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Friday, September 2, 2005

Reading List: 1914-1918: The History of the First World War

Stevenson, David. 1914–1918: The History of the First World War. London: Allen Lane, 2004. ISBN 0-14-026817-0.
I have long believed that World War I was the absolutely pivotal event of the twentieth century, and that understanding its causes and consequences was essential to comprehending subsequent history. Here is an excellent single-volume history of the war for those interested in this tragic and often-neglected epoch of modern history. The author, a professor of International History at the London School of Economics, attempts to balance all aspects of the war: politics, economics, culture, ideology, demographics, and technology, as well as the actual military history of the conflict. This results in a thick (727 page), heavy book which is somewhat heavy going and best read and digested over a period of time rather than in one frontal assault (I read the book over a period of about four months). Those looking for a detailed military history won't find it here; while there is a thorough discussion of grand strategy and evolving war aims and discussion of the horrific conditions of the largely static trench warfare which characterised most of the war, there is little or no tactical description of individual battles.

The high-level integrated view of the war (and subsequent peacemaking and its undoing) is excellent for understanding the place of the war in modern history. It was World War I which, more than any other event, brought the leviathan modern nation state to its malign maturity: mass conscription, direct taxation, fiat currency, massive public debt, propaganda aimed at citizens, manipulation of the news, rationing, wage and price controls, political intrusion into the economy, and attacks on noncombatant civilians. All of these horrors, which were to characterise the balance of the last century and continue to poison the present, appeared in full force in all the powers involved in World War I. Further, the redrawing of borders which occurred following the liquidation of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires sowed the seeds of subsequent conflicts, some still underway almost a century later, to name a few: Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Palestine, and Iraq.

The U.S edition, titled Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy, is now available in paperback.

Posted at September 2, 2005 23:05