Cataclysm: The First World War As Political Tragedy

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David Stevenson’s widely acclaimed history of World War I changes forever our understanding of that pivotal conflict. Countering the commonplace assumption that politicians lost control of events, and that the war, once it began, quickly became an unstoppable machine, Stevenson contends that politicians deliberately took risks that led to war in July 1914. Far from being overwhelmed by the unprecedented scale and brutality of the bloodshed, political leaders on both sides remained very much in control of events ...

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Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy

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David Stevenson’s widely acclaimed history of World War I changes forever our understanding of that pivotal conflict. Countering the commonplace assumption that politicians lost control of events, and that the war, once it began, quickly became an unstoppable machine, Stevenson contends that politicians deliberately took risks that led to war in July 1914. Far from being overwhelmed by the unprecedented scale and brutality of the bloodshed, political leaders on both sides remained very much in control of events throughout. According to Stevenson, the disturbing reality is that the course of the war was the result of conscious choices—including the continued acceptance of astronomical casualties. In fluid prose, Stevenson has written a definitive history of the man-made catastrophe that left lasting scars on the twentieth century. Cataclysm is a truly international history, incorporating new research on previously undisclosed records from governments in Europe and across the world. From the complex network of secret treaties and alliances that eventually drew all of Europe into the war, through the bloodbaths of Gallipoli and the Somme, to the arrival of American forces, and the massive political, economic, and cultural shifts the conflict left in its wake, Cataclysm is a major revision of World War I history.

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Editorial Reviews

These two books are touted on their dust jackets as outstanding one-volume histories of WW I and both are written by British historians. Strachan's book entitled The First World War is clearly the more accessible of the two, written in a breezier style, with helpful photographs dotting every few pages (and a great set of maps in the beginning); it is also briefer (the type font is not especially small, either). Stevenson's book entitled Cataclysm: the First World War as Political Tragedy is knottier and more academic in style and nearly 500 pages long (with a smaller, less inviting typeface). Stevenson's chapter titles are simply descriptive; Strachan's are more metaphorically allusive (a mark against it, actually—just what, you wonder, is in that chapter.) Both have good end notes, though Stevenson's book, not surprisingly, has a more carefully detailed index. A school looking for one new book on the subject would most likely want the shorter, punchier one. Neither makes as bold a reappraisal of events as fellow Brit Niall Ferguson did a few years back with Pity of War, but they each have a key selling point: Strachan leads directly from the war then to the world now (especially in the Middle East), while Stevenson carefully probes motives and context for key actions throughout the conflict in a way that sheds new light on each element. For libraries building a rich collection on the topic for student research, both books would be useful additions. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students and adults. 2004, Basic Books, 564p. illus. maps., Ages 17 to adult.
—Daniel Levinson
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465081851
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 5/9/2005
  • Pages: 624
  • Sales rank: 645,051
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.37 (d)

Meet the Author

David Stevenson is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. He is the author of numerous publications on this subject, including The First World War and International Politics and The Outbreak of the First World War: 1914 in Perspective. He lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt


The First World War as Political Tragedy
By David Stevenson

Basic Books

Copyright © 2005 David Stevenson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0465081851

Chapter One

Today to journey almost anywhere in Western Europe is to cross a landscape moulded by prosperity and peace. Between the shopping precincts, motorways, and tower blocks built since 1950 lie the factories, railways, and tenements of nineteenth-century industrialization, and among them linger relics of an older world of churches, cottages, and palaces: a world now long since vanished. Looking out upon this landscape, a traveller might forgivably conceive of Europe's history as a broad and uneventful highway towards modern economic growth and supranational integration. And yet, between its nineteenth- and its later twentieth-century surges of expansion and prosperity the continent underwent three decades of ruin and impoverishment, of industrial stagnation and political cataclysm. That era's traces, too, are etched on the contemporary scene, though discerning them calls for keener scrutiny. Its imprint on the generation who endured it would last for the rest of their lives. It encompassed two great conflicts separated by twenty years, even if as they recede from us they seem to merge as passages in a single upheaval. It began with the war of 1914-18.

The First World War became a global struggle, but originated in Europe. It shattered a century of peace. Since the defeat of the French Revolution and Napoleon in 1792-1815 - the struggle hitherto known in English as the 'Great War' - there had been no general conflict involving all the great powers. European governments and peoples were accustomed to prospective wars of the imagination, in the scenarios of military planners and the best-selling future-gazing literature that proliferated in the pre-1914 decades. They were little better equipped to face the reality than we would be a nuclear strike. Yet the conventions and rituals of warfare were familiar parts of Europe's life, and the memory of previous conflicts integral to its culture. Until the eighteenth century it had known few years in which none of its great powers were engaged in fighting. Only since then had the modern pattern emerged of decades of peace punctuated by successively more total wars. Peace - even in the simple sense of the absence of killing - was a modern phenomenon, and Europe had never known anything comparable to the great peace that ended in 1914.

