to have read all of the other books.
With regard to my experience reading Decisions for War, 1914-1917, I found this book to be very well laid out with a logical progression and easy to follow. The authors provide background to the period just prior to the war in one concise chapter to give the reader enough information to proceed with their discussion. Then each of the major powers has their own chapter which focuses on that country’s individual situation surrounding their entry into war – providing important personages and how that group of people reached their decision to partake in the war. Following the major powers are chapters on the later entering belligerents, whose reasons for war were very different from the major powers. Focusing on each country in this way allowed me to get into the mindset of that particular country and see the situation from their perspective, rather than from the grand scheme of an outsider. I think this approach was effective in helping the authors to clearly stick to their thesis as well as to achieve their thesis. I believe that to look at something from the big picture tends to lean the resulting analysis toward a sociological rationale as you are more likely to look for trends amongst the group, rather than the individual level where you can really dig into things.
The only section of this book that I think would have benefited from being tightened up a little bit is the final chapter, “On the Origins of the Catastrophe”. I understand that the purpose of this chapter was to take what the authors compiled during each of the preceding individual country’s chapters and bring them together into the culminating analysis of their thesis, and this is what they did. While I understand the purpose, the execution left the text feeling redundant to me. There was again an analysis of the major powers and the minor powers and their respective power players. This may have worked well as an actual conclusion if they had wrapped it up there; however, they proceeded to introduce some newer analysis following this rehashing which felt like a reopening of the topic again instead of bringing it to a close. Further, when the authors did bring the book to a close, it was rather abrupt and on a seemingly new area of analysis that they had not discussed before – how World War I was a precursor to World War II. This aspect came seemingly out of left field for me. While it makes sense to draw some conclusions on the effect of World War I on the next great war, it would have made more sense to introduce this issue earlier on or at least allude to the fact that it would be being discussed at some point. These last few paragraphs which conclude the book left me more confused than complete. If the authors wanted to tie into World War II it would have made sense to also draw some parallels throughout the chapters on the individual countries to lead into their concluding section.
My reading experience with this book was very enjoyable and I learned quite a bit about the decision-makers and their rationales for war as promised by the authors in the title and at the outset of the book. I appreciated the easy flow of the narrative and how it did not appear to become mired down anywhere. Each chapter had a deliberate purpose in the greater whole and by the end of the book I felt that each of the important participants in the war had been well represented within the pages of this book.
This review was previously posted at The Maiden's Court blog and was a personal purchase for a Masters class....more
Author Barbara W. Tuchman does an excellent job of bringing to light all of the detailed little events that transpired in the lead up to the decisionAuthor Barbara W. Tuchman does an excellent job of bringing to light all of the detailed little events that transpired in the lead up to the decision for the United States to enter the war on the side of the Allies. The Zimmerman Telegram was one of the last attempts, of many made by Germany, to tie up the United States in its wartime belligerency with events on its own side of the Atlantic, thus allowing Germany to execute their submarine plan to bring Britain to its knees in a matter of months. Within a very short amount of pages, Tuchman clearly and concisely elucidates the leading actions as well as the immediate aftermath of the telegram’s revelation. Despite being published in the 1950s, her work is still relevant today, albeit with some criticisms.
One of the great strengths of this work is that it is written as narrative non-fiction. The events covered by this book effortlessly lend themselves to this style of writing. Each act of espionage and the inner machinations of Britain’s ubiquitous Room 40 read like the events of a James Bond novel. Tuchman equally infuses the narrative with fact as well with a writing style that oozes modern day action thriller. With no trouble I could envision this facet of history of the First World War playing out on screen today.
By focusing the scope of her work tightly on this signature event in the entrance of the United States into the war, Tuchman is able to bring forward the real importance of the proposed German/Mexican/Japanese alliance. The Zimmermann Telegram is often covered in works on the First World War, however in all of the books I have read on the subject I never felt the importance or believable reality of this alliance. Tuchman spends chapters explaining how during this time period the United States was concerned with the very real threat that Mexico, with the aid of the Germans or the Japanese, could bring to them at home.
