"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Centenary of the Great War

This time next year we will, no doubt, be greeted with a barrage of stories about the centenary of the outbreak in August 1914 of what was at the time called, simply, the Great War. Some of us have been thinking about it for some time now. Amidst the inexorable tedium of graduation ceremonies in May, I did have one cheering conversation with a colleague whose ideas gave me something to think about and look forward to as we were forced to sit for hours on end on wretched little chairs mashed together while students trooped up for their diplomas and photo-ops. My colleague, the art historian Dr. Elizabeth Kuebler-Wolf, wrote her MA thesis on the propaganda posters of the Great War, and proposed to several of us a conference in Ft. Wayne late next summer or early next autumn on the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities.

I have been an avid reader of all things about the First World War for a decade and more now, and I am therefore excited that this "avocational" reading will be put to wider use. I'm already contemplating paper and presentation topics. There is, alas, no shortage of events to focus on just among Eastern Christians. Immediately one thinks, of course, of the Armenian genocide (as well as others), or the Bolshevik revolution, which ushered in more than seven decades of persecution and martyrdom of Christians in the Soviet Union. One thinks of the forced postwar shift of populations, as Greek Christians were forced out of Anatolia, and Turkish Muslims were forced in. One thinks of the creation of new countries such as Saudi Arabia or Iraq, and what happened, then and more recently, to their ancient Christian populations. In short, the events of 1914-18 ushered in a century of suffering for millions of Eastern Christians (and millions of others) which is still being felt today in too many places.

My interest in the First World War was a consequence of interest in the Second; I read about the latter first and worked my way backwards. My interest in the Second was germinated in part by listening to my Glaswegian grandmother when I was a boy. She told me what it was like to live through the Battle of Britain and later blitzes which not only hit well-known places like London and Coventry, but parts of west-central Scotland along the River Clyde, which was then the scene of the largest shipbuilding works in the British Empire and therefore a natural target for the Luftwaffe. My grandmother lived along the Clyde as a girl, and regaled me with stories of how close they came to being bombed, and how often bombs landed in the river rather than on any property, and failed to go off, especially if the river was running low and rather muddy. She also told me what it was like listening to Churchill live on the wireless, and how his oratory was able to rally and unite a country, if only for a brief time.

I make no pretense to any kind of systematic reading here, and I defer to professional historians, but for those interested, here are a few books I have found both profitable and enjoyable:

General Histories:

Perhaps one of the most well-known books on the background of the war remains Barbara Tuchman's  The Guns of August: The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Classic About the Outbreak of World War I. Originally published in 1962, it offers a compelling background to the war, but I am unclear how well it has stood up in light of a half-century of further scholarship. Her other book is also interesting: The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914.

John Keegan, before his recent death, was widely respected as one of Britain's foremost military historians. I read his The First World War (Knopf, 1999) many years ago, and earlier this spring, on a long drive, I listened to it on CD. The book is very smartly written.

The Harvard historian Niall Ferguson's The Pity Of War: Explaining World War I (Basic Books, 2000) does a very good job at capturing the widespread bewilderment that is still felt by many who ask why the war ever had to begin in the first place. It is still a mystery to me in some ways, through the next book goes some way towards solving the hugely vexing question of why the war started in the first place.

If I had to pick two books that, more than anything else I've read, help one grasp the enormous complexity surrounding the "causes" of the Great War, and the massively complicated and destructive mess it left, then I would turn to David Fromkin. His Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? (Vintage, 2005), though written in a curious style I'm not entirely enamored of, is nonetheless a very skillful untangling of the myriad of factors and actors leading up to the outbreak of what he says started off as two wars: Austria's punitive war against Serbia (for which it had plans in place, and a deep desire to execute, well before the infamous archducal assassination, which conveniently provided the perfect pretext); and then the general war in which, thanks to bungling in both Vienna and Berlin, the Germans dragged the Russians in, and as a result the French were involved, and lastly the British. The former war was not supposed to give way to the latter but for a variety of reasons, as we all know, it did.

Fromkin's other book is even more splendid, and looks at the aftermath in the Middle East: A Peace to End All Peace, 20th Anniversary Edition: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Originally published to great acclaim in 1989, and updated in 2009, this book contains a wealth of scholarship carefully sifted and judiciously arrayed. For anyone trying, even today, to understand the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, problems in the Arab world and much else besides, this is a good place to being.

One of the legacies in the Middle East, of course, was not only the collapse of the Ottoman empire, but the creation, particularly by the British and French, of new countries and new zones of influence. The borders shifted dramatically and maps were redrawn. I am forever telling my students in introductory courses on Eastern Christianity that our first task is to understand what is meant by Eastern, and so we must spend time forgetting our reliance on GPS units and instead break out maps to see the geography of the ancient East, and how the borders have changed, and what consequences those shifting borders have had for Eastern Christians. I therefore find atlases invaluable, and this one, from one of Britain's most widely respected historians--and official authorized biographer of Winston Churchill--is very good: Martin Gilbert, Atlas of World War I.