Yet this peace was fragile. The middle decades of the nineteenth century saw five more limited armed conflicts: the Crimean War of 1854-6, the Italian War of 1859, the Seven Weeks War of 1866, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8. The Crimea claimed 400,000 lives, and the Franco-Prussian war involved pitched battles in the Western European heartland and a six-month siege and bombardment of Paris in which thousands of civilians died. Extra-European wars were even bigger. The American Civil War of 1861-5 killed 600,000 and the 1850-64 Taiping rebellion in China killed millions. In the pre-1914 years, moreover, several European powers fought sizeable wars outside the continent: Britain against the South African Boers in 1899-1902, Russia against Japan in 1904-5, and Italy against the Turks in Libya in 1911-12. The Balkan states fought first Turkey and then each other in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. Nor did the absence of fighting exclude the danger of it, as the newspaper reading public well knew. The pre-war decades were peppered with diplomatic crises, when powers clashed over what they judged their vital interests and statesmen debated over whether to compromise or to fight. Sometimes these crises were isolated incidents; at others they occurred in rapid succession as part of a general upsurge in international tension. They did so in the 1880s and did so again in 1905-14.

Only great powers can wage great wars, and six European states acknowledged each other as such: Britain, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary (divided since 1867 into 'Austrian' and 'Hungarian' halves that shared a common sovereign), Italy (created under Piedmont's leadership in 1861), and Germany (forged under Prussian dominance in 1871). Though unequal in their political influence and military might, all (at least on paper) were stronger than any of their neighbours. All owed their birth in part to violence and all were willing to use it. This willingness proved the Achilles heel of the glittering, if flawed, civilization moulded during centuries of European primacy. True, after Napoleon's defeat his victorious enemies had agreed on regular summit meetings to encourage consensus between them. But this system collapsed within a decade, and by the early twentieth century its vestiges - usually referred to as the 'Concert of Europe' - were shadowy. The Concert had no written rules or permanent institutions. It consisted of an understanding between the great powers that at times of crisis any one of them could propose a conference between their representatives. Its swansong was the London Conference of 1912-13 that convened to discuss the Balkan Wars. But in 1914 itself, though Britain proposed a conference Austria-Hungary and Germany refused. Not for the first time the system buckled under pressure, underlining its weakness. The Concert could function only when the powers agreed: it was a convenient device for saving face, but little more. Europe lacked common political institutions (and outside Europe there was no equivalent even of the Concert), and it possessed only a rudimentary framework of international law. Progressive movements, especially in Britain and America, urged the powers to settle disputes by arbitration and to humanize combat by a framework of rules. But although the Hague Peace Conference of 1899 indeed established an international court of arbitration, governments resorted to it only when it suited them, which was rarely. Similarly, although by 1914 a body of internationally ratified conventions had evolved to protect combatants and civilians during hostilities, once war broke out these rules would be jettisoned.

International organization therefore did little to restrain the powers. In this respect the European system might seem an anachronistic survival from a previous era. Yet the long peace had witnessed tremendous changes, which - so optimistic commentators supposed - might make war increasingly hypothetical. Technological and economic progress had spurred on what we would now call globalization and democratization. It had also made warfare far more destructive, potentially strengthening deterrence. Yet although these new developments might influence the circumstances and conditions in which governments resorted to force, none precluded them from doing so.

The pre-1914 era was one of globalization, and levels of economic interdependence that were not repeated until well after the Second World War. North-western Europe was the epicentre of this phenomenon, which rested on the Victorian communications revolution - the railway, the telegraph, and the steamship - as well as on massive productivity increases in agriculture and manufacturing. By 1913 exports accounted for between a fifth and a quarter of British, French, and German national output. Worldwide foreign investment (more than three-quarters of it coming from Europe) almost doubled between 1900 and 1914, though whereas the continental countries exported goods and capital to each other, Britain's trade and investment lay mostly outside Europe. The same years saw a tidal wave of emigration, opening up new agricultural frontiers from the pampas to the Rockies and the Australian outback, and placing Europe at the centre of a worldwide chain of economic interconnections. By the decade before 1914 all the European countries had become part of a continent-wide business cycle that extended across the Atlantic. France, Germany, and the Low Countries shared in the creation of an interdependent complex of heavy industries in the Rhine basin, linked by multinational enterprises, migrant workers (Poles in the Ruhr, Italians in Lorraine), and cross-border flows of coal and steel.

