Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Guns of August

The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman 


I wanted to re-read this classic of history this summer, and I was sure right!  This is such a great book, and I'd forgotten everything.  The Guns of August is not Tuchman's first book, but it is the book that launched her into well-deserved fame.  She covers the first month of World War I in detail, from all sides--after giving the necessary background as well--we go day by day, seeing decisions as they were made and as if we don't all know how it's going to turn out.  It works really well.

The book actually starts with Edward VII's funeral, a glittering parade that brought 70 countries together for one last gasp of the old order.  Even at the official parties, Kaiser Wilhelm II ("possessor of the least inhibited tongue in Europe") couldn't help trying to wheel and deal in politics, usually to the horror of everyone else including his own staff.  We then see the world hurrying towards disaster.

Tuchman covers several points of view, so we see 1914 from the eyes of the British, French, Russians, Germans, and Belgians, though the Austrians and Turks don't get a lot of space.  She describes all the personalities in wonderful sharp phrases that stick ("Joffre looked like Santa Claus and gave an impression of benevolence and naivete--two qualities not noticeably part of his character"), and all the strategy in clear terms that make it fairly easy to understand the complexities of what was going on.  She is very clear about the problems in the British command, though she is careful not to judge French too harshly.  And she is very, very clear about the horrors perpetrated upon the Belgians: what happened, why the Germans committed crimes against civilians that no one expected and that horrified the world, and why the consequences were exactly the opposite of what the Germans hoped.

It should probably be noted that Tuchman, a Jewish woman writing in the 1950s, is no fan of the Germans.  I think she is reasonably fair; she can't help putting in some jabs at their expense but honestly the Germans were pretty jab-worthy in 1914.  Here are a couple of samples:

The cult of arrogance practiced by Prussian officers affected no one more painfully than themselves and their allies. (214)

Talk of this kind for years before the war had not increased friendliness for Germany.  "We often got on the world's nerves," admitted Bethmann-Hollweg, by frequently proclaiming Germany's right to lead the world.  This, he explained, was interpreted as lust for world dominion but was really a "boyish and unbalanced ebullience."  The world somehow failed to see it that way... (312)
This is a truly great classic of history.  If you want to understand World War I, The Guns of August is an excellent starting point.  It's dense and not easy, but it's riveting and excellent writing and history.

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