by Robert K. Massie
New York: Random House, 1991. Pp. xxxvi, 990+.
Illus., maps, appends, notes, biblio., index. $24.00 paper. ISBN: 0345375564
Background to the Great War
A Pulitzer Prize winning classic work first published in 1991, this thick but not ponderous book traces the roots of the Great War by recounting much of nineteenth century European history, from Trafalgar onwards, with biographies of many of the continent's leaders, some obscure. The reader will learn much about the dysfunctional extended family that ruled the Great Powers of England, Germany, and Russia; a bellicose, immature, insecure, arrogant, adviser-dominated, and frequently irrelevant Kaiser, a King who gradually ate himself to death, a prime minister reluctant to make decisions, a German secretary of state whose lies almost caused a war over a worthless piece of beach in Morocco, and more. The recounting of European history of that period is vital, as the isolation of England yielded to the necessity of relationships, ending with a treaty between Britain and France that transformed former enemies into allies, bringing British support to France during the Moroccan Crises (1905-1906, 1911).
Massie mentions the impact of the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)
, but fails to link the reparations of that war to those imposed on Germany by the Allies in 1919.
Oddly, the title implies but the book does not fulfill the significance of HMS Dreadnought. The word does not appear until page 401
, and is discussed at length in the chapters concerning First Sea Lord Jacky Fisher, and the naval arms race of 1910-1914, but is not really presented as a factor in the coming of hostilities. Yet, the building of "dreadnought" battleships reveals much about the changes wrought by technology; greater firepower, conversion from coal to oil, introduction of turbine engines, and even the growth of German nationalism. While the 1916 Battle of Jutland is not mentioned, Massie's discussion of the design, construction, and deployment of battle cruisers does much to explain that fiasco.
Many of the leaders were very dedicated hardworking office holders, a few were fools, and some were just colorful. Notably, Winston Churchill, who, though his parents ignored him as a child, as an adult shamelessly used his mother’s contacts from among her supposed 200 lovers to advance his career, or at least his fame and fortune, which were much the same.
Finally, the chain of events leading to the great catastrophe begins with a small revolutionary group killing the Archduke which provides an opportunity for one nation to punish a weaker nation. The pace quickens as events spiral out of control with Germany’s leaders pushed aside by generals who know best. Those generals, other than Moltke, were not named, much less discussed.
Enjoy reading Dreadnought, as I did, to learn about the personalities who created the events leading to the Great War. The book is background material to the War and ends with Foreign Minister Grey’s famous line about the lamps going out, before the first battle. Yet, the sense of a great oncoming tragedy is transmitted at the end.
Our Reviewer: Ron Drees is an archivist, retired from processing the collection of Dr. Michael DeBakey, the world-famous cardiologist at the Baylor College of Medicine. His interest in history dates back to junior high school with an emphasis on American military history, particularly the Civil and World Wars. He has written several reviews for Michael Hanlon's blog "Roads to the Great War", about the catastrophe that still shapes the world. His favorite WWI book is Margaret MacMillan’s Paris, 1919 which tells how the tragedy was compounded by setting the stage for even greater misery. He lives in Houston with his wife of 42 years, Lin, a retired librarian, and their Sheltie, Hannah. He had a grandfather who was a teamster on the German side in WWI, his first boss had been a Marine at Iwo Jima, virtually the only survivor of his company, and his brother-in-law had been at Inchon. Ron’s previous reviews include Imperial Germany and War, 1871-1918, Beneath the Killing Fields: Exploring the Subterranean Landscapes of the Western Front, Tirpitz and the Imperial German Navy, Between Mutiny and Obedience: The Case of the French Fifth Infantry Division during World War, The Kaiser’s U-Boat Assault on America, This Time Next Year We'll Be Laughing, 1918: Winning the War, Losing the War, After the Ruins: Restoring the Countryside of Northern France After the Great War, A Mad Catastrophe, Verdun: The Lost History of the Most Important Battle of World War I, and July, 1914: Countdown to War
Note: Dreadnought is also available in hard cover & e-editions.
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