Growing economic interdependence might have forced the powers to co-operate, yet in fact its impact was limited. Governments signed international postal, telegraph, and wireless conventions and harmonized cross-border railway timetables, but their most important contribution to the new economy was not to obstruct it. Industrial recession and American grain imports drove up customs tariffs after the 1870s, but still on the eve of the First World War tariffs were lower than they would be again for decades. From the 1890s the European powers (with America and Japan) were linked in a de facto currency union, the international gold standard, by whose unwritten hales their currencies were freely convertible with each other and with gold at a fixed rate. Yet this system too was established by a series of individual decisions rather than by binding multilateral agreements. Occasional ad hoc joint action by central banks sufficed to maintain it. The open world economy, like the Concert of Europe, rested on a minimum of organized co-operation, and in 1914 they perished together. Contrary to the analysis of a pre-war best-seller, Norman Angell's The Great Illusion, financial interdependence did not make hostilities unthinkable, and the growth of an international bond market would actually facilitate war finance. The admiralty in London calculated that economic warfare would hurt Germany more than Britain; and the general staff in Berlin expected Germany to continue trading with the outside world while smashing its continental enemies.

Pre-1914 globalization was not just economic. It was also cultural and political, imperial expansion being its most conspicuous manifestation. Imperialism projected Europe's rivalries worldwide. Between 1800 and 1914 the proportion of the earth's surface occupied by Europeans, whether in colonies or in former colonies, rose from 35 to 84.4 per cent. If Britain entered a continental war its colonies - including the self-governing dominions - would automatically be implicated. European expansion also impinged on the remaining independent states. After Africa's partition in the 1880s, China at the turn of the century seemed destined to follow, and like the Ottoman Turkish Empire and Persia it was already divided informally into spheres of influence. Admittedly, two extra-European states had also taken on great-power attributes. The USA defeated Spain in 1898, expelling it from Cuba and the Philippines. Japan defeated Russia in 1904-5. But neither country carried much weight in European strategic assessments. Japan's economy remained backward and its armed forces were efficient but remote. America's economy was already the world's strongest, and its navy was large and modern, but Washington was expected to stay neutral in a European conflict and its army was tiny. If the European states fell out, no outside force seemed strong enough to bang their heads together.

Economic development also transformed European domestic politics. In one country after another, faced with sprawling cities and a self-conscious bourgeoisie and working class, monarchies had conceded elected parliaments and civil liberties to win more active consent from the governed. In Britain the 1832 Reform Act tried to rally the middle class behind the constitution; in the German Empire created in 1871 the Prussian monarchy coexisted uneasily with a Reichstag (or lower house of parliament) for which all men could vote; even in Russia, since 1905 the tsar had accepted an elected assembly. By 1914 European adult males were generally free to form trade unions, pressure groups, and political parties, albeit under police surveillance. Most countries had largely uncensored mass media, which essentially meant the press. Newspapers, linked by telegraph cables and news agencies to events around the globe and delivered via railways and steamships at affordable prices, were the principal channel of comment and information. Their numbers reflected it: an advanced city like Berlin had more than fifty rifles, and the small and impoverished kingdom of Serbia had twenty-four dairies. War and foreign policy were matters of vigorous debate.

Since the disintegration in the 1990s of the soviet bloc, triumphant western political analysts have insisted that democracies never go to war. This thesis was already common currency among pre-1914 liberals. Yet in fact democratization failed to eradicate armed conflict. This was partly because the process remained incomplete. France's Third Republic, established in 1870, had probably the most progressive constitution in Europe, but even here parliamentary scrutiny over diplomacy and military planning was feeble. In Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia, the ruling Habsburg, Hohenzollern, and Romanov dynasties exercised wide discretionary power over foreign affairs. Moreover, if public opinion did exert an influence it might not be a peaceful one. Most continental countries had socialist parties, which (in common with middle-class progressives) opposed war except in self-defence. Centrist and right-wing parties, however, normally called for firmness in asserting national interests, and most newspapers and a plethora of supported them. In 1914 most politicians and military chiefs recognized that a major war needed public support, but neither globalization nor democratization made hostilities unthinkable.

The third consequence of modern industrialization was to transform military technology. It did so in two main phases. The first centred on steam propulsion. the 1840s warships converted from sail to steam (and from wooden to steel hulls), and railways transported and supplied much larger armies. After the Franco-Prussian War, in which German levies moved by rail outnumbered and overwhelmed French regulars, massive conscript armies and intensive railway building became the norm. The second phase of transformation centred on firepower. In the later nineteenth century chemical high explosives made gunpowder obsolete. Breech-loading (instead of muzzle-loading) guns with rifled barrels (i.e., machined with a spiral groove within the bore to spin the projectile) fired further, faster, and more accurately. Navies equipped their steam-powered warships with telescopic sights and quick-firing guns delivering high-explosive shells. By the early twentieth century they could fight for the first time on the high seas, far away from land, and at ranges of up to five miles. Yet the 1905 Battle of Tsushima, in which Japanese gunfire annihilated a Russian fleet, was not to be a portent of the future, as another clutch of innovations - torpedoes, mines, and submarines - now made battleships more vulnerable and more reluctant to seek action. On land, a comparable firepower revolution similarly enhanced armies' destructive capacity at the price of their freedom of manoeuvre.



Excerpted from Cataclysm by David Stevenson Copyright © 2005 by David Stevenson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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