While Gilbert's focus has been on both Churchill and the Second World War, he has also authored a solid volume on the First: The First World War, Second Edition: A Complete History. It is well done, as is Kegan's, though I did not find much between those two books that was noticeably different--both cover the same territory in similar ways as I recall.

Churchill himself was of course in the War Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. He authored one of the first multi-volumed histories of the war. When I began reading about the war more than a decade ago, I was intimidated by the prospect--since remedied--of reading his six volumes, so I began with the much abridged The World Crisis, 1911-1918. I later read all six volumes.

Particular Battles:

Gilbert also authored a volume about the single-worst single-day battle in the history of the British Expeditionary Force: The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War. The July 1916 battle of the Somme saw more men slaughtered in a 24-hour period than ever before. From a very different perspective, Christopher Duffy also covered the Somme in his hugely interesting and entertaining Through German Eyes: The British & The Somme 1916. Duffy had access to Bavarian and other German military archives and unearthed insights into what the German "Jerrys" thought about the British "Tommies" whom they were fighting. Many Germans held their British counterparts in condescending contempt as the "poor little men of a diseased civilization." Time and again, in the amusing records Duffy found, the German interrogators, confronted with British prisoners of war, could not believe that the former might lose the war to the latter's army of men of "crooked legs, rickety, alcoholic, degnerate, ill-bred, and poor to the last degree."

It is hard, in reading of the Somme, not to think that Alan Clark's famously controverted description of the generals, at the Somme and elsewhere, was correct: they were a bunch of donkeys--unthinking, unfeeling generals who unimaginatively and callously threw millions of men into a mass slaughter--cannon fodder--for mere yards of ground gained, lost, and re-gained over four years.

Frustration with such lack of progress in trench warfare gave rise, of course, to the infamous Dardanelles campaign for which Churchilll has often been blamed, as he certainly was at the time. But most historians now recognize that Churchill was one important, but by no means solitary or singular, figure in this campaign. The First Sea Lord John Fisher and the Secretary of War Lord Kitchener were also heavily involved. This infamous Gallipoli campaign sought to force passage through the Dardanelles, capture Constantiople, open the Black Sea to the Russians, drive Turkey out of the war, and then sail up the Danube to outwit the Germans on their own turf when they could not be defeated on land in France--and doing all this, of course, with the Royal Navy, then the world's strongest, and thus outwitting the formidable German Army. For complicated reasons, that battle failed though it was in some respects a close-run thing--though the Western powers did not know it at the time. One recent, though not entirely satisfactory, treatment of this failed campaign is Graham Clews's Churchill's Dilemma: The Real Story Behind the Origins of the 1915 Dardanelles Campaign.

Sadly, as we all know and can admit--unless you live in Turkey--the war was one atrocity piled on another, and for Eastern Christians the worst of these occurred in Armenia in 1915 (though hundreds of thousands of Armenians had suffered and been killed at Muslim hands for many centuries before that). About that country's genocide we have had many books over the last decade or so. Of these, several are very good, including Peter Balakian's The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response.

Other solid studies include Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris Balakian; and A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility by Taner Akcam, who has also authored  The Young Turks' Crime against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire. Akcam was actually born in Turkey, and this second book is important for its access to, and publishing of, hitherto unknown archival documents from the Ottomans.

One other person to mention: Donald Bloxham is a leading scholar of genocide, and in 2007 published The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians.
Finally, for those interested in audiovisual presentations, useful in the classroom, we have The Armenian Genocide - The Critically Acclaimed PBS Documentary by Andrew Goldberg.

Finally, for recent books in the new discipline of genocide studies, see the many books published by Routledge Press.

New and Forthcoming Works of Interest:

I am greatly looking forward to reading each of the following books and to seeing this first book in particular expertly reviewed as it sounds like it will generate some controversy. The author, Bülent Özdemir, has written Assyrian Identity and the Great War (Whittles Publishing, 2013), 192pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Until the beginning of the 19th century, Nestorians, Chaldeans and Syrian Christians, belonging to various different branches of Eastern Christianity,  lived as small, little-known communities within the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire. This book examines the situation of these Eastern Christians during the First World War using a wide range of Western and Ottoman archival sources.

At the outbreak of the First World War, the Nestorians, Chaldeans, and Syrian Christians found themselves trapped in the middle of the struggle between the Ottoman Empire and the Entente powers. The Syrian Christians and Chaldeans remained faithful to Ottoman rule and were generally quiescent during the war, while the Nestorians, encouraged by Russia, entered the war as the Entente powers’ ‘smallest ally’.

The Eastern Christian communities appeared on the stage at the most critical period of the First World War, and left a tragic story behind them. Owing to modern claims that a mass murder or ‘genocide’ of the Nestorians and Syrian Christians was committed during 1915, the issue is no longer obscure and has become an international historical and political problem.

This book presents interesting new historical material and provides a fascinating perspective on this issue for all scholars and students of Middle Eastern history and geopolitics that is relevant to the regional situation today.
Returning to the question of causes, territory that continues to be long worked over, there was a book published in March of this year by Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.