One of the things that should be noted is that this book was originally published in 1958. This brings up the issue that some facts surrounding this event have had to be inferred because a lot of the information was still concealed at the time of publication (and even after the revision in 1966). Tuchman speaks to this point to some extent in her author’s note. I have not read anything else this in-depth on this event, but it does make me wonder if in the last sixty years any additional information has been released from various archives that changes the perception of these events. Maybe an exploration of a more recently published book on this subject would be beneficial to my understanding of these events to serve as a comparison to Tuchman’s work.
My one real critique of The Zimmermann Telegram is that Tuchman does occasionally allow for her bias and opinions to bleed into her writing. I know that it can be a very difficult exercise to refrain from including bias in non-fiction writing, but that is a general expectation in non-fiction. One example (of many) in the text of the author’s visible bias is as follows, “Field Marshal von Hindenburg, despite a vague uneasiness stirring the heavy processes of his mind, had allowed himself to be persuaded by his demonic colleague, General Ludendorff” (Tuchman 126). Even just this little slip in the use of the word “demonic” to describe General Ludendorff can show the reader the author’s bias toward the man, certainly, but they could further infer (correctly or not) her views on Germany and Germans in general. It certainly made me wonder if I should believe her account entirely or question it to some extent.
This review was previously posted at The Maiden's Court blog...more
The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War by David G. Herrmann is a book that I was inclined to dislike from the outset, before evenThe Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War by David G. Herrmann is a book that I was inclined to dislike from the outset, before even opening to the first pages. I am a self-proclaimed “cover snob” and the cover of this book does not make me want to pick it up to read it. Additionally, the title is uninspiring and actually makes me cringe. A discussion of the armaments leading up to the First World War does not sound like riveting material to someone who does not enjoy an undertaking about the intricacies of actual warfare. When choosing to read about war, I tend to lean more toward societal issues, outcomes, or personal accounts of wartime experiences. These seemingly cosmetic issues made this the book I was least looking forward to reading of all of the required selections for this past semester of my WWI class.
The one thing that I appreciated the most was the chronological progression of events leading up to the First World War. Herrmann covers European events from 1904 to 1914 which gives a sufficient and succinct overview of the time period. He breaks up his chapters into topical events, such as the First Moroccan Crisis and the Balkan Wars, while continuing to maintain his continuously forward progressing chronology. As a reader of history, when encountering a subject for the first time, I prefer to initially study it in its chronological order; a topical study I find more useful after I have a concrete understanding of the event itself. The chronology helps me to understand the progression of events that transpired and how each event contributed to the next. In presenting the decade proceeding the war, Herrmann helped to set the event of the war itself within the wider context of the increasingly militaristic atmosphere building in and around Europe.
I did find the material to be difficult to progress through and also rather dry. One thing that Herrmann is very adept at is providing a multitude of figures. He makes ample references to the numbers of howitzers, pieces of field artillery, and manpower headcounts that various belligerent nations had throughout the decade. While this information might be useful for relative comparisons of the participants, what it did was bog down the flow of the text and caused me to lose track of the real concepts being explored. There is an appendix at the back of the book which presents both peacetime and wartime troop strengths of the various nations. If this material is semi-important enough to be included as the only appendix material, is it necessary to rehash all of it again in the text? I do not think that this was the best way to utilize the page length or the appendices. Conversely, would it possibly have improved the flow of the text to include the tactical strengths of the nations as additional appendix material rather than presenting the raw numbers within the body of the work? I think so.
Overall, Herrmann adequately serves the objective that he set out to accomplish. He does show in depth how Europe increasingly armed itself in response to various events that transpired over the decade leading to the First World War. He also illustrates how seemingly minor events, such as the First Moroccan Crisis, in which nothing really transpired, served to amplify the path toward war. In these two goals, Herrmann succeeds. His style is where this book is flawed. It gets bogged down in specifics and numbers, which the average reader will likely not find any real purpose. While this information is indeed important, if presented in a way that supports the greater message of the book it would be more helpful. While The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War was not the terrible book I had in my mind from the outset, I can say that I certainly did not enjoy the experience of reading it.
This review was previously posted at The Maiden's Court blog....more