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Three Books...

Tue Jun 18, 2013 7:07 pm

As we approach the centenary of the Great War some excellent scholarship that may lead to reshaping the popular image of World War One is out there and worthy of some attention. Below are three deserving titles that deal with the start of the War and the July Crisis.

For one who was raised on all the conventional English language and Anglo-centric accounts by Barbara Tuchman, A.J.P. Taylor, John Keegan, John Terrane and so forth, the opening of the Russian and former DDR archives have been a great boon to historians and general histories like Cataclysm: The Great War as Political Catastrophe, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914 to 1918 and The Pity of war: Understanding World War One, have all served to (in the popular catch phrase) re-image the War to a great extent. I still have a handful of the magazine articles and the like, acquired as a kid when the 50th anniversary rolled around and large library of the extensive works written by the named historians above. All are worthy of study and respect except perhaps, some of what was held as absolute historical fact may indeed be little more than comforting national mythologies that error in commission and omission.

In short, the conventional accounts are filled with inconsistencies, logical contradictions and outright propaganda (for lack of a better term) and some of the new scholarship addresses this with differing success and credibility. We should be grateful that the bureaucrats in the former Eastern Block were so diligent in preserving the archives of the regimes that they replaced so they could be handed down to those that replaced them.

At least three relatively recent works regarding the start of the Great War are worthy of attention:

Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914 by David Fromkin. The author may be familiar from his A Peace to End All Peace about the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Middle East. In Europe's Last Summer, he deals with the July Crisis almost exclusively and reaches some interesting conclusions.

The Russian Origins of the First World War by Sean McMeeken benefits greatly from access to both the Russian records and Turkish government archives and produces a rather surprising narrative that stands much of the conventional wisdom of the July Crisis on its head. Professor McMeeken's version of events is logically argued and quite well documented using sources not previously exploited to any extent in earlier English language histories.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark is probably the deepest of the three as Professor Clark's reaches back to the Congress of Vienna in places in an attempt to objectively gather together every available thread in the chain of evidence. It is a very readable and compelling work of great depth that almost make the opening chapters of Tuchman's The Guns of August look like a supermarket tabloid account of events by comparison.

None of the above are in complete agreement with each other except that many use the same sources and the authors have used their differing perspectives and interpreted the data through their own particular lenses. However, they each have a solid internal consistency in the overall narrative and are complementary rather than contradictory. This is not a weakness but rather a great strength, the start of the Great War was such an incredibly decisive moment for the entire world and its effects trickle down to this day, a century on. Adding to our understanding, even with the fore-knowledge that we may never have absolute answers to fundamental questions is still a worthy pursuit.

What I have learned is that much of what I held as "Facts" and "Truth's" about the Great War for many years are really nothing of the kind and never were, in spite of being from the desks of trusted and competent historians.

It might be very interesting to see other Forum Member's reading recommendations.

-C

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Shri
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Sat Nov 23, 2013 6:50 am

Random wrote:As we approach the centenary of the Great War some excellent scholarship that may lead to reshaping the popular image of World War One is out there and worthy of some attention. Below are three deserving titles that deal with the start of the War and the July Crisis.

For one who was raised on all the conventional English language and Anglo-centric accounts by Barbara Tuchman, A.J.P. Taylor, John Keegan, John Terrane and so forth, the opening of the Russian and former DDR archives have been a great boon to historians and general histories like Cataclysm: The Great War as Political Catastrophe, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914 to 1918 and The Pity of war: Understanding World War One, have all served to (in the popular catch phrase) re-image the War to a great extent. I still have a handful of the magazine articles and the like, acquired as a kid when the 50th anniversary rolled around and large library of the extensive works written by the named historians above. All are worthy of study and respect except perhaps, some of what was held as absolute historical fact may indeed be little more than comforting national mythologies that error in commission and omission.

In short, the conventional accounts are filled with inconsistencies, logical contradictions and outright propaganda (for lack of a better term) and some of the new scholarship addresses this with differing success and credibility. We should be grateful that the bureaucrats in the former Eastern Block were so diligent in preserving the archives of the regimes that they replaced so they could be handed down to those that replaced them.