About this book we are told:
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is historian Christopher Clark’s riveting account of the explosive beginnings of World War I.
Drawing on new scholarship, Clark offers a fresh look at World War I, focusing not on the battles and atrocities of the war itself, but on the complex events and relationships that led a group of well-meaning leaders into brutal conflict.
Clark traces the paths to war in a minute-by-minute, action-packed narrative that cuts between the key decision centers in Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Paris, London, and Belgrade, and examines the decades of history that informed the events of 1914 and details the mutual misunderstandings and unintended signals that drove the crisis forward in a few short weeks. Meticulously researched and masterfully written, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers is a dramatic and authoritative chronicle of Europe’s descent into a war that tore the world apart.
Published a month later, in April of this year, was Sean McMeekin's July 1914: Countdown to War.

 About this book we are told:
When a Serbian-backed assassin gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand in late June 1914, the world seemed unmoved. Even Ferdinand’s own uncle, Franz Josef I, was notably ambivalent about the death of the Hapsburg heir, saying simply, “It is God’s will.” Certainly, there was nothing to suggest that the episode would lead to conflict—much less a world war of such massive and horrific proportions that it would fundamentally reshape the course of human events.

As acclaimed historian Sean McMeekin reveals in July 1914, World War I might have been avoided entirely had it not been for a small group of statesmen who, in the month after the assassination, plotted to use Ferdinand’s murder as the trigger for a long-awaited showdown in Europe. The primary culprits, moreover, have long escaped blame. While most accounts of the war’s outbreak place the bulk of responsibility on German and Austro-Hungarian militarism, McMeekin draws on surprising new evidence from archives across Europe to show that the worst offenders were actually to be found in Russia and France, whose belligerence and duplicity ensured that war was inevitable.
Whether they plotted for war or rode the whirlwind nearly blind, each of the men involved—from Austrian Foreign Minister Leopold von Berchtold and German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov and French president Raymond Poincaré—sought to capitalize on the fallout from Ferdinand’s murder, unwittingly leading Europe toward the greatest cataclysm it had ever seen.

A revolutionary account of the genesis of World War I, July 1914 tells the gripping story of Europe’s countdown to war from the bloody opening act on June 28th to Britain’s final plunge on August 4th, showing how a single month—and a handful of men—changed the course of the twentieth century.

Finally, set for release in October of this year is Margaret Macmillan's The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, 880pp. If this book is as good as her wonderful Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, it will be very good indeed. Her book on the Paris peace conference was history writing at its best: detailed but with a taut narrative that never loses its way or the reader; microcosmic and macrocosmic at the same time; serious but deftly weaving in amusing anecdotes and character sketches, and other telling details.

About this forthcoming book we are told:
From the bestselling and award-winning author of Paris 1919 comes a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, a fascinating portrait of Europe from 1900 up to the outbreak of World War I. With a sweeping story, vivid characters, and sharp insight, Margaret MacMillan powerfully explores the decisions made and the economic, social, political, and human tensions that determined the outbreak of a war that transformed Europe and the world.

The century since the end of the Napoleonic wars had been the most peaceful era Europe had known since the fall of the Roman Empire. In the first years of the twentieth century, Europe believed it was marching to a golden, happy, and prosperous future. But instead, complex personalities and rivalries, colonialism and ethnic nationalism, Germany’s rise to power, and shifting and secret alliances all exerted influence and helped to bring about the failure of the long peace and the outbreak of war. MacMillan creates indelible portraits of people and identifies critical turning points when options narrowed and conflicts escalated so as to make avoiding war more difficult.

The War That Ended Peace brings vividly to life the military leaders, politicians, diplomats, bankers, and the extended, interrelated family of crowned heads across Europe who failed to stop the descent into war: in Germany, the mercurial Kaiser Wilhelm II and the chief of the German general staff, Von Moltke the Younger, nephew and namesake of the great Prussian officer Von Moltke the Elder; in Austria-Hungary, Emperor Franz Joseph, a man who tried, through sheer hard work, to stave off the coming chaos in his empire; in Russia, Tsar Nicholas II and his wife; in Britain, King Edward VII, Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, and British admiral Jacky Fisher, the fierce advocate of naval reform who entered into the arms race with Germany that pushed the continent toward confrontation on land and sea.

There are the would-be peacemakers as well, among them prophets of the horrors of future wars whose warnings went unheeded: Alfred Nobel, the wealthy dynamite manufacturer who donated his fortune to the cause of international understanding; and Bertha von Suttner, a writer and activist who was the first woman awarded Nobel’s new Peace Prize. Here too we meet Count Harry Kessler, an urbane and cosmopolitan German who, in his wide-ranging diaries, recorded many of the early signs that something was stirring in Europe; the young Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty and a rising figure in British politics; Madame Caillaux, who shot a man who might have been a force for peace; and more. Among other things, this book shows how the fateful decisions of a few powerful people changed the course of history.

Taut, suspenseful, and impossible to put down, The War That Ended Peace is also a wise cautionary reminder of how wars happen in spite of the near-universal desire to keep the peace. Destined to become a classic in the tradition of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, The War That Ended Peace enriches our understanding of one of the defining periods and events of the twentieth century.

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