At least three relatively recent works regarding the start of the Great War are worthy of attention:

Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914 by David Fromkin. The author may be familiar from his A Peace to End All Peace about the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Middle East. In Europe's Last Summer, he deals with the July Crisis almost exclusively and reaches some interesting conclusions.

The Russian Origins of the First World War by Sean McMeeken benefits greatly from access to both the Russian records and Turkish government archives and produces a rather surprising narrative that stands much of the conventional wisdom of the July Crisis on its head. Professor McMeeken's version of events is logically argued and quite well documented using sources not previously exploited to any extent in earlier English language histories.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark is probably the deepest of the three as Professor Clark's reaches back to the Congress of Vienna in places in an attempt to objectively gather together every available thread in the chain of evidence. It is a very readable and compelling work of great depth that almost make the opening chapters of Tuchman's The Guns of August look like a supermarket tabloid account of events by comparison.

None of the above are in complete agreement with each other except that many use the same sources and the authors have used their differing perspectives and interpreted the data through their own particular lenses. However, they each have a solid internal consistency in the overall narrative and are complementary rather than contradictory. This is not a weakness but rather a great strength, the start of the Great War was such an incredibly decisive moment for the entire world and its effects trickle down to this day, a century on. Adding to our understanding, even with the fore-knowledge that we may never have absolute answers to fundamental questions is still a worthy pursuit.

What I have learned is that much of what I held as "Facts" and "Truth's" about the Great War for many years are really nothing of the kind and never were, in spite of being from the desks of trusted and competent historians.

It might be very interesting to see other Forum Member's reading recommendations.

-C


Very interesting and a good concise summation of the facts presented by 3 differing models and authors.

I have mostly read the old school- John Keegan, AJP Taylor, Fritz Fisher (Translation) and in recent- Hew Stratchan (far too concise and more interest to a beginner's/student's study material).
Neal Ferguson's short alternative was in some places dubious and other places informative.

Fischer and some German historians go back in time to even the 30-year war!!! time leap of 300 years to give background of the Nazi era due to the aftermath of the Great War; so Clark's going back to the "Age of Metternich" is interesting. READ LIST- Top.

P.S.: - Most Americans on this forum are going to hate me for this, but i found Barbara Tuchman far too biased and not so well informed. The arrogance, the openly bigoted view, the all assuming air was not to my liking. Writing off Hannibal(Acknowledged by past masters of War like Napoleon as the one of the Greatest Tacticians) in half a line, Schlieffen in a few lines and making Hoffman (in reality- a Genius level Staff Officer and the true Eagle of the Eastern front as a Gluttonous and cartoon type character wasn't very helpful) and Ludendorff as the archetypical stereotype.
But i guess it was to be expected, after reading the book did some background research-- Her GrandFather Morgenthau(German Jew Migrant like thousands of other successful Americans - and this was not a refugee wave of migration but a prosperity or relative prosperity wave of migration ) was the Ambassador to Ottoman Empire in the years just before the Great War and Her uncle was Morgenthau of Morgenthau Plan infamy. So it was expected; the psychological profile fit and the post WW2 angle slipped in too much.

P.P.S:- Spelling mistakes were edited by me once but i guess there are more

Taillebois
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Sat Nov 23, 2013 12:08 pm

AJP Taylor's "The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918" is a superlative diplomatic history.

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Shri
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Sun Nov 24, 2013 9:55 am

Taillebois wrote:AJP Taylor's "The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918" is a superlative diplomatic history.


AJP's a great author but his political leaning is leftist which creates a bias in many cases, esp. in his ww2 and Soviet related writings though his "Concert of Vienna to Great War is good".. Paul Kennedy's 500 years of European Mastery was more concise but an excellent summary.

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WallysWorld
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Mon Nov 25, 2013 11:04 pm

Here's my favorite books on World War One:

"The Eastern Front 1914 - 1917" by Norman Stone - the definitive account of the war in the east with especially the details on the Russian military decisions.

"A World Undone: The Story Of The Great War, 1914 To 1918" by G.J. Meyer - covers the entire war in good detail.

"World War I" - by P.H. Willmott - more like a coffee table book, but packed with lots of pictures and very interesting side stories about armament, the different armies, the home front and other topics.

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